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'It gets to where you can't wait to turn on the next game:' How Michael Penix Jr. caught the eyes of Falcons evaluators

The Finding Falcons series kicks off with Atlanta’s No. 8 overall pick in the 2024 NFL Draft: quarterback Michael Penix Jr. 

Finding Falcons is a series that ventures beyond Atlanta's decision to draft a specific player and reveals the why behind doing so. Exclusive interviews with Falcons position coaches, area scouts and the decision-makers at the top detail the moments that solidified the decision to draft each of the men who make up their 2024 draft class. For eight consecutive weeks, we'll tell those stories.

Stories by Tori McElhaney


FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Zac Robinson is an avid watcher of college football during any given fall Saturday. Considering his job title as a professional offensive play-caller, perhaps it'd be difficult to turn his head as college games churn round the channel guide on his television.

However, as he watched the Washington Huskies face the Texas Longhorns in the College Football Playoffs on the first day of the year he was impressed. And by one person in particular: Michael Penix Jr., who put on a master class of high-level quarterback play on college football's biggest stage.

"I think after you watch that Texas game, that was when you're kind of like, 'Oh, man, I can't wait to watch the film on this guy and really, really dive into it,'" Robinson remembers thinking.

In that game, a 37-31 victory for Washington, Penix threw for 430 yards and two touchdowns on 29 passes, leading the Huskies to their first national championship appearance in school history.

A couple of months later, that performance ended up in a film cutup for T.J. Yates' pre-draft evaluation reviews. He, too, clung to that Sugar Bowl victory as a lifeline for his intrigue in Penix.

"That Texas game was really the game that solidified for me that this guy is a real dude that has a shot to be a very good pro," the Falcons quarterbacks coach said. "It was some of the pocket work stuff that he did, the way he got the ball out, his accuracy down the field, his drive, his pace, his touch on all those throws. He can make every throw on the field, can touch every part of the field with his arm. And he did it all by not taking any sacks."

In basketball, shooting guards have a heat chart depicting their range and accuracy from the floor. If Penix had a heat chart for his completions on the gridiron in his final year of college football with Washington, the entire field would light up.

And completions are fun, right? Explosive plays are exciting to watch, no? If you were watching Penix the last two years, you'd likely agree.

After all, Penix was the first FBS player to pass for 4,500 yards in back-to-back seasons since Patrick Mahomes did so in his own college days.

Perhaps that's why Yates couldn't stop watching film on Penix, even beyond the playoff game that sold him on Penix's talent.

"You're looking at it back to back. You're watching all these games and doing all these things and the more and more you watch this guy play football, the better it gets," Yates said. "It gets to where you can't wait to turn on the next game to keep looking at some of the things that he's doing."

This evaluation was no surprise to Joel Collier, the Falcons northwest area scout who's been watching Penix for a couple years now.

The Texas game may be the one coaches can't stop raving about, but Collier was locked in on Penix well before then. He visited the Washington campus for the No. 7-ranked Huskies' first bout with the No. 8-ranked Oregon Ducks in the middle of October 2023.

He remembers the game vividly, most notably the environment around him.

The stadium was packed, the fans ravenous for some good football. And oh, did they get it, Collier recalled. The game itself was what college football games are made of: Big plays, key turnovers and constant lead changes all the way to the final 36-33 score. The Huskies came out on top, and it was a battle well worth the price of admission for the fans in the stands.

But what stood out most to Collier as he looked on wasn't the volume of his surroundings nor was it the implication that lone game had on the Pac-12 standings.

No, he noticed Penix.

"He just felt like a pro veteran quarterback," Collier said. "He didn't get flustered. He was very good in the pocket, made really good decisions, and it was a huge game. The atmosphere was like a pro game that might mean something in a playoff situation, to get to a playoff game or something. He handled it like a pro."


Penix's stat line in that Washington win was nearly as impressive as the stat line he would put together months later, on Jan. 1 against Texas. On that October day, as Collier looked on, Penix threw for four touchdowns with 302 passing yards on 22 completions, including the game-winning, 18-yard pass to Rome Odunze with 1:38 remaining.

To call back to Penix's heat chart? Yeah, it lit up that game, too.

"Not every quarterback coming out of college has this these days, but he has great vision downfield," Collier said. "He's able to see the big picture when a lot of guys only see half the field, or they're only keying in on one guy, those kinds of things.

"But this kid, he sees the field in full, and he does a great job of being able to then accurately put the ball where it's supposed to be. That quality is kind of getting lost when it comes to quarterbacks, and that's why it's really special."

Special enough, in fact, for the Falcons to send Yates to the NFL Combine for a meeting with Penix and a large contingent of coaches and front office personnel across the country to Washington for the Huskies' pro day.

Robinson said the Falcons decision-makers who visited Washington returned to Atlanta with the same feeling.

They knew they had someone they'd like to bring to Atlanta. They hoped they had found something special.

Special enough to, eventually, use their No. 8 overall pick on, a decision met with questions and concern from the outside looking in. But a decision internally that was the conviction all along.

"There were multiple moments throughout the process when you realize that he is a special quarterback," Robinson concluded.

We take a look at Michael Penix Jr.'s portraits at Atlanta Falcons headquarters in Flowery Branch after the 2024 NFL Draft.

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