FLOWERY BRANCH – At the outset of the post-Matt Ryan era, the Falcons added another piece to their massive rebuilding project.

With the eighth pick in the NFL draft, the Falcons selected former USC wide receiver Drake London on Thursday night.

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Georgia defensive end Travon Walker was selected No. 1 overall by Jacksonville.

Walker’s selection was followed by Michigan defensive end Aidan Hutchinson (Detroit), LSU cornerback Derek Stingley (Houston), Cincinnati’s cornerback Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner (New York Jets), Oregon defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux (New York Giants), N.C. State offensive tackle Ikem Ekwonu (Carolina) and Alabama offensive tackle Evan Neal (New York Giants).

It was the 26th time in franchise history that the Falcons made a selection in the top 10 of the draft. London became the second wide receiver selected by the team in the top 10, joining Julio Jones, who was selected sixth overall in 2011.

“He’s a tough, smart and competitive football player,” Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot said of London. “The way he works. The way he competes. We’re very excited to bring him in. He fits our ethos. He fits the culture and everything that we want.”

The Falcons would not reveal their 40-yard dash time they recorded for London.

“That’s great,” said Falcons coach Arthur Smith when asked about his speed. “We worked him out. We were very comfortable with his speed and everything on tape.”

The question about London is whether he can get open in the NFL.

“Big, long possession receiver with the ability to play outside or from the slot,” wrote NFL.com analyst Lance Zierlein. “London lacks desired top-end speed and separation quickness to open clear throwing windows but plays a mature, savvy brand of ball.”

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NFL.com went on to compare London with Ed McCaffrey, who was drafted in the third round of the 1991 draft and went on to play 13 seasons and make one Pro Bowl.

The Falcons met with Alabama speedster Jameson Williams and London, according to the players at the scouting combine in March. Fontenot and Smith confirmed the meeting with London. Ohio State wide receiver Garrett Wilson also was a popular mock-draft pick for the Falcons.

Several draft outlets, including CBSSports.com, had Wilson and Williams rated higher than London, who also played basketball for the Trojans. NFL.com gave Williams a 6.50 grade, Wilson 6.48 and London a 6.40.

The Falcons can pair London with tight end Kyle Pitts. London talked about them creating a “Twin Towers” receiving tandem.

“It’s a pretty good analogy to say that we are the twin towers,” London said over a virtual call with the Atlanta media. “Obviously, I’ve got to earn my stripes to get on the field with him. But at the same time, if I do, that would be a good nickname.”

London’s knows angles from his basketball days.

“I was a (shooting guard) or (small forward),” London said. “I was a shooting guard. Pretty much somebody who would go to the rack. I’m dunking on you or I’m throwing 3′s in your face.”

Despite being a top-10 pick, London plans to earn his spot.

“I’m not looking to have any handouts given toward me,” London said. “I’m a person who works for everything that I get. That’s my mindset going in, and that’s how I’m going to keep it.”

Pitts had over 1,000 yards receiving and was named to the Pro Bowl as a rookie last season. London and Pitts, who caught only one touchdown pass last season, could make a dynamic red-zone duo.

Toss in running back/wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson and the Falcons are no longer weapon-less.

While many may have argued against the Falcons taking a receiver in the first round, especially with such a deep group of prospects, no one would deny it’s a primary need on a team with multiple holes.

The Falcons lost Russell Gage to Tampa Bay in free agency. Also, Calvin Ridley left the team for mental health reasons and was suspended indefinitely for gambling. Patterson, was the team’s third-leading receiver last season behind Pitts and Gage. He also was the team’s top rusher.

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Taking a wide receiver at the top of the draft will be heavily scrutinized because several similarly situated wide receivers were projected to be available in the second and perhaps the third round.

Wilson went two picks later to the Jets and Williams went 12th to the Lions.

Williams is a burner, who can get open deep, as he showed in the SEC Championship game. He torched Georgia’s highly regarded defense for 184 yards and two touchdowns.

Williams suffered an ACL tear in the College Football Playoff Championship game rematch against Georgia in January, which clouded his draft status. He was being projected to get drafted in the middle of the first round.

Williams couldn’t move past Wilson and Chris Olave at Ohio State and transferred to Alabama.

Wilson, the 6-foot, 183-pounder, has elite run-after-catch ability. Wilson caught 70 passes for 1,058 yards (15.1 per catch) and 12 receiving touchdowns in 2021. He also returned punts for the Buckeyes.

Wilson believes he can make an immediate impact as a rookie, similar to Ja’Marr Chase (81 receptions, 13 TDs) with the Bengals in 2021.

“I think he’s the best receiver in the draft, in my opinion, and he can do everything,” NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said. “He is a complete wide receiver.”

Smith also is the team’s play-caller, but he said that doesn’t play a role when the franchise is debating to take an offensive or defensive player.

“Well, I think you do what’s best for the team,” Smith said. “If you can consider that, I think you’ll be in good shape. I’m the head coach first.”

The second and third rounds of the draft will start at 7 p.m. Friday. The Falcons have four picks overall, two in the second round (43rd and 58th overall) and two in the third round (74th and 82nd overall).

On Saturday, the Falcons have four remaining picks in the fourth (114th), fifth (151st) and sixth (190th and 213th).

The Bow Tie Chronicles


Here’s a look at the AJC’s position-by-position draft series:

WIDE RECEIVERS – Falcons need to upgrade weapons | Top 10 WRs

RUNNING BACKS – Position has become devalued in draft | Top 10 RBs

TIGHT ENDS – Chigoziem Okonkwo survived heart condition | Top 10 TEs

OFFENSIVE LINE – Ex-UGA lineman Salyer points to wins in SEC trenches | Top 10 OL

QUARTERBACKS – Malik Willis now top QB prospect for NFL draft | Top 10 QBs

DEFENSIVE LINE – Georgia dominates D-line talk ahead of draft | Top 10 DL

LINEBACKERS – Ex-UGA star Dean the latest test of play vs. measurables | Top 10 LBs

CORNERBACKS – Lots of intrigue in 2022 NFL draft’s cornerback class | Top 10 CBs

SAFETIES – Georgia’ Lewis Cine will knock your block off | Top 10 Safeties

SPECIAL TEAMS – Special-teams players attracting some NFL draft interest | Top 10 special teamers