Was Drafting Michael Penix Jr. to Back Up Kirk Cousins Really That Crazy?

The Falcons may have just been two steps ahead of the rest of the NFL

Michael Penix Jr. throws the ball.
Michael Penix Jr. went from being a Husky to a Falcon.
Alika Jenner/Getty

Leading up to last week’s NFL Draft, the Falcons had used their top selection on an offensive player for three years in a row, selecting running back Bijan Robinson (No. 8 overall) in 2023, wide receiver Drake London (No. 8 overall) in 2022 and tight end Kyle Pitts (No. 4 overall) in 2021. Though Pitts was fortunate enough to play his rookie season with veteran Matt Ryan at quarterback, Atlanta traded the former MVP to the Colts prior to the 2022-23 season leaving London and Robinson to subsist with Marcus Mariota (5–8), Desmond Ridder (8-9) and Taylor Heinicke (1–3) playing the most important position in American pro sports.

The Falcons, who fired their former head coach Arthur Smith over the offseason and opted to go with Raheem Morris instead of Bill Belichick to run their team after Atlanta owner Arthur Blank got some input from Patriots owner Robert Kraft, opted to stop riding the quarterback carousel in March and signed former Commander and Viking Kirk Cousins to a four-year, $180 million deal with $100 million guaranteed. A clear upgrade at the quarterback position despite having a 1-4 record in the postseason, Cousins is set to get $90 million in 2024-25 with another $10 million coming in 2026.

And, since it’s guaranteed cash, Cousins will be getting all of it. Following Atlanta making headlines by taking QB Michael Penix Jr. at No. 8 overall in the first round of the NFL Draft on Thursday night, the question now is whether Cousins is going to get paid to take snaps or hold a clipboard on Sundays.

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On the surface, the prospect of Atlanta using Penix over Cousins seems preposterous. Cousins, 35, was signed to be the starting-caliber Atlanta has been lacking since trading Ryan and is getting paid like it. And since so much of the money Cousins has allotted to Cousins is guaranteed, there’s really no way Atlanta can cut him to get off the hook financially. At the least, Atlanta has to keep Cousins for two seasons to even remotely justify paying him what would amount to $50 million annually.

On the other hand, Cousins is 35 years old, coming off a torn ACL and no longer has star receiver Justin Jefferson at his disposal. Will he be the same Pro Bowl-caliber player he was in Minnesota? There’s no way to truly know until training camp opens and no way to be sure until regular-season games begin in September. Already bold in signing Cousins to a hefty contract, the Falcons invested even more brashly in the quarterback position with the drafting of Penix, who does carry some risk as he’s been hurt multiple times and will be 24 before the season starts.

Penix, due to his age and experience level, should be on the field sooner rather than later for the Falcons to maximize the value of having a starting quarterback on an extremely affordable rookie contract. The presence of Cousins on the roster could make getting that to happen difficult, awkward and open to second-guessing, but it doesn’t make it impossible. And, especially given Cousins’ age and ACL, Penix playing in the near future is a legitimate possibility, despite what Morris has to say about it.

“Kirk does not have to look over his shoulder every time he throws a bad pass. Like, that is not the case,” he said following the drafting of Penix. “So I know I’m going to have to tell you guys once or twice that that is not the case. Like, we are here to go win, and we are here to go win it all. We are here to win as much as we can win.”

And if playing Penix over Cousins gets that to happen, that’s what the Falcons will do — and pay handsomely for the privilege of doing so. It wouldn’t be a very conventional move, but it also wouldn’t be that crazy as long as they win.

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