When an in-demand offensive coordinator gets hired to become a head coach, the immediate objective is to instill his philosophy into the offense. It may take some time given certain personnel limitations. With Julio Jones being traded and Calvin Ridley needing time away from the sport, Arthur Smith had to endure major talent deficiencies last season trying to bring his success from Tennessee to Atlanta.
One of the biggest issues was the lack of overall talent and size at wide receiver. It was something that had to be addressed in the off-season, and it was.
Smith and Terry Fontenot didn’t waste time in getting the alpha receiver they desired. Selecting Drake London with the eighth overall pick made all the sense in the world for Atlanta’s head coach. Although Kyle Pitts had a sensational rookie season, the organization needed to be more proactive in injecting young explosive talent into an offense in a transitional phase.
A legitimate number one wide receiver that can make contested catches, be dangerous after the catch, and beat press coverage was required. That player proved to be London. So far, the thought process behind the selection is paying major dividends.
Ready, set, go
To quote my colleague Matt Chambers, London is the real deal. Not many rookie wide receivers immediately enter the league and become the team’s leading pass catcher against two stout defenses. From catching passes in tight areas to making defensive backs look silly after the catch, he has showcased several of the attributes scouts raved about during his time at USC.
No matter what coverage Dennis Allen and Raheem Morris threw at him, he found ways to get open and produce positive plays on short to intermediate completions. When facing New Orleans, it was a bit of a subdued game plan from Smith where he was reliant on play action. That put London in a position where most of his production would come after the catch. He did exactly that by slicing through the Saints’ zone looks, along with beating Bradley Roby on a few occasions for three catches that went for first downs.
Despite Marcus Mariota’s inconsistent accuracy and tendency to overthink when under duress, London has done everything possible to be his top receiving option, and has earned the veteran quarterback’s trust quickly. That was evident against the Rams, where he made numerous timely plays to help this quarterback make high-percentage throws and pick up chunk plays in a near-miraculous comeback. What stood out the most from his terrific performance was how lethal he was after the catch.
Between stiff-arming Jordan Fuller to the turf and leaping over Cobie Durant, London’s athleticism and strength were on full display. Those extraordinary athletic traits create endless possibilities for how Smith wants to utilize him. When Atlanta drafted him, there was an instant vision of him being similarly used as A.J. Brown was in Tennessee. That would consist of a plethora of in-breaking routes from slants to digs. While a few of London’s catches have come from that, he’s being used in bunch formations more often rather than being isolated.
Twin tower power with Pitts
Smith didn’t have the luxury of having a unicorn at tight end in Tennessee. With defenses always building their coverage around stopping Pitts, it has allowed London more favorable looks. There were a few Hi-Lo concepts against the Saints where Pitts exploded downfield vertically and commanded extra attention helping London find more space underneath. They didn’t quite find success together in the red zone. That changed against the Rams.
London lined up next to Pitts on his first career touchdown and two-point conversion. The touchdown was a clever play call on Smith’s part in having Pitts shade past Robert Rochell and command Durant’s attention. While London was the beneficiary of a well-designed play, he still had to high point the ball and secure it away from an incoming Nick Scott. The two-point conversion was more impressive, as he ran a swift angle route and gave Mariota an immediate clear passing window to get the Falcons to within one possession in the game.
For all the frustration with Pitts’ low stat totals, he’s still having an impact on games with his presence in creating space all across the field. That’s what the coaching staff had to envision during training camp. Given how prolific London has been so far this season, it’s only a matter of time before Pitts benefits from the attention the opposing defense gives the rookie wide receiver. Potential improved future quarterback play would certainly help as well.
As gutsy as Mariota has played, he’s been underwhelming as a passer and isn’t throwing the ball with good placement. He missed London on multiple out routes against the Rams, although one of them was a clear miscommunication. The current quarterback play isn’t providing enough opportunities to maximize the capabilities of the two bright young stars. It would be surprising if Desmond Ridder doesn’t see the field in October. Hopefully, the rookie quarterback will give London more explosive play opportunities downfield to boss cornerbacks with his size and ball skills, along with getting Pitts more targets. In the meantime, London will get plenty of looks and production with Mariota at the helm.
London is already making huge waves. From his interview with Ashton Edmunds, it’s apparent how detail-oriented London is in his development as a player. It’s more than sheer route running and catching the ball. It’s about having a stronger feel for the game, possessing strong field awareness, using blocks effectively, and becoming a capable blocker, which is a necessity in Smith’s offense. He is on the path towards being able to do it all.
As Seth Galina emphasized back in March, London was the most pro-ready receiver coming out of the draft. He has lived up to the label so far in being productive against two top defenses in the league. With favorable matchups on the horizon, there will be more opportunities to produce highlight-reel plays. With Ridder likely taking over soon enough, this show could become must-see television every week.