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Falcons provide first NFL draft surprise by taking Washington QB Michael Penix Jr. with No. 8 pick

Rookie says he looks forward to learning from veteran Kirk Cousins

By CHARLES ODUM, AP Sports Writer
Published: April 25, 2024, 9:28pm

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — The Atlanta Falcons provided the first major surprise of the NFL draft by selecting quarterback Michael Penix Jr. of Washington with the No. 8 overall pick on Thursday night.

The Falcons extended their recent trend of selecting offensive skill players in the first round by drafting Penix one month after signing Kirk Cousins to a four-year, $180 million contract with $100 million guaranteed. Using a draft slot normally targeted for players expected to make an immediate impact, the Falcons chose Penix as the long-term successor to the 35-year-old Cousins.

Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot said he never wavered when Penix was available.

“Kirk Cousins is our quarterback,” Fontenot said. “Michael Penix, we’re talking about the future. We’re very excited about that quarterback room.”

New coach Raheem Morris said the Falcons wanted to draft Penix this year because they don’t plan to draft as high as No. 8 again soon. It was a strong prediction for a franchise that hasn’t had a winning season or made the playoffs since 2017.

“We’re talking about winning the (NFC) South and doing some things and going to the playoffs,” Morris. said. “We don’t want to be picking that high anymore. We don’t want to be in that position. … That helped us make that decision.”

Morris said he would be thrilled if Penix is nothing more than an observer the next four years if that means Cousins is thriving as the starter.

“Nothing would make me feel better than watching Kirk Cousins play for four years,” Morris said.

Penix said he looks forward to learning from Cousins.

“I’m blessed with the opportunity,” Penix said. “I’m going to take advantage and make the most out of it. For me coming in behind Kirk Cousins, he’s a guy who has been in the league and … played a lot of football. I’m going to come in and I’m gong to learn, I’m going to learn from him and try to soak in all the knowledge I can.”

The Falcons had been expected to use the pick to boost their pass rush.

The Falcons also focused on offensive playmakers with their last three first-round picks. Tight end Kyle Pitts was the No. 4 overall pick in 2021, followed by wide receiver Drake London and running back Bijan Robinson, each No. 8, the last two years.

Penix, who will be 24 as a rookie, led FBS schools with 4,903 passing yards and was third with 36 touchdown passes. He won the Maxwell Award as the nation’s top player.

Penix threw for 255 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions as No. 2 Washington fell to top-ranked Michigan 34-13 in the College Football Playoff championship game.

Penix began his college career at Indiana, where he tore his right ACL in 2018 and 2020 and had shoulder injuries in both 2019 and 2021.

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Penix said he had a good feeling after working out for Falcons officials, including Fontenot, at Washington.

“They were great,” Penix. said. “They liked how I threw the ball. I feel like I put on a great performance that day in that throwing session. It was kind of quick but we made it worthwhile.”

Still, Penix said he didn’t know if the Falcons’ interest was serious until the call came during the draft. He said he spoke with Fontenot, Falcons owner Arthur Blank, Morris and offensive coordinator Zac Robinson.

“To be able to hear that phone call come through It was just a blessing,” Penix said. “They asked me was I ready to be a Falcon. I said absolutely.”

Fontenot said this week he would consider selecting a quarterback high in the draft even when most of the outside focus had been on edge rushers.

“If we see a player that we believe can be a franchise quarterback at any point, whether it’s this draft, next draft, whether it’s a player we can trade for, whatever it is, you have to bring that player in because we’re talking about the next four to five years plus when we’re talking about guys that we’re drafting,” Fontenot said.

The Falcons’ draft won’t by impacted by the NFL’s investigation of the team’s possible violation of tampering policies before signing Cousins, who appeared to indicate he had been in communication with team officials at a time the team would have been permitted to talk only with his agent.