The Falcons are hoping London will help them shine in their next era. What once was about Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley is now about Kyle Pitts and London, the USC wide receiver whom the Falcons made the No. 8 overall pick Thursday.
London certainly looks the part. A former basketball player, the Southern California native is 6-foot-4, 220 pounds. Search his name on YouTube and you’ll find a plethora of contested catches. He idolizes similarly built receivers Calvin Johnson, a Hall of Famer, and the Buccaneers’ Mike Evans, who’s started his career with a record eight consecutive 1,000-yard campaigns.
Like those two, God blessed London with borderline incomprehensible physical gifts. He should earn regular appearances on ESPN’s “You Got Moss’d” segment each week. London torches underneath zone coverage. Yahoo Sports analyst Matt Harmon noted London’s 72.8% success rate against man coverage was close to Ja’Marr Chase’s 73.2% mark at LSU. Chase, of course, just had one of the finest rookie seasons in NFL history for Cincinnati.
“The guy is a dynamic player,” coach Arthur Smith said. “He plays a lot of positions. He’s everything you want in mental makeup. He’s wired the right way. We’re excited as hell that he’s a part of the Falcons.”
London has coveted inside-outside versatility - he’s a menace from the slot - and plays with physicality that fits his size, but apparently not so much his personality.
“Outside the white lines, I think you guys can tell I’m pretty laid back,” said London, who exudes your typical California cool. “I’m just kind of chill. But in between those white lines, I think something comes out of me.”
Pac-12 football isn’t what it once was, but London feasted in the conference. He required only seven games to reach 1,000 yards last season. But he fractured his right ankle in his eighth game Oct. 30 against Arizona, missing USC’s final four contests. He still led the conference with 1,084 receiving yards.
London’s physical prowess and fiery mentality made him the No. 1 receiver on the Falcons’ board in yet another receiver-rich class. The primary concern around London was his speed, though the Falcons weren’t among the teams worried. London said his best 40-yard dash time fell in the 4.5′s.
It’s a common debate in NFL circles for players of London’s ilk: He’s excellent at making catches in traffic, but does that mean he isn’t getting separation? Many a receiver has underwhelmed in the NFL because of an inability to get open.
“At the end of the day, you can say I’m covered, really not the case – I’ll go over the top of somebody,” London said. “At the same time, go watch the tape. I’ve definitely blown by a couple people. That’s all I have to say about that.”
London’s best collegiate game might have been against Notre Dame in October. He torched the Fighting Irish for a career-best 171 yards on 15 catches, showing the multitude of ways he wins. Former Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton, a Marist School graduate who went No. 14 overall to Baltimore, said Friday that London “is going to be a monster in the league.”
Success for the Falcons’ offense appears a long way away. But you see the foundation of what they’re building with London and Pitts, two imposing targets who excel making contested catches and should terrorize defensive coordinators as mismatch nightmares.
There simply aren’t many defenders who can match either player pound-for-pound. London already has referred to the new duo as “twin towers.” The pair should, at least, make the Falcons’ red-zone offense dangerous.
“I think it’s going to be fun,” London said. “It’s going to be something special. And I think once I meet him, and we get to know each other, we’re going to elevate each other in great ways.”
Fan reaction was mixed for London, though it wasn’t because of his talent. Critics cite the team’s desperate need for defensive help. London, who was the first of six receivers taken Thursday, will have the chance to show skeptics why the organization opted for him over a defender or any of his receiver peers.
“I came here to win and that’s the end goal,” he said. “I came here to contribute any way I possibly can. We’re trying to build a winning culture.”
The last sentence there is notable. The Falcons are a rebuilding team trying to form a new identity, and they’re betting London becomes an integral part of that. General manager Terry Fontenot said London fits “our ethos, our culture.”
Asked how he will help shape a culture, London quickly referenced his intensity. He added he intends to assume a leadership role at some point, but he’ll have to pay his dues first.
“I am a rookie,” he said. “I have to go through all the ropes. I’m going to be carrying shoulder pads and helmets all the time, rookie dinner and things like that. But in the future, I would like to be a leader.”
London said football players are “modern-day gladiators.” It’s appropriate, then, that he describes himself as “fearless,” primarily a nod to his willingness to exchange bumps and bruises for jump-ball receptions.
Off the field, he’s not so terrifying. The NFL’s video of him with his family gave an inside look at London away from the gridiron. He’s easy-going and soft-spoken. More than anything, he views himself as a product of his family’s love and sacrifices. They are why he proudly posed with a No. 5 Falcons uniform Friday afternoon at Falcons headquarters.
“I wouldn’t be in the position I’m in today without them,” London said. “Early mornings, long nights traveling with me, whether it was AAU basketball or football. And just being in my corner all the time. Whether it was right or wrong, they were always there for me. That’s why I love them so much.”
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