May 19, 2024

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What's the Falcons' plan at QB after their most surprising NFL Draft pick?

What's the Falcons' plan at QB after their most surprising NFL Draft pick?

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Michael Penix Jr. is okay with being the “future” at quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons, even if no one knows when that future will start.

“I'm here to do everything I can to help this team win football games,” he said. “That's the biggest thing for me. I'm a team guy and I love winning.”

Atlanta's selection of the University of Washington quarterback with the No. 8 pick in the draft was the most surprising pick in the NFL Draft, and he has laid out a quarterback succession plan that the Falcons hope will look prescient and become the new paradigm around the league. But first they need to know how it will work.

The Falcons optioned Penix 44 days after giving free agent quarterback Kirk Cousins ​​a four-year contract worth at least $100 million and possibly as much as $180 million. That kind of investment — the largest free agency deal in total value in NFL history — would seem to rule out the possibility of Atlanta adding a quarterback early in the draft. For everyone except the Falcons, at least.

“You want to put yourself in a position to get a guy when you have a guy,” first-year coach Raheem Morris said to explain his team's unorthodox thinking.

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Cousins ​​will be Atlanta's starting quarterback in what Morris referred to as “the short term.” However, “short” is not defined in this scenario. Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot said he would be fine if Penix was a backup for “four or five years.” Morris echoed the GM.

“Nothing makes me feel better than watching Kirk Cousins ​​play the next four years,” Morris said. “It means there are some good things happening.”

It also means Penix will spend at least 80 percent of his rookie contract sitting on the bench. This is not how NFL teams typically handle top-10 quarterbacks. Absolutely.

Forty quarterbacks have been selected in the top ten in the draft since 2000. All of them started at least one game in their rookie season. Thirty-one started 10 or more games, according to TruMedia. Of the 59 quarterbacks taken anywhere in the first round since 2000, 36 started 10 or more games in their first season.

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The public response to the Atlanta Plan is best described as pitchforks and torches next door. More importantly, Cousins ​​wasn't a fan of the selection or the fact that he wasn't informed of it until moments before it happened, a league source said. The athlete.

“Obviously it affected the mood a little bit (Thursday) night, but that's the nature of our wilderness, the nature of our business, competitive things,” Morris said. “But I'm excited for the quarterbacks, all of them.”


Falcons rookie quarterback Michael Penix Jr. is saying all the right things, but the team has put him in an awkward position. (Dale Zanin/USA Today)

Penix made his first trip to the Falcons facility a day after the selection, flying with his parents and grandparents on owner Arthur Blank's private jet, and said the prospect of starting his pro career without actually playing didn't diminish his excitement about joining the Falcons. a team.

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He added: “In terms of what anyone else thinks about the decision that has been made, I have no control over it.” “All I can control is what I bring to this team, and I know I will be a great leader not only on the field but off it as well, and I will be a great person and a great teammate.” Good. “I'm so excited to be able to do this.”

The Falcons' decision to take a quarterback with the eighth pick was contingent on Penix's availability. Morris said they would have taken another position at No. 8 rather than drafting any of the other quarterbacks on the board with that pick. This included JJ McCarthy, who was selected 10th overall by the Minnesota Vikings, and Bo Nix, who was selected 12th overall by the Denver Broncos.

“If we had come out of this draft and not drafted a quarterback, we would have been fine to do so,” Fontenot said. “If you really believe in the player, don't miss him.”

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The Falcons won't ask Cousins ​​to mentor Pennicks. Instead, the team expects the younger quarterback to pay attention and learn on the job, essentially drafting behind Cousins ​​while he learns to be a professional quarterback, Morris said.

“You can't put that on Kirk,” the coach said. “Kirk's job is just to be a professional. Kirk is going to show Michael how to go about his business every day. It's the young man's responsibility to learn from Kirk. Kirk Cousins ​​is absolutely exceptional. (Pennix) is in a position to follow through and do the right things.”

Despite Cousins' dissatisfaction with the circumstances surrounding the selection, the veteran called Penix on Thursday night.

“We had a very good conversation,” Penix said. “I'll keep it just between me and him for now, but it was definitely a good conversation. I'm very excited to work with him, and he said the same with me,” he said.

When Cousins ​​signed with Atlanta in March, he said the Falcons' commitment to him long-term was a factor.

“In Minnesota the last couple of offseasons, it kind of trended toward being year-over-year, and when we talked to Atlanta, I felt like this is a place where if I play at the level I expect to play at, I can retire the Falcon.” “That was something that really interested me, and that's the goal, but you have to earn the right to do it,” Cousins ​​said.

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Another factor was consensus within the organization, Cousins ​​said at the time.

“A coach told me this when I was a young player in the league — when the owner, the general manager, the head coach and the quarterback are on the same page, then you really have a chance to win a Super Bowl,” and as I said, “When I looked at the Atlanta Falcons, I firmly believed that the owner and manager The year, the head coach and the quarterback can all be on the same page, and that's exciting for me.”


Kirk Cousins ​​said he was excited to join the Falcons because of their long-term commitment to him. How does the Michael Penix Jr. draft change that? (Mike Stewart/Associated Press)

Falcons decision-makers said Cousins ​​continues to have their unwavering support.

“We're very excited about Kirk, and that hasn't changed,” Fontenot said.

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However, Penix's presence combined with Cousins' contract gives the Falcons a logical relocation spot in the not-too-distant future. Ninety million of Cousins' $100 million guaranteed will be paid in the first two years of his deal, and the Falcons can release him after the 2025 season and only get a $25 million maximum penalty.

“Kirk doesn't have to look over his shoulder every time he throws a bad pass, that's not the case,” Morris said.

When will the Falcons know it's the right time to move on from Cousins ​​to Penix? Morris said the question is difficult to answer without a crystal ball.

“As we all know, our whole game is about winning and losing,” he said. “It's just what it is. Ultimately, we're all judged on that basis.”

Morris emphasized that both Cousins ​​and Phoenix can win from the pocket by quickly processing defenses and advancing the route, making Cousins ​​an ideal role model for the younger quarterback. Everyone involved in Atlanta's evaluation of Penix was amazed at his ability to make every shot.

“In the NFL, you have to be able to be a passer. Any of these high-profile offenses that we're talking about, we're mostly talking about a passer,” Morris said. “A lot of the things we've seen in Kirk are things “Which we saw on tape (with Penix), and the live arm, we love the fight in the kid, and we love the interactions we've had with him in the process.”

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Penix will enter his Falcons career with no expectations as to when he will get his opportunity but said he will prepare to be the starter from the beginning.

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“I know I'm going to put in a lot of work to make sure that when I step on that court I'm not going to miss a beat, and I'm going to be successful for this offense and this team,” he said. “I'm excited about all of it. You never know when your number might be called, so you have to be ready. I'll do everything I can to be ready on day one.”

Morris acknowledged that the Falcons did not select Penix because they were concerned about Cousins' return from an Achilles injury, but there is an element of insurance to the selection. Cousins ​​will be 36 when the season starts, and already has 12 years of football and over 5,000 pass attempts in his rearview mirror.

“I wish we could all play forever, but we can't,” Morris said. “If things go well, things will go well and we'll be happy in Atlanta. We'll move on to Kirk and see what happens, but we've got five years before we make those decisions.”

Statistically, protecting against the potential for bad outcomes at the quarterback position is the right move, said Kevin Cole, a former data scientist at Pro Football Focus who now runs the Unexpected Points Substack. Overall, the data suggests that NFL teams should spend more resources than they do on the backup quarterback position, Cole said.

“There are a lot of different ways things could go over the next year or two, and it's about, 'How are we going to put ourselves in a position to have a great result in the future?' A lot of times it's like, 'Let's figure out more ways to go.' “We can get a good result for the midfielder from this.”

Public reaction to Atlanta's selection was much less favorable. The athlete Analysts gave the pick a grade of C. The Ringer: D-minus. ESPN's Mel Kiper called it “shocking.” (The GM said the significant selection review for Fontenot and Morris came from Blanck, who was fully supportive, the GM said.) The pick generated so much interest around the league that Morris joked he felt like Taylor Swift.

“I think that makes Terry (Travis) Kelce,” he joked.

Fontenot rolled his eyes at that comparison but said he will leave the Falcons' draft feeling completely confident in selecting Penix.

“If you told me when we were sitting there in January wondering who our quarterback was going to be … that we were going to have Kirk Cousins ​​right now and Michael Penix in the future, I would have told you that was a pipe dream,” Fontenot said. “This is exciting. We're very excited. It's the most important position in professional sports, and to feel this good right now, we couldn't be more excited.”

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(Best photos by Kirk Cousins ​​and Michael Penix Jr.: Steven Maturin/Getty Images; Dale Zanin/USA Today)