Michael Penix Jr. taken by Falcons in NFL draft surprise

Belichick skeptical of Falcons selecting Michael Penix Jr. (0:39)

Bill Belichick likes Michael Penix Jr.'s NFL prospects but is surprised the Falcons decided to draft him. (0:39)

The Atlanta Falcons pulled off the biggest shocker of the NFL draft Thursday night, taking Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr. with the No. 8 pick. And that stunned feeling extended to incumbent quarterback Kirk Cousins.

The Falcons made the pick despite signing veteran quarterback Cousins to a four-year, $180 million contract last month in free agency.

Cousins' agent, Mike McCartney, told ESPN's Pete Thamel that the Falcons did not tell the quarterback they would pick Penix until the team was on the clock. McCartney said there is frustration and confusion coming from Cousins' camp because Atlanta did not use its first-round pick to make the team better in 2024.

Instead, the Falcons used their selection on Cousins' apparent successor before he even played for the team. McCartney said Cousins understands the business of football and is ready to move on, but there was indeed surprise about the Falcons' decision.

Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot and coach Raheem Morris said Cousins' reaction would remain private.

"He got called on the clock, obviously because of the sensitive time with the issues of what you got going on," Morris said. "It's never a right time to talk to a quarterback about those things. And reactions are always going to be private when it comes to those things, unless Kirk decides to tell you some of those things that are whatever they may be. But he's a competitor, just like us all. And you can always expect those things to go just like you kind of think."

Morris said they believe the Falcons are primed to win now, which means they would not get another shot at drafting a quarterback of the future this high in the draft.

"These are not easy decisions. These are tough decisions," Fontenot said. "But that's who we're thinking about. We're thinking about the fans. We're thinking about this organization. We're going to build a sustained winner. We're going to win for a long time. That's the most important position in football."

Penix said he was surprised when he got the call telling him he was the pick.

"I'm not going to say I knew it was coming," Penix said. "But I knew once the phone call came through."

Penix, 23, emphasized that he is preparing to learn from Cousins, a four-time Pro Bowler.

"He's been in the league," Penix said. "He's been in there for a while. He's played a lot of football. I feel like I'm going to come in and I'm going to learn. I'm going to learn from him."

Penix was the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy last year and won the Maxwell Award after leading Washington to a 14-1 record and an appearance in the national championship game, where the Huskies lost to Michigan.

The left-handed Penix led the FBS with 4,903 passing yards in 2023 and was second in the FBS in 2022 (4,641). He is the first player with 4,500 passing yards or more in two straight seasons since Patrick Mahomes did it in 2015 and 2016 for Texas Tech.

The numbers were excellent, and so was the tape on Penix, who had arguably the best pure arm of any quarterback in the draft. But his injury history made him a major question mark. Penix, raised in Florida, came back from four separate season-ending injuries in his college career. Penix tore his right ACL in 2018, dislocated his shoulder in 2019, tore his right ACL again in 2020 and separated the AC joint in his shoulder in 2021.

Those injuries and his age were red flags going into the draft, where he ended up being the fourth quarterback taken overall -- after Caleb Williams, Jayden Daniels and Drake Maye -- and one of a record-tying six selected in the first round.

The Falcons said they have no qualms about Penix's past injuries.

"Our trainers and doctors, we spent a lot of time with them going through that process," Fontenot said. "And it does mean a lot that he's played well these last two years. Obviously that's something we're always forward thinking on in terms of doing everything we can do to prevent injuries. But we felt good about it."

Cousins, who is coming off an Achilles tear, will be Atlanta's starter for the foreseeable future, another reason why the Penix pick was a surprise. But Cousins is also 35 years old, and the Falcons spent quite a bit of time with Penix recently, including a visit that was attended by Fontenot and Morris.

Penix said the Falcons liked how he threw at the visit, adding that he thought it was a "great performance."

"It was a great session," he said. "It was a great time. It was quick, but we made it worthwhile."

The Falcons clearly believed they had their quarterback of the future and did not want to pass him up.

"We have a lot of belief in the player, and we know he can be a future franchise player," Fontenot said. "And so that's why we made the decision to do that right now."

Morris said the Falcons talked a lot about the "Green Bay model," how Jordan Love succeeded Aaron Rodgers successfully in 2023 after sitting for three years behind Rodgers.

"It's been proven to be right last year, so hopefully we'll be right with them," Morris said.

This would not be the first time in Fontenot's tenure that the Falcons made a polarizing first-round pick. Last year, they took Bijan Robinson with the No. 8 pick, which was deemed early for a running back. Atlanta also took tight end Kyle Pitts with the No. 4 pick in 2021, another selection that drew controversy.

"This is a business, right?" Fontenot said. "The tough part is obviously you're not going to always please everybody. ... We have to think about what's best for this franchise, what's best for this team."