NFL Draft: Falcons better hope Michael Penix Jr. is worthy successor to Kirk Cousins after baffling pick

DETROIT — Last month, the Atlanta Falcons decided to solve their quarterback issues by signing Kirk Cousins to a four-year, $180 million contract, with $100 million of it guaranteed.

It made sense. It excited fans. It fired up the roster.

The Falcons had gone 7-10 while dealing with some disastrous quarterback play from Desmond Ridder. So why not bring in a veteran quarterback to lead a young and talented team in a winnable division and see what happens?

Oh, and Atlanta owned the eighth pick in the NFL Draft to add a difference-maker on offense or grab a game-wrecking edge rusher. Or just trade back and add multiple players.

Instead, the Falcons drafted quarterback Michael Penix Jr. out of the University of Washington.

What? Why?

"We're gonna build a sustained winner," general manager Terry Fontenot said. "We're gonna win for a long time. That's the most important position in football."

Make no mistake, Penix is a heck of a football player. He was at Indiana, who he led to Big Ten relevance. He was at UW, who he led to the national title game. He made throws, made plays and won games. He might be great. No one can ever predict these things.

But why would you draft a quarterback when you just signed a quarterback?

A succession plan, evidently. An eventual replacement for Cousins, who reportedly was surprised by the move and informed of it only while the Falcons were on the clock.

In the run-up to the draft, Fontenot discussed the desperation of trying to acquire franchise quarterbacks and suggested this move was possible.

"[The] Green Bay model was something that we talked about," head coach Raheem Morris said Thursday, "and it's been proven to be right last year. So hopefully we'll be right with them."

Well, yes, Green Bay has seamlessly gone from Brett Favre to Aaron Rodgers to Jordan Love — basically 1992 to present — by employing the idea of drafting the replacement while the star is still there.

But Aaron Rodgers was the 24th pick in 2005 and Jordan Love went 26th in 2020.

That isn’t No. 8 overall.

And even then those were controversial picks. In the end, the Packers had Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers and got only two Super Bowl championships out of it. Could another bump of talent have changed that?

Rodgers certainly thought so. Here’s guessing some Falcons do as well right now. It isn’t fans and media that Fontenot needs to win over on this decision. It’s the locker room.

Taking Penix this high in the draft despite quarterback not being a position of need suggests the Falcons see him as a franchise guy. But barring injury, with Cousins’ contract, he’s two, three or even more years away from seeing the field. Cousins is 35, so he may still go for awhile.

The Falcons took Washington QB Michael Penix Jr. as an apparent successor to Kirk Cousins. (Photo by Brandon Sloter/Image Of Sport/Getty Images)
The Falcons took Washington QB Michael Penix Jr. as an apparent successor to Kirk Cousins. (Photo by Brandon Sloter/Image Of Sport/Getty Images)

Generally speaking, there are two ways to handle the quarterback position in the NFL. You pay a proven guy big money and take the salary-cap hit, or you go with a rookie and benefit from four cheap years on the rookie deal, using the extra cap space to load up the roster around him.

In this case, Atlanta chose … both?

Penix is not a young quarterback in need of seasoning, either. He played six seasons of college football, two of them ending with ACL injuries and the NCAA’s COVID-19 year extending his time on campus.

He appeared in 48 games, starting 45 of them. He threw 1,685 career passes. He competed in the Big Ten and Pac-12, not to mention two College Football Playoff games.

He turns 24 on May 8, meaning, at 23 years and 252 days old, he is one of the 10 oldest quarterbacks ever selected in the first round.

He has seen a thing or two. This is about as veteran as a draft pick gets. Yet he's there to hold a tablet and watch?

Reaction to the Michael Penix Jr. pick by the Atlanta Falcons wasn't popular.
Reaction to the Michael Penix Jr. pick by the Atlanta Falcons wasn't popular.

He arrives in Atlanta amid puzzlement — a possible long-term solution for a team everyone thought was focused on short-term goals like winning the NFC South.

The big-money free agent is in place for now. The top-10 pick, which could have bolstered the team on the field each Sunday, is gone. Questions and doubts will loom.

Maybe it somehow works out and Cousins wins big and then hands the baton to a fully prepared Penix to continue the excellence.

For Atlanta, it better.