Monday, July 15, 2024

As NFL’s most scrutinized draft pick, Falcons QB Michael Penix Jr. is ready for spotlight

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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Maybe the first thing you’ll notice, too, is the spin. The football was tight, pretty, and purposeful when it came off the arm of Michael Penix Jr. during the Atlanta Falcons rookie minicamp on Friday. It had zip and laser-like aim. Spin. As advertised.

Never mind that there were no pesky cornerbacks to mess up Penix’s precise throws to his targets, nor was he annoyed by any pass rushers bringing heat. There was no let-it-rip highlight that showed off the range and power of an arm that some considered as the best in the draft. No, it was just a snapshot, a vanilla glimpse into a Falcons future that include yet another left-handed quarterback named Michael.

Hold the drama for now. File away the debut as so far, so good.

“That would be ego coming out, to be honest, if I sat here and told you that something jumped off the page that didn’t jump off before,” Falcons coach Raheem Morris told USA TODAY Sports after the practice. “That would be me telling you that because everybody was such a naysayer about the whole (draft) process. I’m not going to do that. It was exactly what I thought the guy was.”

When the Falcons stunned the NFL universe by drafting Penix with the eighth overall pick, the naysayers to whom Morris alluded panned the pick as over-the-top. So many of the draft experts rated Penix as maybe the sixth-best quarterback prospect and criticized the Falcons for drafting him so high.

Well, whatever. Penix is in the fold now and the Falcons have a succession plan – sooner or later – to follow the huge investment in free agent signee Kirk Cousins. Morris and Falcons GM Terry Fontenot have nothing to apologize for. Or to explain to the draftniks.

Remember, Lamar Jackson (two-time NFL MVP) was the fifth quarterback drafted in 2018 and last pick of the first round. Mitch Trubisky was drafted ahead of Patrick Mahomes in 2017, and we see how that’s turned out. Trubisky has played for three NFL teams. Mahomes has three Super Bowl rings.

So, the merits of the decision to draft Penix will be determined in time.

In any event, when Penix and 38 other rookies hit the field on Friday, he had been in town for less than 48 hours. After guiding Washington to the national championship game and leading the college football nation in passing with 4,903 yards last season, it’s about getting acclimated to this new level. It’s no wonder he talked about the need to learn the playbook as Priority 1.

The spotlight and scrutiny, Penix seemingly has a handle on his approach, knowing that he will be a central figure in an intriguing subplot that involves the dynamic with Cousins.

“At this level in the NFL, everybody is under the spotlight,” Penix said. “You’ve got to prove yourself each and every day. That’s the beauty of it. That’s why it’s so rare for guys to make it here. It’s like the 1%. But you’re always in the spotlight. For me, I’m just going to be myself.”

This is undoubtedly the season of early impressions. During the draft process, Morris sensed an authenticity about Penix. This would surely help in trusting the quarterback with the keys to the franchise. It also came out as he addressed a media pick – with his cleats off, mind you – following practice.

“I’m here now,” Penix said. “I can’t be starstruck no more. I’ve got to produce.”

Penix seemingly provides the Falcons with a potential luxury. If Cousins regains his form in coming back from a torn Achilles heel suffered midway through the 2023 season, the Falcons can develop their young quarterback without the need to rush him into the lineup. Morris has been very direct in his messaging that suggests there will be no quarterback controversy.     

Then again, even with the Falcons investing $100 million guaranteed in Cousins, things happen. Last season, the NFL saw 66 different quarterbacks record at least one start. At 36, Cousins is one of the NFL’s oldest quarterbacks.

“I know Tom (Brady) played until he was 40 and I know we all think quarterbacks are supposed to play to 40 now,” Morris said. “Tom is maybe the outlier. Or maybe he’s not. Hopefully, Kirk does do that. That means we are doing a lot of winning.”

Cousins, slated to speak to the media on Tuesday, remains on schedule with his rehab. Morris said that he can fully participate in Phase II of the OTAs, that the limits on the quarterback will come with the volume of work and not the specific drills.

Yes, this Falcons quarterback storyline is an evolving theme. Maybe Penix sits for a couple of years behind Cousins, like Jordan Love did behind Aaron Rodgers with the Green Bay Packers, and years before that like Rodgers did behind Brett Favre. Or maybe pressure intensifies because of performance and Penix emerges as the people’s choice.

The plot can twist in multiple ways. What if Penix ultimately outperforms Cousins in practices behind closed doors, testing Morris’ credibility with the other players in the locker room?

What seemed apparent after Penix’s first practice was that no, the rookie quarterback is not about to add any fuel to a potential controversy. The Falcons have to love how Penix handles the questions about Cousins.

On draft night, the Falcons brain trust was taken to task for not informing Cousins, a 13th-year vet, that they were drafting a quarterback in the first round until they were on the clock. Since then, Penix revealed that Cousins reached out to him in a show of support.

On Friday, he pretty much delivered with a different type of spin – which reflected the humility Morris mentioned – when someone asked how he’s approaching his relationship with Cousins.

“I mean, we’re on the same team,” Penix said. “It’s not hard to approach that relationship. We’ve got the same goals, and that’s seeing this team win football games. For me, it’s just being able to connect with him, get to know him not just as a player, but as a person as well.”

That sounds like a man content to be a luxury for the Falcons now as he bides his time. At the same time, Penix embodies a rather attractive backup plan. That’s reason enough to stay tuned.

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