FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Drake London was analytical about it. Sitting at his locker one afternoon in December, his rookie season close to over, he had the understanding of someone much older.
He’d been the No. 1 wide receiver in an NFL offense from the first game. He was a first-round draft pick of the Atlanta Falcons. There were things he was pleased with from his first foray into professional football.
Overalls? He wasn’t super excited about any of it.
“Decent,” London told ESPN. “Ain’t nothing more than decent, nothing less than decent.”
What does decent mean to a 21-year-old out of USC who spent his NFL draft prep recovering from a broken ankle and his first NFL season across the country from Southern California, where he also grew up?
“There’s a lot that’s left on the table, personally, for me. That I think that I can do better, a lot of learning curves, learning moments that I’ve had that I can grow from,” London said. “So I wouldn’t sit up here and tell you, ‘Oh, this is amazing, this is exactly what I wanted, the year that I wanted.’ But at the same time, I’m not going to tell you that I had a terrible year. You know what I’m saying.
“With that being said, I took it as decent. I’m doing my job. I’m doing it somewhat well for my circumstances, and all I can do is go forward from there and just keep progressing.”
London set a Falcons franchise rookie record for receptions (72) in a run-heavy offense. He had 866 receiving yards and chemistry with his fellow rookie quarterback, Desmond Ridder, that became a bright spot over the season’s final four games.
London had his top two yardage games — including his first 100-yard game in a 120-yard performance in the season finale — with Ridder at quarterback.
After being targeted more than seven times just twice in his first 13 games, Ridder targeted London eight times or more in all four of their games together. In three of those four games, he averaged 10 or more yards per reception. His top two yards-per-target games (10.67 yards against Baltimore and 15 yards against Tampa) came with Ridder as the quarterback, too.
Before the switch from Marcus Mariota to Ridder, London had become the primary pass target after tight end Kyle Pitts suffered a season-ending knee injury against Chicago on Nov. 20. London had a 31% target share in 2022 — fourth in the league behind Miami’s Tyreek Hill, the Chargers’ Austin Ekeler and Detroit’s Amon-Ra St. Brown — and had only one credited drop.
The coaches expected London to win contested balls and block well on run plays from when they drafted him. Throughout the season, they saw improvement in his route running and his release.
Somewhere between Week 5 and Week 7, receivers coach TJ Yates said London understood the offense enough that pre-play became more of what they hoped it would: defensive fact-finding instead of his own offensive placement.
“You’re going into recon mode,” Yates said. “You start looking for formation indicators — is it man, is it zone, is it shell? Whatever it is, and then you go down to your individual matchups of how does this guy play press, what are the different things that he does , to better help you once you get into those routes.”
A lot of what London picked up on had to do with the mental portion of the game. How he dealt with even more attention — and that was something he was already used to while playing at USC — became a balance.
Getting down on himself was something to minimize. For instance, overcoming critical fumbles in games against the Chargers, Saints and Ravens. He knows now, he said, to maybe not try and battle Chargers outside linebacker Khalil Mack for extra yards instead of going down. It became a process of “learning how to take the positive out of things.”
Back to those fumbles. He’s annoyed they happened, but better early in his career than in a critical spot later in his career.
He looks at what happened in 2022 — the good, the bad, the neutral — as growth. Reminds himself of that constantly. He has a plan for the offseason — strength, speed work, footwork, better routes – from what he picked up in Year 1.
“Going through the struggles, going through the process, I’d rather this happen to me right now in my first couple years,” London said. “Than say we’re in Year 4, we’re in the Super Bowl and I do that s—. It would be completely terrible.
“I would rather do it now than do it later in life. I’m just trying to get it out, learn from my mistakes and try to be better.”