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The Falcons were dumb for drafting Michael Penix Jr. in the first round

Few teams have drawn universal criticism for how they went about their business in the just-completed 2024 NFL Draft, but the Atlanta Falcons are one of them.

The marks that the pundits have given Atlanta are pretty bad, but if I had to put a grade on it, I’d use four letters: D.U.M.B.

Why? Mainly because of the selection of Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr. with the eighth overall pick. And this is no knock against Penix, who finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting in 2023 before leading the Huskies to the national title game. Playing his first four seasons in Indiana, Penix had a fine career for two different programs over six years. He passed for a combined 9,544 yards over his final two seasons at Washington–he led the nation in that category in both 2022 and 2023–and 67 touchdowns. Penix passed for 13,741 yards for his career while throwing 96 touchdowns to only 34 interceptions. He was obviously a first-round prospect heading into the 2024 NFL Draft.

Plus, he’s left-handed. As a fellow lefty, I want Penix to do well.

But that doesn’t mean the Falcons should have drafted him, not after signing veteran Kirk Cousins to a four-year, $180 million contract on March 13, with $100 million fully guaranteed through the 2026 campaign.

I realize Cousins suffered an Achilles injury that cut short his 2023 season after eight games, and I also know that he’ll be 36 by the time the season starts. Still, if an organization makes that kind of financial commitment to a quarterback, it signals to him and the football world that it is ready to do what it can to win now.  Peyton Manning missed all of the 2011 season after having major neck surgery, and the Colts released him in the offseason. Yet, despite the injury and his age (36), Manning was a highly-coveted free agent in 2012, and Denver inked him to a five-year deal worth $96 million. The Broncos did this because the Tim Tebow experiment failed, and they thought they had a team good enough to compete for a title. They didn’t confuse the situation by going out and drafting another quarterback in the first round. No, Manning was their man.

The Broncos went to two Super Bowls and won one of them during Manning’s four-year run in Denver, so the strategy clearly worked.

Why would the Falcons make that kind of commitment to Cousins if they had any intention of drafting a quarterback in the first round? I could see if Penix was considered to be a generational talent on par with John Elway, Manning, Michael Vick, Andrew Luck or Joe Burrow, but he wasn’t. And he obviously wasn’t the consensus top pick heading into the draft. No disrespect to Penix, but there are quarterbacks of his caliber available to be picked in the first round every year. This isn’t to say he can’t be good, but he’s not thought of as a sure thing, either.

Speaking of the consensus number-one pick, if Atlanta had a bad enough 2023 season to be in a position to select Caleb Williams, there is no way it would have signed Cousins to such a lucrative deal. Instead, the Falcons were coming off their third-straight 7-10 finish. Believe it or not, that record was good enough to contend for the mediocre NFC South Division the past two years. The signing of Cousins could be what puts the Falcons over the top in their division. Why not build around Cousins? Why not use the eighth-overall pick to get him a playmaker? Heck, draft a potential impact player on defense. Just do something that could potentially pay dividends in 2024.

I understand the desire to have a succession plan in place at quarterback, but if the Falcons went into the offseason looking to sign a veteran quarterback AND draft one in the first round, why not go after Russell Wilson? I’m not saying Wilson is as good as Cousins, but I don’t think the gap is that huge. Atlanta could have signed Wilson for $1.2 million, while the Broncos picked up the rest of his $38 million tab for 2024. Maybe Wilson isn’t on par with Cousins at this point, but I could still see Atlanta being a strong contender in the NFC South with the latter at quarterback this coming season.

Maybe Penix would be ready in 2025, and if he was, Atlanta could easily say goodbye to Wilson. But how can the Falcons sit Cousins over the next two years? Aren’t they obligated to play him no matter what? $100 million guaranteed, baby.

In the meantime, the clock is ticking on Penix and his rookie contract.

Maybe you’re a Falcons fan or NFL pundit who is highly offended that I tried to put Wilson in the same class of quarterback as Cousins just now. OK, fine, but doesn’t that prove my point even more?

For his part, Cousins was said to be shocked when the Falcons called him during the first round of the draft to let him know they were selecting Penix Jr. I can’t say that I blame Cousins for this. While many shared Cousins’ disbelief, ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith called him out the very next day, criticizing him for his lack of playoff success despite his career earnings and basically saying that he should take his $100 million and be quiet.

True, Cousins, whose career earnings reached $231.6 million before inking a new deal with Atlanta, has made a ton of money as an NFL quarterback for both Washington and Minnesota despite only having one playoff win. But he’s still a competitor.

You don’t think Cousins wants to shed the label of being a quarterback who can’t win in the postseason? Yes, he’s made a ton of cash, but he’s essentially this era’s Tony Romo. Cousins now has multi-generational wealth, but unless he wins a Super Bowl, he’s only going to be known for his career earnings and starring in a Netflix docuseries called Quarterback. 

In my opinion, you can only make one huge commitment to the quarterback position at a time; you can either pay someone a ton of money or draft someone in the first round.

You can’t do both.

The Falcons have done both during the 2024 offseason, and I won’t be surprised if it blows up in their face.

Some franchises just can’t get out of their own way, and the Falcons seem to be one of them.


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