NFL Draft: Falcons draft USC WR London, get much-needed big-play threat
LAS VEGAS - 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 top threat at wide receiver. The selection comes one year after the Falcons chose tight end Kyle Pitts with the No. 4 overall pick.
London (6-foot-4, 219 pounds) provides excellent size as well as big-play potential. He had 88 catches 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 looks forward to joining Pitts as big targets in Atlanta's passing game, saying: "It's twin towers."
Russell Gage was left as the team's top wide receiver last year when Calvin Ridley played only five games while away from the team addressing mental health issues. Gage signed with Tampa Bay. Ridley was suspended by the NFL for 2022 for betting on games last season.
Olamide Zaccheaus, who had 31 catches for 406 yards and three touchdowns, is the top 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 the probable starter next season. Mariota has been reunited with coach Arthur Smith, who was the Tennessee offensive coordinator when Mariota lost the starting job with the Titans in 2019.
Feleipe Franks, who attempted only one pass in 2021, is the only other quarterback on the roster. General manager Terry Fontenot says the team will find help at the position through the draft, a trade or free agency.
Fontenot said this week the uncertainty of who would be selected with the first seven picks added "unique" intrigue to his preparations. Even so, Fontenot knew he'd have no chance to consider some players who would be attractive to the Falcons, including Michigan defensive end Aidan Hutchinson.
The Falcons will be busy on Friday night, when they have four picks -- two in the second round and two in the third. They have nine selections overall, including two in the sixth round but none in the seventh on Saturday.
The Falcons, coming off a 7-10 season in which they were outscored 459-313. Fontenot said he hopes to add competition at every position. The most glaring needs are a woeful pass rush and 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 1/2 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 A.J. Terrell and right guard Chris Lindstrom, first-rounders in 2020 and 2019, respectively, rated among the top players at their positions last season.
Another 2019 first-round pick, right tackle Kaleb McGary, gave up nine sacks last season. Rookie left guard Jalen Mayfield, a third-round pick, led the league with 11 sacks allowed last season.