Atlanta Falcons Have Built a Basketball Team of Pass-Catchers, but Will It Work? | Bleacher Report

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When Atlanta Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot watches Space Jam, he must root for the Monstars because he’s building his skill positions in the same manner as the film’s antagonists. The Falcons are placing a basketball team around their unsettled quarterback position, and it’s the franchise’s best path toward respectability. 

Entering the NFL draft, an argument could easily be made that Atlanta featured the league’s worst roster. A similar discourse can still ensue, though Fontenot and head coach Arthur Smith veered off a traditional path in an attempt to be as competitive as possible this offseason. 

An adage has circulated in the NFL about building a wide receiver corps much like an NBA roster. Varied skill sets make the position, thus making the entire offense more difficult to defend. The group should include a shifty point guard (quick underneath slot receiver), a post-up center (big red-zone target) and so on and so forth. In the Falcons’ case, their approach has been a little more literal.

By featuring Drake London, Bryan Edwards and Auden Tate, as well as tight end Kyle Pitts and John FitzPatrick, the Falcons now have five targets who are 6’3″ or taller. Of the five, Edwards is the only one under 6’4″. FitzPatrick, whom the team selected in this year’s sixth round, is a massive tight end at 6’7″ and 250 pounds. 

These moves aren’t new by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, the Falcons aren’t the only team undertaking the same offensive shift. The Indianapolis Colts are another example with their group of targets—Michael Pittman Jr., Alec Pierce, Dezmon Patmon, Mike Strachan, Mo Alie-Cox, Jelani Woods and Andrew Ogletree—all stand between 6’3″ and 6’7″. A certain amount of success seems to derive from a commitment to finding size mismatches within an offense. 

“The teams with the biggest receivers didn’t all field great passing attacks, but some did, including four of the top five teams in pass offense DVOA,” Football Outsiders’ Mike Tanier wrote. “But the win-loss records here are remarkable. Nine of the top 10 teams had winning records, six made the playoffs, and four won their divisions.”

Aside from Olamide Zaccheaus, who’s the Falcons’ leading returning wide receiver and listed at 5’8″, the primary options in the passing attack will be giants looming over opposing defensive backs. 

Today’s tendencies lean toward more speed and explosivity to create chunk plays and lessen the chances of making mistakes within the passing game. That’s why receivers Ja’Marr Chase (6’0″, 201 pounds), Jaylen Waddle (5’10”, 182), DeVonta Smith (6’0″, 170), Garrett Wilson (6’0″, 192), Chris Olave (6’1″, 188), Jameson Williams (6’1″, 179) and Jahan Dotson (5’11”, 182) all heard their names called in the top half of the first round over the last two draft classes. 

London is the outlier compared to other recent selections.

The Falcons made the USC product this year’s WR1 with this year’s eighth overall pick. London is literally a former basketball player who played for the Trojans’ hardwood team. At 6’4″ and 213 pounds, the 20-year-old target is the biggest wide receiver taken among the top-10 selections since Mike Williams in 2017. Otherwise, Mike Evans and Calvin Johnson are the only two bigger than both to enter the draft in the last 15 years and become top-10 picks.

“He’s fast, and he’s big, and he’s smart,” quarterback Desmond Ridder said of London after their first rookie camp together, per The Athletic’s Josh Kendall.

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The receiver’s basketball background shows in his play. Despite his size, London has nimble feet with flexible hips. He sinks in and out of his routes and runs them with the suddenness of a much smaller target. When those traits are coupled with his size and body control, an elite prospect emerges. Throughout the process, the only lingering question centered on his top-end speed, which teams never verified because London didn’t run the 40-yard dash after coming off a fractured ankle. 

“I think he’s one of the best receivers I’ve ever seen,” a collegiate coach told The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman. “He can really high-point the ball, and he runs routes like a little guy, getting in and out of his cuts. He’s not afraid to get dirty. People may question his top-end [speed], and he probably won’t wow you, but his functional football speed, with his pads on, is really good.”

Top targets don’t need to be burners, though. Evans is a four-time Pro Bowl selection after posting a 4.53-second 40-yard dash. Cooper Kupp is coming off the greatest season ever by a wide receiver, and he posted a 4.62. London doesn’t need elite straight-line speed to be a consistent threat. 

“Everybody knew where the ball was going,” London told reporters after USC’s pro day. “I had triple coverage, double coverage all game, and it still didn’t stop me. So whatever they say about that, I could care less.”

London’s 135.5 yards per game in 2021 ranked second just behind the nation’s leading receiver Jerreth Sterns, despite USC’s passing offense averaging eight fewer attempts per game and 135.4 fewer yards per contest. 

More importantly, London ranked first among this year’s class when targeted on routes run against man coverage (44 percent), per Pro Football Focus’ Dwain McFarland. Yahoo Sports’ Matt Harmon noted London posted a 72.8 percent success rate versus man coverage. 

These stats show he’s creating separation and getting open even when other teams are trying to lock him down. Less athletic wide receivers can struggle when they aren’t gifted free releases with jams near the line of scrimmage, thus rerouting them and becoming less available as a target. London still worked to get open and overcame each opponent’s best coverage defender. 

As talented as the Falcons’ rookie wide receiver is, he’ll likely be the team’s secondary receiving threat with Kyle Pitts on the roster. 

Pitts thrived in his first season and fell just short of setting the rookie tight end record with 1,026 receiving yards. The 21-year-old did become the first-ever rookie tight end to eclipse 60 receptions and 1,000 yards and even earned a Pro Bowl nod. 

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“He’s been exactly who we thought he was,” Smith told reporters in January. “He’s impacted games immensely. Even [when] the ball hasn’t found his way.

“He’s not even scratching the surface.”

Once again, Pitts’ intimidation factors extend beyond his size. Yes, he’s a 6’6″, 246-pound threat, but he also runs routes like a wide receiver. In fact, he’s more than capable of lining up as the X or in the slot and looks perfectly comfortable working over defensive backs or linebackers. He’s truly a unicorn at the position based on his blend of size, athleticism and flexibility. 

Now, the Falcons can line Pitts and London on one side in twins formations, or they can place one on each side and force a defense to choose which way it rolls coverage responsibilities. The duo can run switch routes off one another. London can line up on the inside with Pitts working outside the numbers. They can overwhelm, out-physical and outplay anyone. 

“You’ve got to play to your strengths,” Colts head coach Frank Reich said when discussing his oversized lineup, per The Athletic’s Stephen Holder. “That’s the thing about a big man—you can always create a mismatch and always create leverage by your length.

“Then when you get an accurate passer to take advantage of that, it can be a big playmaking advantage.”

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Reich’s final statement denotes the difference between his squad and where it stands among the NFL’s hierarchy and Atlanta’s current setup. Matt Ryan now resides in Indianapolis, while the latter doesn’t lay claim to an accurate passer.

Regardless, the Falcons can throw in the 6’5″ Tate and 6’3″ Edwards as extra big-bodied targets to spend the majority of their time between the numbers and the sideline.

The sheer size of these options should help in Marcus Mariota’s second chance as a starting quarterback or Ridder’s development. Bigger targets mean larger catch radiuses. Thus, the team’s quarterbacks don’t require pinpoint accuracy. They simply must put the ball on their targets and let the investments Atlanta made with basketball-adjacent starters work like power forwards trying to average 10 rebounds per game.

London playing alongside Pitts is Looney Tunes. Even though the team still lacks in other areas, the approach to roster construction will help make Atlanta far more competitive than it has any right to be at this stage of its rebuilding process.

                 

Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.