Tampa Bay’s Michael Penix Jr. was ‘big winner’ at NFL scouting combine

TAMPA ― The left-handed quarterback didn’t leave before the workouts began at the NFL scouting combine. While college football’s other top passers opted to wait until their pro days to display their talents, Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. was eager to throw.

Consequently, the former Tampa Bay Tech standout who grew up in Dade City put on a show Saturday. And if he didn’t secure his status as a first-found pick, he won over more than a few teams for his willingness to compete on another big stage.

“Just a chance to show I’m willing to compete at the highest level,” Penix said during his media session. “I’m always willing to compete. This is a game I’ve loved since I was a kid, and any time I get an opportunity to compete I’m going to take that opportunity. No offense to the guys that are not doing it. Everyone has their own reasons. But for me, I don’t pass up an opportunity to compete.”

Albert Breer of Sports Illustrated wrote that Penix “was probably the winner among the quarterbacks” at the combine, based on word from “evaluators that were inside Lucas Oil Stadium on Saturday.”

Displaying a quick release and a buttery-smooth throwing motion, Penix demonstrated his remarkable arm strength and deep-ball accuracy. Those traits had former Bucs head coach Bruce Arians calling Penix the best deep-ball thrower he’s seen in 15 years.

There’s no doubt that USC’s Caleb Williams, LSU’s Jayden Daniels and North Carolina’s Drake Maye — who opted not to work out last week in Indianapolis — will come off the draft board first, but Penix’s stock appears to be rising.

The Bucs had formal interviews with Penix and three other quarterbacks at the combine: Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy, South Carolina’s Spencer Rattler and Tulane’s Michael Pratt. They also had an informal interview with Devin Leary, who played at Kentucky for new Bucs offensive coordinator Liam Coen.

McCarthy and Penix could both be available when the Bucs pick at No. 26 overall. McCarthy was 28-1 in his career, including his win over Penix in the national title game. His combine workout drew mixed reviews as he failed to connect with some receivers.

Rattler did not impress and has bounced between Oklahoma and South Carolina. He and Pratt could go anywhere from Rounds 3-5. Leary is a project and no better than a Day 3 selection.

What figures to hurt Penix’s draft stock are the four injury-plagued seasons he had at Indiana, which included two torn anterior cruciate ligaments. Other players may have walked away from the game.

“Since I was a kid, giving up was never in my blood,” Penix said. “My parents never let me give up or quit anything in my life, so it was always, ‘If you start something, you’re going to finish it.’ I knew that I was never going to give up, but I was going to continue to trust in my faith and trust in the people around me and continue to take it day by day and just enjoy each and every one.”

The buzz concerning medical reports on Penix from the combine were primarily positive. That’s largely because he proved he could stay healthy for two seasons at Washington, going 25-3 and leading the Huskies to a national title game. He finished the 2023 season with 4,903 passing yards, 36 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.

Penix said he didn’t have many teams questioning his medical readiness last week.

“That’s a big reason why I came back for this last season,” he said. “To have another fully healthy season and show that I’m ready to compete and can do it at the next level. At this point, I can’t control if there is still questions about the injury history.”

Bucs general manager Jason Licht said his team puts more emphasis on how Penix has performed recently.

“It’s mostly the film,” Licht said. “I mean, we’ll get the medical. We’ll get the assessments from our medical experts, but mostly it’s the film. He’s had a hell of a two-year career here.”

How serious are the Bucs about Penix, and what would it take for them to draft a quarterback? Some depends on the fate of Baker Mayfield, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent on March 13. Mayfield and the Bucs are trying to reach an agreement on a long-term deal that would keep him in Tampa Bay for at least 2-3 years.

Still, as the 49ers have proven, quarterback is a position teams would be wise to constantly address. If Mayfield were to sign with another team such as Minnesota or Atlanta, the Bucs have only Kyle Trask and John Wolford under contract.

The prospect of returning to Tampa Bay naturally excites Penix.

“I’m a small city country boy, so it’s different,” he said. “When I got to college, it was a lot of cities that I didn’t know about that I got to visit so I’m super blessed for it all. But if I were to be back in Tampa, it would be something special. My family is still there, it would be easy access for them to see me.”

The Bucs have gotten away from the grip-it-and-rip it offense that Arians favored, but Penix says he can adapt.

“I feel like I can fit in with any offense,” he said. “I feel like what I bring to the table is to be able to elevate everybody around me, and I feel like I’ll definitely be able to find ways to win no matter where I go.”

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