Falcons draft USC WR London, get much-needed big game threat

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) — The Atlanta Falcons continued to emphasize their passing game by selecting Southern California wide receiver Drake London. with the No. 8 overall pick in the NFL draft on Thursday night.

London gives Atlanta a much-needed threat at wide receiver. The selection comes a year after the Falcons drafted tight end Kyle Pitts with the fourth overall pick.

London (6-foot-4, 219 pounds) offers excellent size as well as great playing potential. He had 88 receptions for 1,083 yards and seven touchdowns for USC in 2021 and was named the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year.

London said he hopes to join Pitts as big targets in Atlanta’s passing game, saying, “It’s the twin towers.”

Russell Gage was left as the team’s best wide receiver last year when Calvin Ridley played just five games while sidelined with mental health issues. Gage signed with Tampa Bay. Ridley was suspended by the NFL for 2022 for gambling on games last season.

Olamide Zaccheaus, who had 31 catches for 406 yards and three touchdowns, is the best returning wide receiver. The Falcons added depth by signing free agents Auden Tate, Damiere Byrd and KhaDarel Hodge.

Meanwhile, Atlanta is starting over at quarterback after salary-cap concerns contributed to the decision to trade 14-year starter Matt Ryan to Indianapolis.

The Falcons received a third-round pick from the Colts. Marcus Mariota was signed as a likely starter next season. Mariota met with coach Arthur Smith, who was Tennessee’s offensive coordinator when Mariota lost the starting job with the Titans in 2019.

Feleipe Franks, who attempted just one pass in 2021, is the only other quarterback on the list. General manager Terry Fontenot says the team will find help at the job through the draft, a trade or free agency.

Fontenot said this week the uncertainty of who would be selected with the first seven picks he added “unique” intrigue to his preparations. Still, Fontenot knew he wouldn’t get a chance to consider some players who would be attractive to the Falcons, including Michigan defensive end Aidan Hutchinson..

The Falcons will be busy Friday night, when they have four picks: two in the second round and two in the third. They have nine total picks, including two in the sixth round but none in the seventh on Saturday.

The Falcons, who were coming off a 7-10 season in which they were outscored 459-313. Fontenot said he hopes to add competition at each position. The most obvious needs are a woeful pass rush and a wide receiver.

Atlanta ranked last in the NFL with 18 sacks last season, 11 fewer than any other team. They released outside linebacker Dante Fowler, who led the unit with 4 ½ sacks.

Atlanta has received good production from its most recent first-round picks.

Pitts led the Falcons with 68 catches for 1,026 yards as a rookie. Cornerback AJ Terrell and right guard Chris Lindstrom, drafted in the first round in 2020 and 2019, respectively, ranked among the best players at their positions last season.

Another 2019 first-round pick, right tackle Kaleb McGary, allowed nine sacks last season. Rookie left guard Jalen Mayfield, a third-round pick, led the league with 11 sacks allowed last season.


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