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Matthew Coller: Michael Penix Jr. looks the Vikings' part

In the College Football Playoff, Washington's quarterback put on a show

Draft season is a marathon, not a sprint. We have to get through the Senior Bowl, the NFL Combine and months of speculation, debates and questionable reporting before names are finally called by commissioner Roger Goodell. So it would be premature to start talking about any particular player being a perfect fit with any particular team before any of the meetings or medicals or workouts come in.

But who wasn’t thinking about the Minnesota Vikings while watching Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr. throw the football in the Huskies' College Football Playoff win over Texas? (check out some of his best throws here)

At the end of the night Penix Jr.’s box score was so good that you had to refresh the page to make sure it was real. He went 29 for 38 with 430 yards, two touchdowns and was not sacked. Out of ESPN’s 1-100 QBR scale, he scored a 97.7. By PFF’s 1-100 grading system, the game received a 93.5. PFF also credited him with six “big-time” throws and zero turnover-worthy plays.

The most impressive part of Penix Jr.’s destruction of the Texas Longhorns’ defense was his downfield passing and poise under fire. He attempted eight passes that traveled more than 20 yards in the air and completed six of them. Were they to wide open receivers? Not always. PFF gave five of the six the “big-time” distinction. He threw into tight windows and with anticipation, making balls that traveled 30 yards in the air look like they were handed right to the receiver.

He must have had clean pockets all night, right? Not exactly. Under pressure 40% of the time, he went 9-for-16 passing with 151 yards and no miscues.

Michael Penix Jr.

Jan 1, 2024; New Orleans, LA, USA; Washington Huskies quarterback Michael Penix Jr. (9) runs the ball during the fourth quarter against the Texas Longhorns in the 2024 Sugar Bowl college football playoff semifinal game at Caesars Superdome.

Certainly in college football the defenses aren’t of the caliber of the NFL — not even close — but Penix Jr. has been putting up these types of games for two years now. Between 2022 and 2023, the lefty QB has thrown for over 9,000 yards, 66 touchdowns to 17 interceptions and has 67 big-time throws to 17 turnover-worthy plays. He ranked No. 1 this year in big-time throws, six ahead of projected top-two pick Drake Maye and 11 ahead of Heisman winner Jayden Daniels. He also had the 12th highest average depth of target.

It’s hard to say what the Vikings think about their future quarterback situation with a Kirk Cousins return still possible and tons of work to be done on the quarterback class, particularly by head coach Kevin O’Connell, who will be huge in the decision-making process, but Penix Jr. has the profile of everything the Vikings offense needs in its quarterback.

Even with backup QBs in the mix, the Vikings continued to push the ball downfield (maybe sometimes not by design). The only players who threw deeper than Nick Mullens by average depth of target this year are Jameis Winston and Will Levis. Even when rookie Jaren Hall came in, his average throw was nearly 10 yards downfield, which would put him in the top quarter of the league.

The Vikings have the best downfield receiver in the NFL and they designed the offense for Cousins to find him down there somewhere. When Cousins went out, it became much harder to execute the Justin Jefferson plan, yet Mullens still threw for over 400 yards against Detroit with the majority going to Jefferson — and he was one accurate deep throw away from JJ winning the game.

Senior Bowl Executive Director Jim Nagy tweeted:

“NFL decision-makers who haven't seen Michael Penix Jr. throw in-person yet will be blown away [at the Senior Bowl]. As good as he looks on TV and tape, it's different when you're down on the field with him.”

For a head coach who was the offensive coordinator when Matthew Stafford laser-beamed his way to a Super Bowl, the fella with the biggest arm in college football and leadership qualities that have guided the Huskies beyond where they have been as a program in many years, the fit seems made in football heaven. This publication is hardly the only to notice. PFF tweeted out a Vikings mock draft with Minnesota taking Penix Jr. with the 12th overall pick.

There are questions about Penix Jr. though. He’s been through a myriad of injuries and he’s going to be 24 years old by the time he steps on an NFL field. He isn’t a runner and his offensive line has given him plenty of time to throw.

But he’s been healthy for two years and showed a playmaking ability against Texas that wasn’t always his reputation. He’s been remarkably good avoiding sacks, going down for a negative play only 8.0% of the time that he’s pressured. If he did that in the NFL, he’d be No. 1 just ahead of Josh Allen (9.9%).

Penix Jr. will have another night in the limelight against another player who has been mocked to the Vikings in Michigan quarterback JJ McCarthy. His solid performance against Alabama was overshadowed but he graded as the ninth best QB in college football this year (Penix Jr. was third) and is younger with more mobility.

The Vikings’ decision at quarterback could be influenced by the draft class. If we include Oregon’s Bo Nix, there are three quarterbacks outside of the expected top three (Caleb Williams, Drake Maye and Jayden Daniels) that could go in the first round. With Minnesota possibly picking somewhere between 9th-12th, it seems more than probable that there will be an available quarterback on the board when they pick. Though if Penix Jr. does it again versus an incredibly good Michigan defense, the Vikings may have to trade up to get him.

Yes, we are getting way ahead of ourselves. This entire discussion could soon be made irrelevant. The Vikings must decide on extending Kirk Cousins before the opening of free agency and the focus could switch to analyzing the edge rushing class.

But if the free agency period opens without a new contract for Cousins, the QB class will be front and center. And Penix Jr. left one heck of an impression on the biggest stage. We will find out if that ends up mattering to the Vikings’ future.