How the Falcons, Vikings and Broncos Got Their QBs

Michael Penix Jr., J.J. McCarthy and Bo Nix have new homes, and now we will get to see which teams were right about their process. As history tells us, it won’t be every team.
Falcons owner Arthur Blank signed off on drafting Penix, who will play behind Kirk Cousins, who was signed in free agency.
Falcons owner Arthur Blank signed off on drafting Penix, who will play behind Kirk Cousins, who was signed in free agency. / Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

It was closing in on noon on a sunny, mild late-winter morning in Eugene, Ore., and Bo Nix was reaching down to grab his bag as he and the Denver Broncos braintrust were wrapping up three hours of meeting time, and getting set to head out to the field for his workout.


What’s in your backpack? Sean Payton asked.


Nix reached inside, and grabbed a roll of tape that he explained he’d need for his ankles if he were going to train. He also pulled out a spare pair of football cleats and a lacrosse ball that he said he’d use for rolling out his back. And what wasn’t in the bag was just as significant.


Everything was football-related. All of it.


Through the pre-draft process and in particular with quarterbacks, teams dispatch execs, scouts and coaches to cut through the noise. There’s the image projected, and there’s the real guy behind it, and sometimes, they don’t match up. Most of the time, that’s when a team will miss on a prospect. So moments such as the one Payton, Denver GM George Paton and their guys had that morning at Oregon are like gold for NFL teams.


Mostly because it confirmed the reputation that preceded Nix was real. He was the son of an Auburn quarterback who followed his dad’s legacy, struggled, and then built his own on the other side of the country. The 24-year-old had long cut the image of a gym rat, someone who couldn’t get enough football, and in that moment, that morning, the Broncos became true believers.


Thirty-eight days later, to the surprise of many, Denver made Nix the No. 12 pick in the draft. They did so at the conclusion of a process that’s more detailed that many people would believe—and varies from team to team.


So we’re going to lead you through that process with three teams that took quarterbacks, and give you the why to the what we saw play out Thursday night, when five quarterbacks went in the top 10 for the first time ever, and six were gone in the first round for the first time since the vaunted Class of 1983. But rather than focus on the top three quarterbacks, we’re going to dive in on the next three, and give you all the moving parts, and the push and pull, as these organizations grappled with monumental decisions.


The 2024 NFL draft is in the books, and that gives us a lot to get to. So in the takeaways this week, we’re hitting all 32 teams, one after another …

• We’ll dive into the most important Kansas City Chiefs pick.

• We’ll explain why the New York Jets got Aaron Rodgers a bodyguard rather than more skill-position talent.

• We’ll detail the San Francisco 49ers’ curveball of a first-round pick.

But we’re starting right here, with a detailed look at how the Atlanta Falcons, Broncos and Minnesota Vikings got their quarterbacks.


Atlanta Falcons quarterback Kirk Cousins
Cousins signed a four-year, $180 million deal with the Falcons in free agency. / Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

No. 8 Atlanta Falcons | Michael Penix Jr., Washington


Atlanta’s situation, truth be told, was the opposite of the Broncos’ and Vikings’.


Where Denver and Minnesota let pricey veteran quarterbacks go in March, the Falcons paid a king’s ransom to bring one in—lavishing a four-year, $180 million deal ($100 million guaranteed) on Kirk Cousins to lure him from the Vikings. At that point, it seemed to most that GM Terry Fontenot and his new coach, Raheem Morris, had removed themselves from taking a quarterback in the first round.


And Fontenot and Morris wanted to make sure everyone kept thinking that.


We’re all products of our own history, and Fontenot’s included an 18-year run in the Saints’ personnel department. Toward the end of that time, in 2017, he witnessed New Orleans getting a quarterback swiped from right underneath its feet. Picking 11th that year, Payton and GM Mickey Loomis had a huge grade on Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes. They tried to keep it quiet, and they thought they’d succeeded, but they hadn’t done quite enough.


That much was obvious when, after the Chiefs traded up from the 27th pick to No. 10 to steal Mahomes, a Kansas City executive texted someone in the Saints’ war room—Got him! I asked Fontenot about it, and the impact it had on him. He declined to comment. But anyone in that room that night felt the reverberations of missing out on Mahomes, which only grew louder as the ex-Red Raider showed himself to be a once-in-a-lifetime quarterback.


So when Fontenot and I broached “overinvesting” in the position, by signing Cousins to the aforementioned contract and taking a quarterback in the top 10, he politely scoffed.


“It’s unconventional because no one expected it, right?,” Fontenot told me Sunday. “It’s unconventional because that’s human nature, to say we expect something. And we say, This is going to happen, and when someone does something different and more uncommon in terms of what we expect, you say it’s unconventional.”


At the very least, Atlanta’s Thursday night was different.


Fontenot is right to point out that there are fair comps to what the Falcons did, in putting a first-rounder behind a 36-year-old (or so) quarterback. Matt Ryan was 35 when the GM was considering whether to take a quarterback in 2021. Alex Smith was 32 when the Chiefs took Mahomes, and he was 34 when Washington tabbed Dwayne Haskins. Aaron Rodgers was 36 when the Packers drafted Jordan Love.


The difference here, of course, is that Ryan, Smith and Rodgers hadn’t just agreed to sign with those teams in free agency. Which, in the end, really underscores how highly the Falcons thought of Michael Penix Jr., the unquestioned leader of, and Heisman finalist for, a team that played for a national title for the first time in a generation three months ago. It also shows how determined the reworked Falcons braintrust was to fix the position—once and for all.


That process started with the hire of Morris and a staff intentionally loaded with quarterbacking people to safeguard against the sort of poaching the new boss saw his old boss, Sean McVay, go through with the Los Angeles Rams. He didn’t just bring Zac Robinson over from the Rams with him as offensive coordinator, or move T.J. Yates, who played seven NFL seasons at the position, over to quarterbacks coach. He backstopped them with long-time quarterbacking guru Ken Zampese as a senior assistant, and D.J. Williams, son of Doug, as assistant QBs coach.


For all of them, job No. 1 was to get Atlanta ahead on its free-agent and draft evaluations at the position—the hiring process had already cost Morris and Fontenot the shot to see Nix and Penix live at the Senior Bowl. So just as they dug into Cousins, they were looking at Nix, Penix, Caleb Williams, Jayden Daniels, Drake Maye and J.J. McCarthy.


On Penix, specifically, what occurred was, well, exactly what was happening across the NFL. While Fontenot’s scouts already had done a lot of the work, and had live exposure to him at the Sugar Bowl and the Senior Bowl, the five aforementioned coaches added another layer to the work on the sixth-year Washington senior. And, ultimately, the involvement of those coaches (again, as it was with other teams) enhanced how the Falcons viewed Penix.


There are logical reasons, of course. The most frustrating thing for any coach is having a guy with big-time physical tools who simply can’t translate those skills onto the field. So when a coach sees uncoachable traits that fuel that translation, his eyes light up. Long story short, the Falcons’ new staff saw it in Penix’s deep-ball accuracy, his ability to anticipate throws, and how quickly and naturally he processed what was in front of him.


All of it looked easy, too. With some quarterbacks, you’d have to dig through a lot of tape to find examples. With Penix, it was all over the video.


In Penix’s formal interview the Falcons had with him at the combine, he came into the Lucas Oil Stadium suite with an easy confidence about him, and all he was bringing to the table. Where some quarterbacks tensed up when Atlanta drilled down on the tough football questions, Penix almost seemed to get more comfortable, as if his poise in the pocket carried over.


It rubbed off on other guys, too. The Falcons asked prospects who was the hardest worker in Indy, the guy they’d want to emulate. Penix was the answer for a bunch of the quarterbacks. “Not even close,” McCarthy told them. “It’s Penix.”


As part of the plan, the Falcons investigated trading up in Indy. They got flat-out no’s from the Chicago Bears and Washington Commanders. The response from the New England Patriots, on the third pick, was similar, and the Arizona Cardinals told Fontenot that they wouldn’t move the fourth pick until they were on the clock two months later, which only emboldened Atlanta in its plan to pursue Cousins.


Two weeks after landing the ex-Viking, and with the team still evaluating Penix and the other quarterbacks, assistant GM Kyle Smith led a small group of Falcons scouts to Seattle for the Huskies’ March 28 pro day. After Penix ran in the 4.5s in the 40-yard dash on his twice-surgically-paired knee, Smith texted Fontenot—He just ran fast. This guy is gonna go quick. There’d be no waiting to get him in the second round.


If the Falcons wanted him, it was going to have to happen with the eighth pick.


And as the team scheduled a private workout with Penix for April 5, something else happened. There was an excitement on the part of Penix’s camp for the quarterback to learn and develop under Cousins, rather than as a detour to a starting job.


Meanwhile, Maye’s camp declined to do a workout with the Falcons because they were certain he’d be gone by the Falcons’ pick at No. 8, and McCarthy’s team canceled theirs, looking at the landscape and seeing Cousins’s presence as making Atlanta a less realistic, less ideal landing spot. So Penix’s openness to the idea of playing there—Nix and Spencer Rattler also did private workouts for the Falcons—was music to the staff’s ears.


At the workout—with Fontenot, Smith and the five aforementioned coaches on the flight manifest for owner Arthur Blank’s jet that Friday morning—everything, once again, was smooth and easy. Ja’Lynn Polk caught the ball for Penix, who grasped and applied the coaching points. He looked natural throwing the football, and working with staff.


All of that carried into draft meetings, where the Falcons now had to consider whether they could afford to take Penix eighth—the only realistic place to get him—over a pass rusher. In the larger draft meetings, they spoke big picture on Penix, and his plusses and minuses. The actual strategy was reserved for the smaller meetings between Blank, Morris and Fontenot, with Smith the only outside figure privy to the content of those discussions.


The coach and GM explained that taking Penix at No. 8, six weeks after breaking the bank for Cousins, wouldn’t be popular. They then went through the history, which showed, based on their work, that outside of an outlier year such as 2020, only one or two quarterbacks per draft class, and very few drafted outside the top 10, make it. Blank, for his part, had just lived two years in quarterbacking purgatory, and had talked about wanting a succession plan—like he’d have in his other businesses—for Atlanta’s post-Cousins reality.


“If we don’t do a quarterback this year, then what’s going to be there next year? The year after?” Fontenot said to Blank, explaining the murkiness. “When are we going to be able to do it? Are we gonna win for a couple seasons and then not be able to win anymore to pull that off?”


Blank signed off and, days later, Fontenot took a deep breath as the Titans took JC Latham seventh, and the Falcons hit the clock. He and Morris knew what was next. It was time for the team to pick up the phone and call Cousins—with the information they’d tried to keep secret to prevent going through a Mahomes-in-New-Orleans situation—now less sensitive. That conversation wasn’t easy and it’s very fair to argue Cousins deserved more of a heads up—the Vikings telling him they’d probably draft one this year was a factor in his leaving there.


But in the end, with the scars of the past few years in tow, and the lessons of 2017 still there, the GM wasn’t going to do anything to risk alerting anyone else to the Falcons’ plan.


“We do something else right here, and then we win for the next few seasons and then Kirk decides to hang up the cleats, whenever that is, then Michael Penix is somewhere playing at a really high level and we’re in quarterback purgatory, we don’t have a quarterback,” Fontenot says. “We knew in our heart if we had a lot of people in the building that loved him and expected him to be that player, and he’s somewhere else, then that’s unforgivable.”


So, as the GM said, it’s unconventional, because no one expected it. For it to happen, it probably needed to be that way. And if Cousins has two or three great years, and Penix follows that with 10, then no one is going to care about what they had to pay for both quarterbacks.


Of course, Fontenot knows the risk, too, and how the alternate ending can go.


No. 10: Minnesota Vikings | J.J. McCarthy, Michigan

Minnesota Vikings quarterback J.J. McCarthy
McCarthy has won a state championship, a national championship and now he'll be charged with winning the Super Bowl for the Vikings. / Junfu Han/USA TODAY NETWORK / USA TODAY


For the team that lost Cousins, hiding intentions wasn’t a priority because it wasn’t an option. With Sam Darnold, Nick Mullens and 2023 fifth-rounder Jaren Hall on the depth chart, the other 31 teams, and the rest of us, too, knew where the Vikings’ heads were at after their quarterback of the past six seasons bolted for Atlanta.


That said, what Minnesota lacked in drama, it resolved to make up for in detail.


Given his experience as a player, a personal quarterbacking tutor (he worked with Johnny Manziel and Marcus Mariota in their draft years), and then as a quarterbacks coach, offensive coordinator and now head coach, Kevin O’Connell wanted to map out something that would be uniquely the Vikings’ own. And, he was planning it out whether the team lost Cousins or not, knowing that drafting a quarterback would be on the radar either way.


“I looked at it from the very beginning like I wanted to really challenge our organization on the process of drafting a quarterback and all that goes into it,” he told me Sunday. “From the evaluation and the dialogue once everybody’s had a chance to dive into the film, using the combine as a metric and a part of the process, and ultimately organizing those trips to go spend a day with each player was how I saw the process being complete. And it is also one that we could really dive into to start figuring out, not only what the fit would be like, but what it would be like coaching this player, hopefully, for a long time.”


On the front end, that meant assembling a tight circle with O’Connell and GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah for the duration of the process, one that included OC Wes Phillips, quarterbacks coaches Josh McCown and Grant Udinski, pass-game coordinator Brian Angelichio, and some of Adofo-Mensah’s staff (including SVP Ryan Grigson).


O’Connell would be open with his views on a quarterback, telling the others which guys he liked and which he didn’t, in an effort to create an open dialogue, and a more efficient process focused on realistic targets.


After that came the combine, where the Vikings segmented the 15-minute formal interviews with the quarterbacks to cross-check on-field and off-field evaluations (with a little more time allotted to the on-field stuff). Some combination of McCown, Udinski and Phillips, plus scouts, would be at pro days. And, finally, there’d be a detailed on-campus visit where they’d really dive in on who the guys were as players and people.


The first three pieces came together nicely for Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy, who was emerging as a top option for Minnesota, if, as they expected, there was no way to get into the top three, and land Maye.


• On tape, O’Connell said, they saw, “This guy is comfortable playing quarterback in an offense where they did run the football. There was high-quality performance in the play-pass world. His athletic ability showed up. His overall arm strength and accuracy showed up. Then, going back and really siloing third down, red zone, those significant downs where the quarterback play is such a driving force in success; that’s where I started to see some things with J.J. that got me really excited. He made plays in drop-back situations. He handled the rush, both within the pocket and scrambling. Box checked.”


• At the combine, McCarthy opened up to teams about his bout with depression when he left Chicago to play his last high school year at IMG Academy. O’Connell didn’t want to get into any of that, but did say he appreciated McCarthy’s openness in the interview and that the personal stuff was important, because “I want them to know I care about them.” The coach did, though, share one moment from the experience, “At the end, he shook my hand and that was the first time he told me he would run through a brick wall for me.” O’Connell responded, “I appreciate that, but if I ever ask you to run through a brick wall, it’s my fault.”


• The pro day was impressive, to be sure, and McCown and Udinski raved about it to O’Connell and Adofo-Mensah. But beyond just the show McCarthy put on, the head coach loved how he could see the work the quarterback and his throwing coach, John Beck, had put in on display. “The way he was spinning it,” O’Connell says, “the revolutions, the arm strength, the accuracy, some of the polish he had put on the footwork, his base and balance and body position, for a young player, you could see he had really been working on some things with the guys out in California. “


And that led to the final piece of the puzzle for Minnesota. They set up the on-campus visits with Maye, Penix, Nix, Jayden Daniels and McCarthy.


Those days started in a meeting room, where O’Connell and the coaches installed a select group of plays from the Minnesota playbook with the quarterbacks, with a variation of drops, play-action, and movement-game elements, with information sent to the guys ahead of time so they could study. Then, the Vikings had the quarterbacks go through their college pass protections, their rules, their responsibilities, before going through a pre-selected grouping of plays where protection questions arose. Then, O’Connell would double-back with rapid-fire questions on the install they’d conducted.


After about three hours of meeting time, they hit the field for a 75-to-90-minute workout based on the install the quarterbacks had just gone through. Each went through a near-identical process, with the exception of Daniels, who didn’t do the on-field work.


To finish the visit, the Vikings let each quarterback pick a place to go eat with the coaches and scouts. McCarthy took them to the iconic Zingerman’s Delicatessen in Ann Arbor. And as impressive as McCarthy was in the workout, he made just as big an impression at lunch.


“It was pretty crowded at the time, which I liked because it allowed me to see him in a setting around fans, other students,” O’Connell says. “He was very popular, obviously, and super-engaging and friendly—comfortable in his own skin. I thought that was really cool.”


The coach then added, “If you’re going to draft a quarterback you hope is one of the faces of your franchise—and there’s no real evaluation to that—there’s a lot of positives that can come out of it watching them in that setting. J.J. was absolutely that. … I left campus that day thinking that we could build around J.J. McCarthy.”


And now, he will.


No. 12: Denver | Bo Nix, Oregon

Denver Broncos quarterback Bo Nix
Nix had 45 touchdown passes and only three interceptions for the Ducks in 2023. / Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports


Everyone knew the Broncos needed a quarterback. But no one was sure, given their position, and the likelihood that at least four quarterbacks would be gone by the time they picked, just how serious they’d get about selecting one once the draft got started.


So like the Falcons, and his old colleague Fontenot, and with that same experience from 2017, Payton worked with Paton to keep the circle small on the Broncos’ true intentions.


Still, Denver could only control so much. And that led to some grimaces early in the process when two guys who’d played for Payton in New Orleans—Fox college football analyst Joel Klatt and the recently retired Chase Daniel—identified Nix as a perfect fit. Seeing that, as they worked through the evaluations, prompted Payton to say to team CEO Greg Penner and his GM, “I promise you this: We’re not the only ones that feel this strongly about this player.”


It’s just that the group that did feel that way was probably smaller with Nix than it was with Maye or Penix or McCarthy, or certainly Williams or Daniels, and it was good with the Broncos if things stayed that way. And there was a twist that helped Denver in that regard.


Oregon scheduled its pro day for March 12, the day between the opening of the free-agent tampering period—when teams start agreeing to deals with veterans on the market—and the start of the new league year, when those teams can officially sign them. As such, just one head coach, Chicago’s Matt Eberflus, made it to Eugene to see Nix throw. He, of course, wasn’t taking Nix. And there wasn’t a single general manager in attendance.


The Broncos sent scouts, and got the tape, and what was eye-opening to those who really watched it was the free-flowing nature of the workout. Nix hadn’t had the best Senior Bowl week, and threw after Tennessee’s human Juggs machine, Joe Milton, at the combine, where it looked to scouts like he was guiding the ball a bit. Back in Eugene, though, his 72-throw session was marked with Nix asking evaluators what they wanted to see.


Where most pro days are a night at the movies, this was a night at the improv.


Nix was determined to answer every question.


For his part, before all this, Paton had four live exposures to Nix—once while Nix was still at Auburn, in 2022 at Colorado, last fall at USC and then at the Pac-12 title game. But he and his scouts kept their thoughts from Payton on the quarterbacks, so that Payton could do his own evaluation. It was only after college director Brian Stark and area scout David Bratten relayed their impressions from the pro day to Paton that Payton spilled the beans to his GM.


“I really like this guy,” he told them. And by then, the Broncos analytics staff backed up those feelings with hard facts. I’d heard from another team that the analytics had Nix as the draft’s most statistically impressive quarterback. Denver, clearly, saw it that way, too, based on what its own analytics director, Scott Flaska, was bringing back to the football brass.


To combat the (fair) criticism that Nix came from such a screen/quick-game-heavy offense, they eliminated throws tagged as “givens” from the evaluation, as they did with all of the quarterbacks. From there, Payton and Paton got extensive, expansive advanced stats that elevated Nix above his peers. He was first in two-minute drills needing points, end-of-half two-minute drives, critical fourth-quarter two-minute drives, fourth quarter two-minute, and, importantly, negative play differential. He was second (to Rattler) in red-zone passing.


All of it, as the coach and GM saw it, was a result of a quarterback who played fast, and team-first, and could serve as the sort of point-guard-on-grass Payton has always coveted. It was something the Broncos needed, too, coming off a year through which Russell Wilson was second in the league (ahead of only Justin Fields) in time taken to throw per attempt, per Denver’s research.


So with all of these pieces, and a March 7 Zoom, plus the pro day done, Payton and Paton gathered a group to run the private-workout gamut. Each one would kick off with the quarterback getting a packet around 5 p.m. the night before to study, and be grilled on it the next morning. The visit would then begin in earnest around 9 a.m. the following day, with two hours in the classroom followed by a break and then a 75–80-throw workout.


The Broncos’ dance card for these visits had Nix, McCarthy, Maye and Rattler on it, with the team going to Penix’s pro day in lieu of the full on-campus treatment.


Upon arriving at the Oregon football facility on the morning of March 18 at around 9 a.m., Payton asked Nix how long he’d been there. He answered that he’d gotten there about an hour beforehand and, sizing him up, the Broncos folks (Payton and Payton were joined by assistant GM Darren Mougey, VP of player personnel Cody Rager, OC Joe Lombardi and QBs coach Davis Webb) saw a guy who was flat-out bigger than advertised.


He was stocky in his lower half, and had big hands. Solidly built, he left very little to wonder how he was able to play with such great control—he never fumbled over two years at Oregon.


The mental part followed. The information, and Denver intentionally gave the quarterbacks a little too much, was basically the first three days of an offensive install. Broncos center Alex Forsyth, a 2023 rookie who played with Nix in 2022, and who’s proven to be football brilliant himself, raved to the Denver staff about his former teammate’s intelligence. That most certainly checked out with Nix’s recall for everything Denver had sent him.


Then, he grabbed that backpack, emptied it for Payton, packed it back up, and went outside with the coaches to throw.


Webb ran the workout, and Denver wanted to confirm what it saw on tape—that the arm strength, while short of the truly elite guys, was very good, and his accuracy was on another level. The Broncos QBs coach also wanted to simulate a noisy pocket, and see Nix’s ability to move around, and throw with things muddy around him. All that was on tape stood up, with Nix throwing to WR Troy Franklin and RB Bucky Irving, and around 10 of his ex-teammates there to support him (which affirmed what the Broncos heard about Nix as a pied piper).


With that complete, the Broncos retreated for final draft meetings. Payton, Paton and Penner by then knew where things stood on Nix. They also knew they had to keep it to themselves. So on the board in the Denver draft room, all of the quarterbacks were stashed on the bottom left corner, in no particular order, both to prevent any sort of bias in discussion and also, simply, to keep the brass’ secret.


Enough people, by then, had connected the dots to where Denver had to be careful. Which is one reason why the Broncos stayed where they were at 12, resisting a trade back, and had mild concern that the Raiders could leapfrog them. Once Penix went at No. 8, that killed any idea of a trade down, since it took that option off the table for a Vegas group that had been linked to the Washington QB. Denver was locked in, fingers crossed that nothing would change.


And nothing did. Penix went 8, McCarthy 10 and Nix 12.


Would it have been nice to get an extra Day 2 pick and Nix? Sure. But if he’s what Payton and Paton think he can be, which is a lot more than most NFL folks believe he will be, then it won’t matter much what Denver gave up to get him.


As is the case with all of these teams that selected quarterbacks.


“It is the most important position in pro sports, and if you don’t have one, I don’t care what you have around it, it’s not going to matter.”

Falcons GM Terry Fontenot


If anything, what we just watched unfold over two hours Thursday night, is only another reflection of the ever-growing importance of the quarterback position.


In today’s NFL, you either have one, or you don’t.


“It is the most important position in pro sports,” Fontenot says, “and if you don’t have one, I don’t care what you have around it, it’s not going to matter.”


Fontenot and Payton saw it together in New Orleans for 18 years with Drew Brees. And both have seen the other side since. O’Connell, on the other hand, has seen varying degrees of it, over two stints with Cousins, a year with Dwayne Haskins, and the transition from Jared Goff to Matthew Stafford in Los Angeles.


So they all know every little piece of information picked up is valuable and to be protected.


The past few months were a vivid illustration of it with all three of their teams.


With all of that work and research and strategy deployed, now we get to see who was right. And, really, there’s only one thing we know for sure: As history tells us, it won’t be everyone.

Published |Modified
Albert Breer