NFL offseason power rankings: No. 18 Atlanta Falcons had quite an interesting offseason

Preview focus: The shocking Michael Penix draft pick could be a factor, whether he plays or not

The Atlanta Falcons will be the third team for Kirk Cousins in his NFL career. (Taylor Wilhelm/Yahoo Sports)
The Atlanta Falcons will be the third team for Kirk Cousins in his NFL career. (Taylor Wilhelm/Yahoo Sports)

All first-round picks in the NFL Draft are somewhat memorable. Some make you sit up in your chair a bit, but only a few are guaranteed to be talked about for years.

The moment the Atlanta Falcons selected quarterback Michael Penix Jr. with the eighth overall pick of the NFL Draft, it became a talking point for the next decade or more. Good or bad.

No team's offseason was discussed more than the Falcons. They started it by changing coaches, firing the overwhelmed Arthur Smith and giving Raheem Morris a second chance. Then they made one of the rare big quarterback additions in free agency, signing Kirk Cousins to a $180 million deal. That led to weeks of excitement, reimagining the Falcons with a staff that understood it needs to use its best players on offense, with a quarterback that can get them the ball. If the offseason would have ended there, it would have been nothing but good vibes for the Falcons.

To be fair, the Penix pick could end up a win. Think about how everyone questioned the Green Bay Packers' Jordan Love pick for three years. Do you think the Packers look smart now? Of course. Love is an ascending star at the game's most important position. If we look up in 2028 and Penix is at the level Love has reached by his fifth season, everyone will be offering a lot of apologies to Atlanta. The Falcons even cited "the Green Bay model" in explaining the pick. The quarterback position is undisputedly the most important in all of sports, and it's not terrible to be creative and double up to pursue success at it. For all of the easy criticism of the Falcons' pick, it could turn out very well for them.

But the Penix pick was also different than the Packers picking Love, or most "quarterback in waiting" first-round picks we've seen over the years. It was No. 8 overall, not late in the first round. The Falcons weren't preparing for a possible abrupt change at quarterback; they just paid Cousins a fortune. And Penix wasn't simply a best player available type who fell. Practically nobody had Penix in the top eight of a strong NFL Draft class. Also, Penix is already 24 years old. If the likely succession plan plays out and Penix takes over after two Cousins seasons, he'll be 26 before he ever takes a snap as the Falcons' preferred starter. The Falcons ignored major needs, especially on defense, and proactively drafted a player some experts had way down their list (Penix was No. 64 on the final big board of Yahoo Sports' Nate Tice). In doing so, they blindsided their new quarterback who spent all of 45 days feeling comfortable as Atlanta's new franchise star.

Hey, at least the Falcons gave us something to talk about this offseason.

"When you make those decisions, you can't be off of what everybody else thinks and what they say," Morris said, via the team's site. "Those reactions are going to happen. Some of the most bold decisions in anything we've ever done, not just football, they always happen when it comes with a little bit of rift. We're not going to run away from those things and those rifts if we believe in it.

"And we certainly believe in it. We won't waver on it."

Realistically, the Penix pick won't matter to the 2024 Falcons, besides Atlanta passing on the chance to trade down for a pass rusher they desperately need. Cousins might be bothered by the team drafting his replacement instead of some help, but it seems unlikely to affect the veteran that much in the short term. If Cousins is healthy — that's no guarantee as he'll be 36 years old this season coming off a torn Achilles — he should be the same productive quarterback he has been in his NFL career. The cast of Bijan Robinson, Drake London and Kyle Pitts should break out with him. The Falcons are favored to win the NFC South and for good reason. Morris is a good defensive coach and should add value on that side of the ball. The offense will improve now that they're done with the head coach who was more worried about proving a point to the media and disgruntled fans rather than getting his best players the ball, and was willing to get fired on that hill.

But it'll be awkward as long as Cousins and Penix are teammates. A quarterback controversy will always be around the corner, and the Falcons hopefully thought that through before they surprised Cousins and everyone else by picking Penix. Maybe Cousins will play well enough that it's not a regular topic, like Aaron Rodgers did with Love backing him up. But it's never completely going away.

The Falcons presumably didn't approach the offseason looking to make headlines. Yet, they made the move we'll be talking about for many years.

You might have missed this news, but the Falcons signed quarterback Kirk Cousins and then drafted quarterback Michael Penix Jr. The rest of the Falcons' offseason was fairly mundane. Many experts liked the signing of receiver Darnell Mooney to a three-year, $39 million deal, claiming the deep threat was misused by the Chicago Bears. However, that's a big price for a player with 907 yards and three touchdowns over the past two seasons combined. The Falcons lost Cordarrelle Patterson in free agency, which could hurt with the new kickoff rules. Trading Desmond Ridder to the Arizona Cardinals for receiver Rondale Moore was a smart move after Ridder failed last season. The Falcons' draft got the worst grades among analysts but a lot of that had to do with the Penix pick. However, the rest of the draft was underwhelming, with defensive linemen Ruke Orhorhoro and Bralen Trice as the other top-100 picks. The Cousins/Penix combo was unusual and easy to criticize for many reasons, and the opportunity cost of drafting Penix has to factor in the grade, though we could look back on it in a much better light down the road.

Grade: D

The big question with Kirk Cousins is his health as he returns from Achilles surgery. All signs have been positive. He reportedly participated normally in the offseason program and plans to be ready for training camp. There's still some concern over an aging player coming off that injury, but it's not like Cousins relies on his mobility. What made Cousins enticing in free agency is he was playing some of his best football before the injury last season, with 18 touchdowns, five interceptions and a 103.8 passer rating.

If we don't see Michael Penix Jr. all season, that's probably good news for the Falcons. Penix is a long-term investment, which is rare for the eighth pick of the draft, but it's understandable why the Falcons were excited. Penix was wildly productive at the University of Washington, setting the school's single-season record for passing yards in 2022 and then breaking it in 2023. He became a household name with a dominant performance in a College Football Playoff semifinal win over Texas. He threw for 430 yards and two touchdowns.

"That Texas game was really the game that solidified for me that this guy is a real dude that has a shot to be a very good pro," Falcons offensive coordinator Zac Robinson told the team's site. "It was some of the pocket work stuff that he did, the way he got the ball out, his accuracy down the field, his drive, his pace, his touch on all those throws. He can make every throw on the field, can touch every part of the field with his arm. And he did it all by not taking any sacks."

Atlanta has the easiest schedule by a mile this season, according to NFL analyst Warren Sharp, who uses sportsbooks' win totals to determine strength of schedule. That's a reason the Falcons, coming off a 7-10 season, have a friendly win total at BetMGM of 9.5. Bettors like the over, with -140 odds on that side. Atlanta is heavily favored to win the NFC South at -120 odds. The 49ers, Chiefs, Eagles and Falcons are the only teams with minus odds to win their division, and the Chiefs and 49ers are the top two favorites to win the Super Bowl. The Falcons are 28-to-1 to win the Super Bowl, if you really believe in their offseason moves.

From Yahoo's Scott Pianowski: "Kyle Pitts has been mostly a fantasy disappointment through three seasons, scoring just six touchdowns and consistently failing to meet his ADP. But maybe this was primarily a failure of the pieces around him. The Falcons have not had a quarterback post a league average rating since Pitts joined the team, and departed head coach Arthur Smith was probably in over his head.

"Pitts is still on the escalator, entering his age-24 season. And let's remember he posted 1,026 receiving yards in 2021, the second-most ever from a rookie tight end. Kirk Cousins is obviously a much-needed quarterback upgrade for the Falcons, and new OC Zac Robinson spent five years learning under offensive wizard Sean McVay. Mix in a paper-thin Atlanta schedule and Pitts still makes sense as a proactive fantasy pick, currently the TE7 off the board in Yahoo drafts."

The last time the Falcons had a player record more than eight sacks in a season was Adrian Clayborn in 2017. The Falcons tied for 22nd in the NFL last season with 42 sacks, which was a huge improvement from finishing 32nd and 31st the two years prior. However, the two players who tied for the team lead with 6.5 sacks each last season, Calais Campbell and Bud Dupree, signed with other teams this offseason.

When the Michael Penix Jr. pick is criticized, part of the reason is Atlanta still hasn't fixed its long-term issue of finding a pass rusher. Multiple teams were reportedly interested in trading up for Penix and the Falcons likely could have traded down and still got one of the top pass rushers off the board, Laiatu Latu or Dallas Turner, while stocking up extra picks. Instead, the Falcons got a quarterback who likely won't play this season and maybe not next season either, and still don't have a player on the roster who is even a decent bet to get double-digit sacks (Arnold Ebiketie, a 2022 second-round pick coming off six sacks last season, has the best shot at it). Raheem Morris is a very good defensive coach and he could fix the defense regardless of personnel issues, but it's very hard to have a top-end defense without a decent pass rush.

It was easy to dunk on Arthur Smith. He had highly drafted offensive players like Bijan Robinson, Kyle Pitts and Drake London, and he chose to spend his time devising end-arounds to tight end Jonnu Smith so he could show the media and fantasy football players he was smarter than them. His stubbornness was comical and probably cost him his job. But is it possible Smith had a reason for ignoring his big-name players? Pitts has had two very quiet seasons after a good rookie year, London has 1,771 yards and six touchdowns in two seasons and Robinson failed to rush for 1,000 yards as a rookie despite starting 16 of 17 games played (though he was quite good and showed flashes that showed why he was the eighth pick in last year's draft). Is that all coaching? One of these things has to be true: Either Smith was so incompetent as a coach he couldn't figure out how to get anything out of three stars right in front of him, or those so-called stars aren't going to break out with any coach or quarterback because they aren't that great. We're about to get plenty of answers on the trio of top-10 draft picks. Robinson in particular should have no excuses after new coach Raheem Morris said part of the team's plan will be to "get the ball to Bijan as much as you can."

The pick of Michael Penix Jr. erased the previous offseason narrative for the 2024 Falcons. Before that, the talk was about how they'd taken over as the favorite in the NFC South, and if Kirk Cousins played to his normal level, perhaps the Falcons could even make a playoff run. There's certainly enough offensive talent to have a top-10 offense. All of those factors are still in play even with the Falcons using the eighth pick of the draft on a quarterback who is unlikely to play this season. Cousins is good enough to make stars out of Drake London, Kyle Pitts and Bijan Robinson. The NFC South could be very weak; the Falcons could clinch the division by early December if everything goes right. If that happens, nobody will be talking about Penix after the season starts.

This is very odd to say about a quarterback taken with the eighth pick of the NFL Draft, but if the Falcons voluntarily start Michael Penix Jr. at all this season, it's probably a really bad sign for them. That means Kirk Cousins has been injured, ineffective or both. And that's in the realm of possibilities for a 36-year-old quarterback coming off a torn Achilles and switching teams. If Cousins isn't worth the money, the Falcons' skill-position talent isn't as good as we believe and a defense that didn't add that much is below average again, perhaps the Falcons miss the playoffs playing in the NFL's weakest division, against the league's easiest schedule. That would be a massive disappointment.

It's hard to imagine the Falcons being bad. Their soft schedule gives them a clear path to being above .500. They should win an NFC South. It would be a problem for Raheem Morris, Kirk Cousins and everyone else if the Falcons aren't hosting a playoff game on wild-card weekend. If Cousins isn't good enough to lift the Falcons to an NFC South title at age 36, he probably won't be at age 37 either. That shouldn't be a problem. Cousins should be good enough to help the Falcons to a division title, though there are too many questions about the defense to believe they can be Super Bowl contenders. That's fine, because a division title with an exciting offense would count as progress in Raheem Morris' first season as head coach.