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USC’s Drake London lacks lightning speed, but here’s why he’ll go fast in NFL draft

Wide receiver Drake London runs a drill during his pro day at USC on April 15.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

When he decided earlier this month to skip the 40-yard dash at his Pro Day, Drake London understood there would be questions. His speed was the only serious concern for NFL scouts, the only nit to pick in an otherwise sterling draft profile and now the former USC star wideout was opting out of his final chance to offer evidence in his favor.

Months into the process, London had heard quite enough of those doubts. Anyone who still had questions, he suggested, should “just watch film.”

“Don’t really have to blow by guys to catch a ball,” he said. “I can at the end of the day, but I really don’t have to.”

T.J. Houshmandzadeh, the former NFL wideout training London for the draft, went one step further.

“Speed,” Houshmandzadeh declared, “is overrated.”

Reporters who cover their teams on a daily basis predict how the first round of the 2022 NFL draft will unfold in The Times’ beat writers’ mock draft.

Overrated or not, speed might be the only discernible obstacle in the way of London becoming the fourth USC receiver to be selected in the top-10 of the NFL draft, which kicks off Thursday with the first round. (The last, Mike Williams, wasn’t exactly a burner, either, when the Lions picked him 10th in 2005.)

In every other sense, London is a surefire top prospect, a physical 6-foot-4 supernova with a catch radius capable of pushing the boundaries of physics. Last season, he led college football in contested catches and finished with more catches (88) and receiving yards (1,084) than fellow first-round receiver prospects Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave of Ohio State, despite playing in just eight games because of his ankle injury.

It wasn’t until recently that London was back to full speed from the fractured ankle he suffered last October. He’d just started running on a treadmill when Wilson (4.38) and Olave (4.39) both posted blazing 40s at the NFL combine.

Questions about London’s speed have lingered since, though Houshmandzadeh argues they’re overblown. Had the receiver satiated scouts and ran the 40, he estimates London would have clocked somewhere between a high 4.4 and 4.53 — a range which, if accurate, would be faster than the 40 times of either of the top two receivers in the NFL last season, Davante Adams or Cooper Kupp.

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But that’s not the point Houshmandzadeh is trying to make. He carved out his 10-year NFL career not with blazing speed, but rather with an understanding of how and when to deploy acceleration. Some NFL teams have come to understand that nuance. Others still lag behind.

USC receiver Drake London grabs his ankle after getting injured on a touchdown play against Arizona in October.
USC receiver Drake London grabs his ankle after getting injured on a touchdown play against Arizona in October. Many wondered if the injury would change his NFL draft projection as a first-rounder.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The team that drafts London is likely to be among the former, capable of seeing past the allure of pure, vertical speed.

“Go get a guy who runs track and see if he can stop,” Houshmandzadeh said. “See if he’s able to decelerate, which is the biggest key. That’s all that matters.”

And that’s where most of his training with London has focused over the last few months after the receiver returned from injury. They honed on sharpening London’s separation skills, both at the top of his routes and in shaking off press coverage, where receivers his size often struggle.

That’s where London’s basketball background makes him a particularly unique prospect. It wasn’t until late 2020 that London left USC’s basketball team to fully focus on football.

Other than his first pick as Chargers general manager, Tom Telesco has done very well with first-round selections. The rest has been hit and miss, as with the rest of the NFL.

“You don’t see guys with his size move the way he moves,” Houshmandzadeh said. “He moves like a little guy, but he’s a big guy. That’s rare.”

It’s precisely why some team will select London in the first round, on Thursday, with the hope of turning him into a perennial Pro Bowl receiver.

Houshmandzadeh is convinced that day isn’t far off.

“He’s going to be one of the best receivers in the league in four years,” Houshmanzadeh said. “Maybe in three, if he gets with the right team and quarterback.”


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