FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – It was 30 minutes into meeting Drake London this spring, before the Atlanta Falcons had decided to draft him, when he made his first true impression. While those impressions are not everything, in this case, it was definitively something.
Falcons coach Arthur Smith and receivers coach T.J. Yates were among the contingent of staffers in California to meet London. Among the first questions Yates asked London at dinner was one he likes to ask all his potential receivers: What makes you physical? Why do you like that part of the game?
London’s answer was concise and believable. Yates said it was the most “real, honest” answer he’s ever gotten. “I don’t like DBs,” London said that day. “I just can’t stand them.”
“His tape backed that up,” Smith said. “That made the difference.”
Smith and Yates had been in enough interviews throughout their careers to know when a player is saying something he has been coached to say or what coaches wanted or expected to hear. They have a sense when something sounds real. When they discussed it more later, Yates said the answer “really sold me on him.”
Even now, the way London says it tells you how much he means it. Inside the visitors locker room at SoFi Stadium on Sunday, after he caught his first touchdown pass in a loss to his hometown Los Angeles Rams, London briefly went back to that conversation.
His body tensed up.
“I just don’t like ‘em. It’s as simple as that,” London said. “Like, obviously, they are people, too, and all, but on the field that’s probably one of my least favorite positions.”
This shouldn’t be a surprise, not after the way he dominated at USC and in his first two games with the Falcons, where he has caught 13 of 19 targets for 160 yards and a touchdown. When Atlanta drafted London, Yates said they wanted “a big, physical receiver who could play inside the numbers.” With London, they had a clear plan for how to use him. It’s something they’ve implemented immediately.
London played less than one drive in the preseason, injured his right knee and proceeded to miss multiple weeks of practice. Even he had some questions about whether he’d make his debut in Week 1 against the New Orleans Saints.
He returned to practice that week and worked out on a limited basis. Then Sunday, about two hours before the game, London walked out onto the Mercedes-Benz Stadium field, earbuds in and a red pullover jacket over his black warmups. As part of his routine, he stood in the end zone and jumped to catch passes on air.
Even with no defender around him, you could see what intrigued the Falcons. He caught the ball with his hands far away from his body, ripping the ball from its spiral over and over again.
“Some guys have it and some guys don’t, but it’s definitely something you can drill,” Yates said. “You have certain drills where you can go and pluck the ball and be aggressive hands and do all these different things.
“But at this level, sometimes you either have it or you don’t. And he definitely does.”
When the Falcons decided to take London with the No. 8 pick last spring, his hands stood out. How he caught the ball -- he’s not a body catcher -- and how a combination of his size at 6-foot-4 and his long arms could create a different type of separation than other receivers also intrigued the team. When he combines his jumping and his arm length, that can sometimes create enough separation from a defender for him to make a play.
It’s a trait many tall receivers possess, but one London has already begun to master. His basketball background -- he was a walk-on for USC’s basketball team as a freshman -- helped, too, because of the similarities between boxing out for a rebound and bodying up one of those hated cornerbacks in the end zone.
Quarterback Marcus Mariota saw it in the spring. The last two Sundays, it became obvious what London was capable of and how he could alter games.
How London can change some of his routes based on what a defender is giving him, Mariota said, has been critical. His trainer, former NFL receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh, said how London sinks his hips -- which has helped with power at the change of direction -- is something bigger receivers don’t always have and something rookies don’t always possess.
“He’s got some wiggle to him for a bigger guy,” Yates said. “Compared to the rest of the receiver room he’s got 20, 30 pounds on the rest of those guys and he’s got route ability, which is one of the reasons we wanted him here, for that versatility aspect.”
Like so many other players in Atlanta’s offense -- tight end Kyle Pitts, running back Cordarrelle Patterson -- there’s the potential of playing him in multiple spots. For London, it’s in the slot and outside, which at his height can make him even more dangerous.
One specific play stood out to Mariota. On a third-and-6 against the Saints, the way the play was drawn, London was not supposed to go one direction on a route, but he read the defender and made a different cut in order to get open, freeing himself just enough for Mariota to hit him for a 13-yard gain.
“He’s still learning how to use those types of traits,” Mariota said. “When you have a guy with that physical gift and he can kind of have some of those natural abilities to get open, he’s going to do a lot of good things for us.”
His touchdown reception was an example of patience and showed how tight end Kyle Pitts and London can work off each other. On the play, where London is lined up outside of Pitts, Pitts cut to the outside immediately.
It opened up space for London to ever-so-slightly delay his route and cut inside. But it also created open space.
London had the space he needed and Mariota the room he needed to get the ball to London quickly at the goal line for a 4-yard touchdown, London’s first as a pro.
The way London plays, though, without fear, has been what excited the Falcons coaches all along. What they saw watching him play at USC and what they picked up from meeting with him before the draft. It’s how London describes his own game: “Keep playing fearless, keep playing aggressive.”