Drake London will benefit most from Kirk Cousins joining Falcons

Talented wide receiver finally will play with accurate quarterback
Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Drake London (5) goes up for an impressive reception during the fourth quarter against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, Dec. 10, 2023,  at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.  Miguel Martinez/miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Drake London (5) goes up for an impressive reception during the fourth quarter against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, Dec. 10, 2023, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.  Miguel Martinez/miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

FLOWERY BRANCH — Everybody wants to know if Falcons wide receiver Drake London notices a difference in the passes he’s seeing from Kirk Cousins in practices. That’s a more polite way of asking London if he’s glad finally to play with an accurate passer after so many throws somehow missed his big frame and sticky hands during his first two NFL seasons.

“I pride myself on being able to catch the ball from anybody, so I don’t really look at that,” London said on the final day of the team’s minicamp. “It’s kind of just wherever the ball is thrown, I try to go get it.”

London paused and smiled before adding: “(Cousins) throws it well, though.”

That’s just what London needs to reach his full potential.

London’s production hasn’t matched his billing as the first wide receiver selected in the 2022 NFL draft (No. 8 overall out of USC). Over the past two seasons, London ranked tied for 37th in the NFL among wide receivers in yards per game (53.7), tied for 95th in yards per reception and tied for 53rd in TD catches (six). But it’s hard for London to make plays when the play-caller and quarterback don’t give him many chances.

London played in coach Arthur Smith’s run-dominant offense during his first two seasons. We don’t know what new offensive coordinator Zac Robinson’s offense will look like because he’s never called plays. London provided a hint.

“Ball gonna be in the air,” London said.

That won’t matter so much if the passes aren’t on target. Luckily for London, they’ll be thrown by one of the NFL’s more accurate passers.

Before suffering a torn Achilles in Week 8 last season, Cousins had reached a career-high in Pro Football Focus’ adjusted completion percentage. Cousins wasn’t as aggressive with his attempts, but his accuracy remained high when he did throw long: sixth in deep passing rating and 10th in deep yards. Since 2018, Cousins ranks 11th in PFF’s deep passer rating.

The Cousins-London deep connection should produce big plays for the Falcons. London doesn’t usually create much separation from defenders. He doesn’t need much space to make catches because of his superlative size (6-foot-4, 213 pounds), body control and hands. London just needs the quarterback to throw the ball to a place where he can make a play, but that hasn’t happened often enough.

During his rookie season, London was visibly frustrated a few times when Marcus Mariota sailed passes over his head when a big gain was available. Desmond Ridder wasn’t an accurate passer in college — per PFF he had the highest rate of “uncatchable and inaccurate” throws during his final season — and that also has been his problem in the NFL. Taylor Heinicke, the starter for five Falcons games last season, had an even lower rate of “on-target” throws than Ridder, according to Pro Football Reference.

There won’t be so many wayward passes for the Falcons this season. Cousins knows where the ball should go and usually gets it there on time and on target. The offseason work has been focused on Cousins and his pass targets getting on the same page.

“It’s been fun growing that,” London said. “Things that he sees, I can see now. Building that chemistry has been fairly easy because he’s an exceptional player himself. He’s ‘vetted’ like no other, about to go into his 13th year. So, for him to have that, it’s huge on my game, and I’m just excited to see where it goes.”

I’m seeing a big season for London so long as he and Cousins are healthy. The wide receivers who’ve played with Cousins benefited from his savvy and accurate throws. Vikings star Justin Jefferson is the latest. Before him there was Stefon Diggs, DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon.

London said Cousins has shown Falcons wide receivers “a ton of film” featuring those players.

“He’s played with a bunch of dogs,” London said. “All them boys, he made them great players.”

The benefits of the Cousins-London partnership should flow both ways. Cousins has never played with a wide receiver like London. All his top targets have been smaller, quicker players. Jefferson, Diggs and Jackson range from 5-10 to 6-1 and between 175 and 195 pounds.

Now Cousins will throw to a London, a big wide receiver with excellent ball skills that he honed as a good basketball prospect.

“Just a very natural receiver, really friendly target,” Cousins said of London. “He kind of just looks open to your eye as a quarterback because of his size, the way he runs routes, his catch radius, his natural hands, his fluidity. And he can run the whole route tree, so you can ask him to do a lot.”

Circumstances don’t fully explain London’s modest production in the NFL. He also has room to improve. London said the Falcons plan to play a style that’s “really, really fast,” so he’s working on his speed and conditioning. Better footwork and route running also will be points of emphasis for London when he goes home to California before the Falcons return for training camp next month.

London said he wants to take the “next step” as a player. What will that mean?

“Be an all-around wide receiver,” London said. “Be somebody who can take over games and just being a great teammate overall. I think I could take a step up in a lot of those things, and I think I should.”

That process will accelerate now that London will finally play in a pass-focused offense with a quarterback who can get him the ball.