SI:AM | The Biggest Shocks From the NFL Draft

Michael Penix Jr. to the Falcons? Really?
Atlanta selecting Penix was the big surprise in Round 1 of the NFL draft.
Atlanta selecting Penix was the big surprise in Round 1 of the NFL draft. / Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Good morning, I’m Dan Gartland. I can’t believe an estimated 275,000 people attended the NFL draft in Detroit on Thursday. It seems like such a thoroughly miserable experience.

In today’s SI:AM:

📝 Draft grades
⚖️ Winners and losers
🔮 Day 2 mock

What were the Falcons thinking?

The first round of the NFL draft on Thursday night went mostly according to plan. The first three selections were all quarterbacks, as expected. USC’s Caleb Williams went to the Chicago Bears with the first pick, LSU’s Jayden Daniels went second to the Washington Commanders and North Carolina’s Drake Maye went third to the New England Patriots. The Patriots had entertained the idea of letting another team (perhaps the Minnesota Vikings or New York Giants) trade for the No. 3 pick to take Maye but in the end decided Maye was their man. The next four picks went as expected, too, with two receivers and two offensive tackles going off the board to teams with less pressing quarterback needs.

And then the Atlanta Falcons shocked everyone with what they did at No. 8. You may remember that they signed Kirk Cousins to a four-year, $180 million contract just a month ago. That would seem to take care of the quarterback position for the foreseeable future. And yet, Atlanta opted to use its first round selection to take Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr.

More teams should probably allow top quarterback prospects to develop on the bench for a year or two behind a veteran, but that’s not the situation the Falcons are in. Cousins’s contract is structured in such a way that he essentially has to be on the roster for at least three seasons. Cutting him before the fourth season of his deal would incur a dead cap penalty of $12.5 million, but the penalties for releasing him before then would be prohibitively severe. So the Falcons have either used a top-10 pick on a backup quarterback or handed $100 million guaranteed to a backup quarterback.

Penix isn’t the type of inexperienced player who needs seasoning on the bench, either. He played six years in college (thanks to a medical redshirt and the COVID-19 bonus year of eligibility) and will turn 24 in two weeks. He also has a long injury history, having torn his right ACL twice and sustained significant injuries to both shoulders. By the time the Falcons can get out of Cousins’s contract, Penix will be as old as Josh Allen was at the start of last season. Allen had already made two Pro Bowls by that point.

The other thing that makes the Falcons’ decision bewildering is how it was communicated to Cousins. Or, rather, how it wasn’t communicated. Cousins’s agent, Mike McCartney, told ESPN that the team didn’t inform his client of the decision to take another QB until it was on the clock on Thursday night. Cousins, McCartney added, is disappointed Atlanta didn’t use a valuable draft pick to make its 2024 roster better.

“It’s never a right time to talk to a quarterback about those things,” new Falcons coach Raheem Morris told reporters. “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.”

The Falcons weren’t the only team to make a surprising decision on a quarterback in Round 1. The Denver Broncos selected Oregon’s Bo Nix with the No. 12 pick, making him the sixth quarterback to go in the first round.

At the beginning of the draft process, Nix was viewed as a late-first or early second round pick. He began his college career with three solid but unspectacular seasons at Auburn, completing 59.4% of his passes with 39 touchdowns and 16 interceptions in 34 games. It was his final two seasons at Oregon that made Nix a potential early-round draft pick, particularly his 2023 season when he threw for 4,508 yards, 45 touchdowns and just three interceptions while completing 77.4% of his passes. But he’s somewhat undersized (6'2", 214 pounds at the combine) with subpar mobility. He’s also 24 years old. The Broncos needed a quarterback, though, and their decision to take Nix as early as they did shows how the draft math is different for QB-needy teams.

Most teams made offense their focus in the first round. Of the 32 picks, 23 were used to select offensive players. That includes several teams that traded up in the draft to take their guy. Most notably, the Minnesota Vikings moved up from the No. 11 pick to No. 10 so they could take Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy. There were also a couple of trades near the end of the round to acquire wide receivers, with the Kansas City Chiefs moving up to select Texas’s Xavier Worthy at No. 28 and the Carolina Panthers acquiring the No. 32 pick to take South Carolina’s Xavier Legette.

The draft continues with the second and third rounds Friday night and the final four rounds Saturday. Surely the rest of the draft won’t feature 70% of selections from the offensive side of the ball.

Former LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels in a Washington Commanders uniform.
Washington hopes Daniels will be its QB of the future. /

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The top five…

… things I saw yesterday:

5. The Yankees’ infield’s quick reaction to record an out after a grounder bounced off second base.
4. Donte DiVincenzo’s powerful dunk late in the first half.
3. Hurricanes goalie Frederik Andersen’s glove save after falling to the ice to keep the game tied against the Islanders. Carolina won the game to take a 3–0 lead in the series.
2. Jaguars executive and AEW president Tony Khan wearing a neck brace in the team’s draft room after being attacked on AEW Dynamite the night before.
1.Yoshinobu Yamamoto’s catch on a line drive hit right at his face.


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Dan Gartland

DAN GARTLAND

Dan Gartland is the writer and editor of Sports Illustrated’s flagship daily newsletter, SI:AM, covering everything an educated sports fan needs to know. Previously published on Deadspin and Slate, Dan also is a former Sports Jeopardy! champion (Season 1, Episode 5).