Why the Atlanta Falcons took Michael Penix Jr. (and why it’s a mistake)

The Atlanta Falcons shocked the NFL world by taking Michael Penix Jr. at No. 8. The big question everyone is asking is why?
NFL Combine
NFL Combine / Stacy Revere/GettyImages

Shortly after the Atlanta Falcons submitted the card for the No. 8 pick in the 2024 NFL Draft, Ian Rappaport appeared on the broadcast for NFL Network and released some shocking news: the Falcons were considering taking Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr. despite signing veteran quarterback Kirk Cousins during free agency.

The decision surprised the NFL world and many fans and analysts were scratching their heads trying to figure out the logic behind this pick. Unfortunately, this has become far too common with the Falcons’ first-round picks since their general manager Terry Fontenot joined the franchise prior to the 2021 draft.

Year after year, the Falcons have consistently made poor decisions during the NFL Draft that have hurt the team, even if they have added talented players to their roster, simply because they don’t understand the importance of positional value and not making huge reaches, especially in the early rounds. It seems this has not changed.

Let’s dive into why the Falcons took Michael Penix Jr. in the first place and why taking him where they did is a huge mistake.

In defense of taking a quarterback

There are multiple reasons to be shocked by the Falcons’ decision to draft Michael Penix Jr., but the first is that they just signed Kirk Cousins to a multi-year contract so they didn’t need to spend a top-ten pick on the quarterback position.

Head coach Raheem Morris explained their thought process last night

“When you get Kirk Cousins, you talk about short-term winning, winning right now, which we know we’re going to be in position to do,” he said. “We won’t have the ability to be picking this high again with the guy we got, and these guys go off the board pretty quickly.”

Although I have a lot of issues with this pick, I will give Terry Fontenot and his staff credit for being very progressive and thinking years down the road rather than just focusing on the upcoming season. In my opinion, this will generally lead to picks that will help you sustain winning for a longer period of time.

It’s also defensible to take a quarterback top ten even after signing Kirk Cousins. If there is a quarterback on the board who is young and generally viewed as a top-ten player in the class and a potential franchise quarterback, they could be worth the pick.

We have seen teams in recent memory take a quarterback in the first round with plans to sit them for at least a year since they already have a veteran quarterback. The Chiefs taking Patrick Mahomes in 2017 and the Packers taking Jordan Love in 2020 come to mind. These picks worked out for both teams and it has extended their window of being a competitive team. Taking this into consideration, I don’t think taking a quarterback at No. 8 was an awful idea in a vacuum.

However, you can argue that the timing isn’t right because the rookie quarterback will have to sit for two to three years, which is a very long time for your top-ten pick to sit on the bench and not play. However, it could make sense if you take a great quarterback prospect who is young enough that it makes sense for them to sit for multiple seasons. Unfortunately, I don’t think Michael Penix Jr. fits this bill and I question if he is really worth a top-ten pick.

The case against Michael Penix Jr.

While I believe that taking a quarterback at No. 8 made sense if the Falcons took the right player, I firmly believe that Michael Penix Jr. is not the right quarterback for the Falcons to target right now.

First off, did you know Michael Penix Jr. is turning 24 on May 8? This means that if Penix takes over after Kirk Cousins’ time in Atlanta comes to an end, he will be 26, 27, or 28 years old depending on if Cousins plays through his entire contract, retires early, or gets released before the contract ends.

That is hard to wrap my head around. Even if Michael Penix Jr. becomes a serviceable NFL player, his rookie contract will end after his age-28 season. If Kirk Cousins plays through his entire contract with the Falcons, the team will have to decide whether or not to pick up Penix’s fifth-year option without seeing him play a meaningful sample of NFL snaps.

On top of this, when Penix’s rookie contract ends, he will be nearly 29 years old. Would you feel comfortable giving a player this old a big second contract? I wouldn’t, especially if they hadn’t played very much.

Penix’s age is a big reason why this pick is so questionable. However, it’s not the biggest reason. In my opinion, Michael Penix Jr. is not good enough to be a top-ten pick and I would argue the Falcons took the wrong quarterback at No. 8.

When analysts talk about Michael Penix Jr., they typically gloat about his accuracy, his deep ball passing, and his ability to operate from within the pocket. Some of these things I agree Penix does well, but others not so much. In my opinion, Penix is an aggressive pocket passer who loves to throw the ball deep down the field, limits turnovers, and is amazing at avoiding sacks. 

17.9% of his career pass attempts in college were 20+ yards down the field (74th percentile) and he had a career big-time throw rate of 6.6% (78th percentile). Those are good marks and they show that Penix isn’t limited to short throws but is willing to deliver the ball deep down the field.

Unfortunately, a lot of aggressive passers struggle with limiting turnovers, but that is not the case with Penix, who had a career turnover-worthy play rate of just 2.4% (97th percentile). To make things even better, Penix had a career pressure-to-sack rate of just 6.5% (100th percentile), the best mark of any quarterback prospect since 2017. This combination of aggressive deep ball passing, sound decision-making, and elite sack avoidance is extremely valuable.

It’s easy to see why people love Penix because he has a lot of good traits that are extremely valuable. However, he has severe limitations in his profile that terrify me.

My biggest issue with Penix is he isn’t accurate. A lot of people gloat about his accuracy and I’ve heard people talk about him like he was one of the more accurate passers in the draft. This couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Penix had a career-adjusted completion percentage (completion percentage adjusted for drops) of just 73.1% (42nd percentile). His accuracy was great on short throws, but it was below average on intermediate and deep throws. His accuracy was also very different depending on if he faced pressure or not. His accuracy was above average when the pocket was clean, but poor when facing pressure.

I’m also worried about his lack of mobility as his scramble rate and overall rushing production were bad to downright poor across the board. If you want a quarterback who will extend plays outside the pocket and provide some value as a rusher, Penix is not your guy.

While I like Penix’s aggressive playstyle and his polish as a decision-maker and pocket manager, I think his accuracy and limited mobility limit his upside and his floor and could keep him from being a starting quarterback in the NFL. I could overlook his accuracy if he were younger and less experienced because that part of his game could improve if that were the case. Unfortunately, he is an older prospect with a ton of experience so I doubt his accuracy will ever get much better.

These are reasons why Penix was the consensus QB5 in this draft class behind Caleb Williams, Drake Maye, Jayden Daniels, and J.J. McCarthy, who were all top ten players on the consensus big board.

If the Falcons wanted to take a quarterback so badly, I think they should’ve taken J.J. McCarthy. McCarthy is three years younger than Penix, had a much better production profile, and was 23 spots higher on the consensus big board. To be fair, Daniel Flick, an accredited Falcons writer, tweeted that the Falcons had a visit planned with McCarthy, but it got canceled. Perhaps this played a part in the team’s decision to target Penix.

Still, this is a baffling pick and it shows us that the Falcons are way too confident in their evaluations. It’s important to be good at evaluating talent, but being too confident in your evaluations will lead to you reaching for players and making bad decisions that could blow up in your face and cause you to bleed value during the draft.

While I understand the thought process behind drafting a quarterback top ten and commend the Falcons for thinking long-term rather than just being focused on the upcoming season, I think they missed the mark with their first-round pick.

It’s hard to defend picking Penix top ten when he was considered a late first-round pick at best and more likely a second-round pick. For what it's worth, my analytical prospect model, which includes consensus rankings and career production for quarterbacks, viewed Penix as an early second round pick. On the other hand, it gave McCarthy a top-five grade. That’s a tough pill to swallow.

If the Falcons didn’t feel comfortable taking McCarthy at No. 8, they should’ve passed on Penix and let the Raiders draft him. Using a top-ten pick on him is an egregious reach and an example of poor drafting considering his age, significant injury history, and the fact that he will have to sit for multiple years. I would have preferred taking Rome Odunze or a top-ranked defender like Dallas Turner, Quinyon Mitchell, Laiatu Latu, Byron Murphy II, etc.

Hopefully, I’m wrong in my evaluation of Michael Penix Jr. and he has a ton of success in Atlanta. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to ignore how risky this decision is and how poor the process was in making this pick. This shouldn’t be surprising, though, because Terry Fontenot has consistently made egregious picks in the first round of the draft over the last four years. Maybe this is the one pick that’s different, but consider me doubtful.