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Falcons ownership endorsed the Michael Penix Jr. pick and put Kirk Cousins on the clock. Now what?

In Sports
April 29, 2024

Three days after the shocking draft pick crashed into other NFL franchise war rooms like a wrecking ball coming through an adjacent wall, the Atlanta Falcons’ rationale for selecting Michael Penix Jr. at No. 8 overall has been cemented.

The question now is what it means for the remainder of Kirk Cousins’ career.

Publicly and privately, the Falcons’ messaging surrounding their selection of Penix less than two months after signing Cousins to a four-year, $180 million deal are some version of this: Penix has a rare talent that Atlanta believes it will need sooner or later, so the franchise took him while it still had the chance. And the most important part of that decision: Team owner Arthur Blank signed off on it. This is what multiple sources with knowledge of the decision told Yahoo Sports, including those aligned with the Falcons, Penix and Cousins, whose career has now seemingly been locked into a countdown in Atlanta.

Gone is the notion that Blank was somehow in the dark when it came to the Falcons’ plans to target Penix, which became a point of vague speculation after general manager Terry Fontenot was captured on Atlanta’s war room video feed having an animated discussion with the club owner following the pick.

In the midst of the moment, it looked like Fontenot might be explaining the stunning selection to Blank, particularly to the outside world and some other NFL teams that never saw the pick coming. That attitude was best encapsulated by one personnel source who texted a six-word question during the draft.

“Is Terry trying to get fired?”

No, Fontenot wasn’t trying to get fired. And no, Blank wasn’t in the dark.

What that feed of Fontenot’s animated post-pick conversation with Blank failed to show was what happened in Atlanta’s war room moments earlier. Specifically, Blank sitting with Fontenot and head coach Raheem Morris as they called Penix to congratulate him on the selection, and Blank taking the phone at one point and telling the quarterback, “We’re excited you’ll be a Falcon and look forward to the continued success of your incredible career. … We appreciate you.”

By the time the pick was announced and jaws had dropped across the NFL, Blank was already shaking hands in the war room. The unfolding scene, at the very least, spoke volumes about Cousins’ standing. Despite a contract that will dole out $100 million in guaranteed money through the 2025 season, his standing as the team’s starting quarterback will be under constant review from this point forward. Much like the standing of Penix as the team’s backup.

Atlanta Falcons first round draft choice quarterback Michael Penix Jr., speaks during a news conference Friday, April 26, 2024, in Flowery Branch, Ga. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

In short, the money has been paid to Cousins and the draft pick has been invested on Penix. The sunken cost is established and irreversible. Now it’s up to Cousins to keep the debate to a minimum. Much like it was with Drew Brees when the then-San Diego Chargers acquired rookie Philip Rivers in the 2004 NFL Draft. Much like it was for Alex Smith when the Kansas City Chiefs traded up and selected Patrick Mahomes in 2017. And much like it was when Brett Favre was earmarked for replacement by first-round pick Aaron Rodgers … and then Rodgers was earmarked for replacement by first-round pick Jordan Love. In each of those scenarios, the younger draft pick eventually won out. Rivers took over for Brees after two years. Mahomes succeeded Smith after one season. Rodgers took over for Favre after three seasons and then Love took the reins from Rodgers in the same time span.

So the playbook for this move has been written. The only significant difference for Atlanta is Penix will be a 24-year-old rookie this season and Cousins was just given a dump truck of money in free agency. But the Falcons have their reasons. And they’re using plenty of channels to make them known.

Let’s go ahead and set the table for how this pick happened before we get into the fight Cousins has in front of him. What follows is the rationale the Falcons are selling behind the scenes to justify selecting Penix and overlapping him with Cousins. You can choose to believe all of it or none of it. This is the story emanating from inside the franchise, and the Falcons are going to stick to it:

  • Aside from his tape over the past two seasons at Washington, Penix’s workouts in the draft process left a deep and resolute impression inside the organization about what the decision makers viewed as rare arm talent. First during his pro day on March 28 — which took place in front of assistant general manager Kyle Smith — and again on April 5, when the Falcons sent a flotilla of key personnel to a private workout with the quarterback in Seattle. That group included Fontenot and head coach Raheem Morris. Morris manned the linebacker position for some of the drills, and after drafting Penix raved about hearing the velocity of the ball as it went over his head.

  • Following that experience, a clear consensus was established between the coaching staff and personnel department that Penix qualified as an elite player on their draft board. In their quarterback stack, their pecking order settled into USC’s Caleb Williams at No. 1, then Penix, then LSU’s Jayden Daniels. Overall, Penix was rated among the Falcons’ top four prospects, with Ohio State wideout Marvin Harrison Jr. rounding out the group. Such a lofty evaluation made it virtually impossible for the Falcons to trade back with any confidence that another team wouldn’t select Penix in the top 10.

  • With his grade established, the franchise decision makers stepped back and looked at the more expansive quarterback window. What they found was a path fraught with potential pitfalls. The 2025 quarterback class currently does not appear to have the quality or depth of the 2024 class, and as it stands, not a single player is perceived by the Falcons to have the talent Penix brings to the table. Furthermore, if the team achieves its expected level of success with Cousins over the next two seasons, its draft positioning will be weakened and present a more difficult angle to finding his successor in the 2025 or 2026 drafts.

  • Blank was on board with the pick in a significant way. Following the pick, the knee-jerk question became, “How could Blank agree to commit that much money to Cousins and then sign up for spending a significant draft asset and another $5.5 million per season on the backup?” The answer, from a handful of sources: After watching Fontenot and the previous coaching staff juggle a failed attempt to develop third-round pick Desmond Ridder into a franchise player, Blank was motivated to overlap a late-career Cousins with a “special” player waiting in the wings. Especially if that player wouldn’t be easy to acquire in future years. It was not lost on Blank that the Chiefs made a similar move in 2017 when they executed a surprise trade up the board for Mahomes when nobody was expecting it, then sat him behind a steady veteran starter in Smith. And the additional money invested at the backup quarterback spot? Blank just paid backup Taylor Heinicke nearly $7.3 million last season, which is roughly the going rate for the NFL’s “best” No. 2 quarterbacks. And there’s a silver-lining in this instance, with the Falcons double-dipping at backup with a player they plan to groom as the future starter.

When taken in the context of the prior success of Rivers, Mahomes, Rodgers and Love, it’s not hard to see how a club owner, general manager and head coach could align behind a similar plan. Even if the plan surrounds an older rookie quarterback who had some uneven grades across the NFL, and comes in the face of those who insist the franchise should be in a “win now” mindset — spending top draft picks on the championship task at hand, rather than squirreling away a quarterback of the future.

The Chiefs heard those complaints when they took Mahomes. The Packers heard them, too, when they selected Rodgers and Love. Neither franchise cared what the outside world thought of their plans. And both have had the good fortune of coming out of the other side of the investment with a starting quarterback in the positive side of the ledger.

That’s what Cousins is working against in Atlanta. The history of “upside” in these gambles. Not to mention the reality that he doesn’t have a track record inside the team. Unlike Alex Smith and Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers, there are no entrenched locker room soldiers behind him, providing support from their years of playing together.

Instead, Cousins is entering what is effectively a mercenary contract. He’s a two-year option that will be propped up by his paycheck in the interim and then his level of play in the long term. His best weapon? Success. The longer he wins the way Drew Brees won with the Chargers, the longer Penix will sit on the bench like Rivers. And the more accolades he achieves late in his career like Rodgers (think: big statistics, All-Pro votes and maybe even an MVP candidacy), the less intense the conversation will become to move him out of the way.

None of it will be easy. But all of it will be necessary. Cousins turns 36 this summer and is already paid. As far as the fan base will be concerned, that’s really all he’s owed. The rest will have to be earned. Again. And if Cousins didn’t understand that two weeks ago, all he needed to do was to hear his new team owner, Arthur Blank, express his appreciation and hopes of continued success for the guy who is planning to replace him.

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