National Football League
How Falcons' past moves at QB affected decision to draft Michael Penix Jr.
National Football League

How Falcons' past moves at QB affected decision to draft Michael Penix Jr.

Updated May. 1, 2024 1:56 p.m. ET

The Atlanta Falcons' decision to select Michael Penix Jr. with the No. 8 pick in the 2024 NFL Draft was one of the more shocking decisions in recent draft history.

But the Falcons are emphasizing that it was about stability at quarterback. Falcons assistant general manager Kyle Smith admitted that developments in the last few seasons caused them to double-dip at quarterback this offseason, as they signed Kirk Cousins to a four-year, $180 million deal with $100 million guaranteed in March.

"It was an unsettling feeling, sitting there in '21," Smith told reporters, recalling what it was like when he and general manager Terry Fontenot joined the organization that year. "I'll never forget sitting there with Terry and being like, 'OK, well, what's our future? What's our plan for the future? How are we going to solidify down the road?'

"It's not just about this year or next year. It's about five years minimum."


The Falcons didn't invest major capital into the quarterback position over the last two seasons. They kept Matt Ryan and his $26.9 million salary at the time as their starting quarterback in 2021. However, after an attempt to trade for Deshaun Watson, the Falcons cut ties with Ryan, trading him to the Indianapolis Colts.

Atlanta double-dipped at quarterback to a far lesser degree in 2022 than it did this offseason. It gave Marcus Mariota a two-year, $18.75 million deal that year before drafting Desmond Ridder in the third round of the 2022 NFL Draft. 

Mariota was the team's starting quarterback in 2022, but he was benched late in the year after throwing for 2,219 yards, 15 touchdowns and nine interceptions as the Falcons went 5-8 in the 13 games he started. Ridder became the team's starting quarterback but was benched on multiple occasions due to poor play. He threw 2,836 yards, 12 touchdowns and 12 interceptions in 13 games, causing Atlanta to go 7-10 for the third straight season.

The losing records caused the Falcons to hold a top-10 pick for the fourth time in Fontenot and Smith's tenure with the team. They selected skill position players instead of a quarterback with their first three top-10 selections. Falcons brass felt this year was different, with owner Arthur Blank endorsing the idea of drafting a quarterback with the No. 8 pick, Yahoo! Sports reported.

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"This is the first year that we were sitting there and staring down the barrel at a player that we think can be that guy," Smith said. 

While Smith and the Falcons feel strongly about Penix, the decision still left many scratching their heads. They had given Cousins a massive deal just over a month prior to the draft. 

There is a caveat with Cousins' deal, however. The Falcons can get Cousins without a charge following the 2025 season, seemingly opening a path for Penix to take over in 2026 if the veteran struggles, if not sooner. Cousins is also turning 36 in August and coming off an Achilles tear.

While Cousins and his team were blindsided by the team's decision to draft Penix, Smith continued to insist that it was just about adding talent to the quarterback room. 

"What we did to get Kirk Cousins should tell everybody that we believe in Kirk Cousins," Smith said. "He's our guy. We set ourselves up.

"Then, in the draft, Michael Penix was there. It's a quarterback — a young quarterback — that we believe in. We pulled that trigger.

"I mean, that's as clear as I can say it."

Regardless of how outsiders feel about the situation, Atlanta seems to have the best feeling about its quarterback room it's had in years.

"For the next five years, we feel great about the position," Smith said. "Minimum."



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