Why did the Falcons draft Michael Penix Jr.? Consider the Matt Ryan lesson

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — To understand why the Atlanta Falcons became the story of the NFL draft last week by taking quarterback Michael Penix Jr. at No. 8 overall, it’s necessary to go back to the team’s last franchise quarterback.

From 2008 to 2021, the Falcons could write in pen who would be starting under center: Matt Ryan. He became arguably the best player in franchise history, took the team to Super Bowl LI and was the Most Valuable Player in 2016. Ryan was traded to the Indianapolis Colts during the 2022 offseason, and he officially retired last week after taking last season off to work as a television analyst.

The issue for the Falcons is they never had a succession plan for Ryan, and the team’s quarterback play suffered the last two seasons. Consequently, the Falcons have not had a winning season since Ryan was still in his prime, back in 2017.

So, three days after Ryan officially announced his retirement, Atlanta drafted Penix, despite having just signed veteran QB Kirk Cousins to a four-year contract worth up to $180 million on March 11. The Falcons’ succession plan for Cousins has started before the 35-year-old even played a down for his new team.

“We were always looking aggressively for the heir apparent, the down-the-road, the solution at that position [after Ryan],” Falcons assistant general manager Kyle Smith said Tuesday. “… It’s the most important position in all sports, and it’s the most expensive position in all sports.”

While the Falcons have been criticized for burning their No. 8 pick on a position it recently filled, team brass is looking at it more like it has the position sewn up for the foreseeable future.

Going into the offseason, quarterback was the Falcons’ biggest need. The combination of Desmond Ridder and Taylor Heinicke led Atlanta to a 7-10 record last season and caused team owner Arthur Blank to tab the team’s quarterback play as “deficient.”

The Falcons fired Smith after the season and hired Raheem Morris in January. At the NFL combine in February, Morris said he likely would not be in Atlanta had the team’s quarterback play been better.

“We went from a time of uncertainty in January at that position to we feel really good for, like I said, minimum five years,” Smith said Tuesday.

Drafting Penix rather than an impact player who could help in 2024 surprised Cousins, who was informed about the selection when the team was on the clock. His agent, Mike McCartney, told ESPN’s Pete Thamel there was frustration and confusion coming from Cousins’ camp, though McCartney said Cousins understands the business of football and was ready to move on. Cousins called Penix later Thursday night and the two had a “very good conversation,” Penix said Friday.

“It wasn’t very surprising to me,” Falcons safety Jessie Bates III said of drafting another QB. “I knew what type of player [Penix] is.”

Bates said no one from the organization has discussed the pick with the players, and he doesn’t think that would be necessary.

Despite raising eyebrows with the unconventional pick, the Falcons are confident they made the right decision.

“This was the year that [a quarterback] fell to you, and you’re staring at him,” Smith said. “And we followed through with what we’ve said we’d always do within the walls, and that’s pull the trigger. And we feel really good about it.”

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