Overreaction to say Falcons made a massive mistake in the first round?

NFL: APR 25 2024 Draft

The Falcons made the pick of the 2024 NFL Draft. There’s no debating that when every sports talk show across the country is beginning the week with Atlanta’s selection of Michael Penix in the first round.

That’s expected when you spend $180 million on a free agent quarterback and then draft his eventual replacement in the top 10 less than two months later. Somehow, everyone realizes how crazy that is except the Falcons.

It has nothing to do with Penix as a prospect. If the Washington product had been drafted anywhere other than Atlanta, this wouldn’t even be a conversation. The Falcons made it one when they decided to take Cousins’ successor before he even took a snap.

ESPN pundit Dan Graziano recently judged NFL draft overreactions, with Atlanta’s being: They made a massive mistake in the first round.


As Graziano sees it, there are four possible outcomes for the Falcons with Penix and Cousins in the fold.

1. Cousins plays well enough and wins enough to justify the contract the Falcons gave him in free agency. He starts every game in 2024 and 2025. By the end of the 2025 season, Atlanta has paid Cousins $90 million and Penix around $15 million. With only a $10 million 2026 roster bonus left on the guarantees, the Falcons could then release or trade the 37-year-old Cousins and incur a $25 million dead-money charge on their 2026 cap. Penix will be 26 without an NFL start, and the Falcons will get one season to evaluate him as a starter before deciding on his fifth-year option.

I think most ‘ideal’ timelines would follow this one. Cousins starts for two years and then Penix takes over. In this one, the Falcons would compete with the veteran but take on some dead money by releasing him prior to his third year. They would then have the 2026 campaign to evaluate Penix in anticipation of exercising his fifth-year option.

2. Cousins plays the entire 2024 season, but for whatever reason, the Falcons decide next spring that Penix is ready to start in 2025. They could keep Cousins as Penix’s backup, but $27.5 million is a lot of money for a backup. Cutting Cousins at this point would result in a $65 million dead-money cap charge. Trading him would cause a $37.5 million dead-money hit. And Atlanta would have paid him $62.5 million for one season.

This is possible and scary. The Falcons only get one season out of Cousins and go right back into cap hell by parting ways with him. Even worse would be keeping him and paying a backup more than the starter. At every turn, Penix would be under a microscope. If he struggles, fans will call for the Falcons to turn back to Cousins. It’s a nightmare scenario.

3. Cousins gets injured or struggles to come back from his Achilles injury and Penix is thrown into the starter’s role after an offseason in which he didn’t get starter’s reps. This might not be a bad outcome, football-wise, if Penix is pro-ready as his résumé indicates. But if he were to succeed in this situation, it would put the Falcons in a very challenging spot in terms of what to do with Cousins and his contract.

This might be worse than the second scenario. The Falcons just sunk $180 million, $100 million of it guaranteed, into Cousins. If he’s not ready to start Week 1, the Falcons would be in a tight spot and look (once again) like an incompetent organization.

4. Cousins struggles, leading the fan base (and perhaps the locker room) to want to see the high draft pick play. Whatever the coaching staff decides in this scenario is tough on both of these players (and perhaps, again, the locker room).

Again, this isn’t a great outcome, and I think perfectly illustrates Graziano’s point. The Falcons have mismanaged resources at this point. There’s no possible way for them to maximize the value of both Cousins and Penix’s respective deals.

The Falcons are seemingly more scared of being horrible than they want to be great.

Photographer: John Smolek/Icon Sportswire
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