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Rookie minicamp report: QB Michael Penix Jr. staying true to himself, putting the work in

Plus notes and observations from the open practice period. 

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Slipping on a No. 9 jersey is nothing new to Michael Penix Jr.

The Atlanta Falcons quarterback has donned that number since he was 4 years old. There's photo proof.

"It's always been No. 9 for me," Penix said.

The choice is a nod to his uncle, who played football for the University of South Florida, and a thanks for the invitation to his first-ever collegiate game.

Penix carried No. 9 himself through high school, college and pros. The latest became official Friday, when Penix took to the practice field for the first day of the Falcons' three-day rookie minicamp. Atlanta drafted Penix with the No. 8 overall pick only two weeks ago.

"This is something I've been dreaming of since I was a kid," Penix said. "Now that I'm here, I want to continue to prove myself every day. Show not just myself but the team, I'm here. I'm here to work and here to help this team win football games anyway that I can."

That includes being the backup.

The Falcons already had their starting quarterback for 2024 when they brought in Penix. Veteran Kirk Cousins signed a four-year $180 million contract back in March. Head coach Raheem Morris has never wavered in his claim that Cousins is QB1 of the present.

Penix, then, is the future.

As if Penix didn't already have attention on him as a first-rounder, he has even more with any mention of potential field time.

"I feel like at this level – in the NFL – everybody is in the spotlight," Penix said. "You got to prove yourself each and every day. That's the beauty of it. That's the beauty of this game. And that's why it's so rare for guys to make it. Like it's the 1%. So, you want in the spotlight.

"For me, I'm just going to be myself each and every day. Not try to be anybody else. Just go out there and put in the work I've always done. The results will show."

It's too early for any actual results to show, but Penix got about an hour's worth of work in Friday with quarterbacks coach T.J. Yates and his assistant, D.J. Williams. During the open-viewing period, Penix and fellow rookie passer John Paddock (an undrafted free agent) threw passes solely with their coaches and then also with the tight ends and wide receivers.

So far, Penix feels good about what he has learned. Though he knows there's more ahead of him, especially when his sole goal is to improve.

"That's what it's about, being a student of the game," Penix said. "You have to soak in as much information as you can, especially at this level. It only gets harder. Each and every level that you go up, it's going to get harder. But I'm ready for it."

Penix and his fellow rookies have two days of minicamp still ahead of them. Veterans can join next week, as Organized Teams Activities begin Monday.

Even if he's wearing his first-ever NFL jersey.

"I'm here now," Penix said. "I can't sit here and be starstruck no more. I got to produce."

Michael Penix Jr. during the 2024 Rookie Minicamp at the Atlanta Falcons Training Facility in Flowery Branch, Georgia, on Friday, May 10, 2024. (Photo by Shanna Lockwood/Atlanta Falcons)

Tori McElhaney's notes, observations from practice

Eyes on the tryout guys: Along with the draft picks and UDFA class, the Falcons invited 13 tryout players to rookie minicamp Friday. The practice also saw nine veteran players participating in minicamp, too. The entire list of rookie minicamp attendees can be found in the tweet below. However, it is important to make note that the non-tryout veterans are already actively on the Falcons roster. That list includes players like WR Chris Blair, CB Natrone Brooks, S Lukas Denis, OL Barry Wesley and RB Carlos Washington Jr.

Speaking to the media prior to Friday's practice, head coach Raheem Morris said this practice is just as much for those players as it is for the draft picks, UDFAs and rookie tryout players in attendance.

"Give them some real, legitimate (opportunities) to have some movement, some things put on tape that we can look at and evaluate from a coaching and scouting standpoint in order to add people to our football team," Morris said. "I believe we are at 86, including our extra (international player). So, that allows us to get five more spots, so to speak, in order to get ready to go to camp."

Morris said he essentially looks at the "tryout camp" as being one singular day, Friday. He said the tryout group will be narrowed down quickly before an "acclimation" day Saturday, which involves more position group and unit meetings, per Morris. The head coach said of the tryout group, there are a few who really interest him.

"It's a lot of people our scouts and our guys did a lot of really hard work going out and looking for them, and we were strategic," Morris said. "We didn't just bring in 70 bodies so we could hold a full-blown practice or anything like that. It was all guys we wanted to get some evaluations of and of their skills."

Some tryout players I took note of just based on measurables, name recognition from college and what I saw in 30 minutes of practice against air (so, grain of salt here): Texas wide receiver Tarik Black, Arizona safety Dane Cruikshank, Houston outside linebacker David Anenih and Utah defensive lineman Bradlee Anae.

An update on Kirk Cousins: Even though rookie minicamp is, well, usually all about the rookies, it was still important Morris updated everyone on QB1's rehab. Every day, Morris said, Cousins is improving in his return from a season-ending Achilles injury in 2023. Because the Falcons are in Phase 2 of the offseason programs, it means there is no contact. It's basically a walk-through when they do get to go out on the field.

"There's nobody around him, there's no contact. He's all good with all of those type of things," Morris said. "He's been throwing. He's been out there, pretty much, full-go. We got him in a limited basis because he is still in his rehab and treatment and all those type of things, but he will be doing a lot of those things when we get back because we won't be having a lot of people in the pocket. Most of this stuff is jog through. ... We will limit what he does as far as the amount but not necessarily what he is doing with where we are at and what we are capable of doing right now."

In-all, Morris said the Falcons are pleased with Cousins' recovery thus far.

Roll call: The only draft pick not at practice Friday was running back Jase McClellan. The Falcons' No. 186 overall pick is still working through a pre-draft foot injury. It's something former Alabama head coach Nick Saban said he was dealing with throughout majority of his senior season with the Crimson Tide. He missed the SEC championship game but returned for the Rose Bowl. The Falcons chose to have him work inside Friday instead of out on the field.

Finding routine and rhythm: Morris said a major piece of this weekend and the coming OTA practices with the veterans involves getting the new faces acclimated to the way the building and the schedule runs. Morris spoke extensively on this idea.

"Helping them develop their routine right now is our job as coaches," Morris said. "And once the vets come in, it's their job to find a vet or a couple that they follow in order to find their own rhythm and routine."

For defensive tackle Ruke Orhorhoro, those people are Grady Jarrett and David Onyemata. He joked he has heard Jarrett's name frequently thanks to his Clemson connection with the long-time Falcon defensive tackle.

"It was always Grady, Grady, Grady. Coach (Dabo) Swinney would talk about him all the time," Orhorhoro said through a laugh.

There is nothing Orhorhoro said he's looking forward to more than learning from Jarrett.

As for other rookies, many said they're looking forward to working around Cousins. Wide receiver Casey Washington and inside linebacker JD Bertrand specifically called out the veteran quarterback when asked about the veterans returning to the field with them after the weekend.

Kyle Pitts back at it again: For the first time since the Falcons extended Kyle Pitts' fifth-year option to him after the 2024 NFL Draft, Morris was asked about the year ahead for Pitts. Morris said make no mistake about it: Pitts is very excited about being healthy, and so are the Falcons.

"Getting a healthy Kyle Pitts back gives you a very dynamic player that we believe in a lot. Hence the picking up his option for -- hopefully -- our immediate and long-term future," Morris said. "... We all know what he could be, and that's the job of a coach, right? To find out what a player can be and go get the best out of him. Hopefully, myself along with all of our coaches, we can go get the best version of Kyle Pitts because that will be really good for all of us."

Take a look at the new faces in Flowery Branch as the rookies practice during minicamp.

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