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COLUMN: Falcons' first-round pick of Michael Penix Jr. indicates they're not willing to make the same mistake twice

Atlanta already has Kirk Cousins under contract for four years. Now, the team potentially has something Matt Ryan never had: a successor. 

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The Falcons didn't have a known succession plan in place when Matt Ryan entered his twilight years as an NFL quarterback. What transpired after the 2021 season ended -- Ryan's final with the Falcons -- is at best a game of musical chairs at the passer position and at worst a discombobulated attempt to build a bridge from the Ryan era in Atlanta to... whatever came next.

The Falcons were not going to let that happen again. The selection of quarterback Michael Penix Jr. with the No. 8 overall pick in the 2024 NFL Draft after just signing veteran quarterback Kirk Cousins to a four-year deal valued at $180 million is proof.

In the 2021 NFL Draft, the Falcons held the No. 4 overall pick. Ryan, meanwhile, had a couple years left on a contract loaded with dead money and a huge salary cap hit. So, the chance to enact a succession plan with a draft pick was there. Atlanta didn't capitalize on the opportunity, instead drafting Kyle Pitts. It's a decision that greatly affected the next three offseasons, including the current.

After a 7-10 season in 2021, the Falcons were back in the quarterback conversation. This time, the conversation revolved around a failed pursuit to reportedly pick up Deshaun Watson and the subsequent trade of Ryan to the Indianapolis Colts in exchange for a third-round pick. The Falcons took all of Ryan's dead money on the chin that year. At the time, it was the largest dead-money hit in history. The day after they packaged Ryan to Indianapolis, they signed Marcus Mariota. Later, they drafted Desmond Ridder with the No. 74 overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft.

Neither Mariota nor Ridder are in Atlanta any longer.

It goes without saying, Mariota didn't work out. He went 5-8 and was benched for Ridder in the final four games of the season. The second-year quarterback was then given the reins to the offense in 2023, then loaded with Drake London, Bijan Robinson, Tyler Allgeier and a stout offensive line.

It goes without saying, things didn't work out with Ridder, either. He went 6-7 and was benched for Taylor Heinicke twice over the final half of last season, making his way back to the starting lineup when Heinicke sustained a hamstring injury first and an ankle injury second.

If the succession plan for Ryan was Mariota... then Ridder... then Heinicke... over the course of two seasons, well, then the Falcons followed it to a T. That probably wasn't what anyone would call "Plan A," though. And it was a plan -- or development, perhaps -- that may have cost a head coach his job.

And this isn't my thought. It's Raheem Morris' from February.

"If we had better quarterback play last year in Atlanta, I might not be standing here," Morris said at the NFL Combine.

Now, the Falcons find themselves in a completely different realm.

When the Falcons hired Morris as the team's next head coach, he and general manager Terry Fontenot said very quickly that their plan was to be aggressive in pursuit of their next QB1. Aggression showed up on the first day of the legal tampering period in March, when the Falcons agreed to terms with Cousins.

Then, on the first day of free agency, their starting quarterback was in the building, discussing all the reasons he was excited to be a Falcon, to be in Atlanta.

Next, the Falcons reportedly restructured Heinicke's contract, saving money toward the salary cap and keeping Heinicke in town for another year as a backup. They had not one but two quarterbacks in the room with significant starting caliber experience. One boasts more than the other, sure, but Cousins is making the money he is for a reason.

The Falcons were set at the quarterback position for this year. But therein lies the conundrum: They didn't have a succession plan in place.

Heinicke is on the second year of a two-year deal. He's not your answer. And Cousins? Yeah, he'll be in Atlanta for a while. He signed a four-year deal with a no-trade clause and $100 million fully guaranteed. He's QB1. Of course he is. What happened in the first round of the 2024 NFL Draft doesn't change that.

However, when the dust settles and the sun sets on Cousins' time in Atlanta, whether that's three or four years from now, what then? Who do you turn to?

The last thing the Falcons want is to bring back the situation they just worked their way out of. They had to evolve and learn from the mistakes of before. Drafting Penix? Perhaps it's the Falcons indicating they're not willing to make the same mistake twice.

In 2024, the Falcons believe they had to give Cousins something Ryan never had: a successor.

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