NFL Draft News & Analysis

2024 NFL Draft: Why Michael Penix Jr. is a first-round caliber prospect

2T1XAWT Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr. looks on during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Oregon, Saturday, Oct. 14, 2023, in Seattle. Washington won 36-33. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson)

• Roller coaster draft stock: When Washington downed Texas, Michael Penix Jr. was seen as a first-round prospect. However, Michigan then steamrolled Washington in the national championship, pushing Penix to a second-round consolation prize overnight. Now, he has started to climb back to that original assessment with reports that coaches are higher on him than scouts, as he is ranked as high as No. 2 by some.

• First-round caliber: Over the last two seasons, Penix has posted elite PFF grading (91.9) that checks in just below Drake Maye and Caleb Williams (92.7) among the best players in this draft.

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Few prospects have seen their draft stock take as much of a rollercoaster ride as Michael Penix Jr. When Washington downed Texas in the College Football Playoffs, the hype machine was preparing people for a quarterback who was pushing his way into the top half of the first round. 

Then Michigan steamrolled Washington in the national championship, and Penix became a second-round consolation prize overnight.

The longer the process has gone on, however, he has started to climb back to that original assessment with reports that coaches are higher on him than scouts, as he is ranked as high as No. 2 by some.

So what should we think about the draft stock of one of the most interesting prospects in this year’s draft?

Let’s get some of the negatives out of the way first.

Penix will be a 24-year-old rookie. Last season concluded his sixth college season at his second school after impressing at Indiana earlier in his career. 

The reason Penix was in college so long was multiple significant knee injuries, meaning that those last two years at Washington were the only two years of his career with more than 250 dropbacks.

They were also his best years by some margin.

There’s nothing he can do about being an older prospect, that’s just part of the consideration at this point. The issue doesn’t have anything to do with the length of his NFL career – Tom Brady showed that teams could still get two decades worth of play out of a college player in the NFL regardless of how old he was when he declared for the NFL draft. Older players in college are complicating the evaluation because they have in-built advantages over younger players. Penix was playing his best football after five years of college football experience and with years more physical and mental development than many of his opponents.

He shouldn’t be penalized for that, but it has to be factored into any kind of evaluation and projection of what he can be at the next level.

Multiple knee injuries are obviously concerning, but reports have suggested his medicals have not concerned NFL teams, as they are not thought to represent any kind of underlying health issue like being injury-prone or having chronic knee problems. Penix has just been unlucky with injuries in college.

That brings us to the positive. 

Over the last two seasons, Penix has posted elite PFF grading (91.9) that checks in just below Drake Maye and Caleb Williams (92.7) among the best players in this draft.

Sixty-six big-time throws over that time are second only to Maye in this draft class, and a 1.5% turnover-worthy play rate to offset those big plays is an elite number bettered by only Bo Nix (1.3%) and Jayden Daniels (1.0%). Penix’s average depth of target is more than a full yard higher than Daniels' and over three yards more than Nix's.

A reported 4.46-second 40-yard dash time at his pro day shows that Penix also has top-tier speed and athleticism that has rarely been on display during his Washington career.

Never a significant rushing threat, Penix scrambled just 22 times in 707 dropbacks over his final two seasons (3.1%), averaging 5.7 yards when he did so. Rushing will likely never be a huge part of his game, and with his injury history, teams won’t be lining up to expose him to more hits than are necessary, but that athleticism is certainly an underutilized aspect of his game that could extend more plays and drives at the next level.

There has been some criticism that Penix doesn’t target the middle of the field as well or as often as some other prospects in this draft, but that’s not really true. Statistically, he works the middle of the field at an exactly average rate relative to this draft class, and the closest you can come to finding an area where he is deficient is by filtering to an extremely narrow window 20-30 yards downfield across the middle, which he targets slightly less frequently than other quarterbacks. This can just as easily be explained simply by scheme than it is by any flaw in his game.

Caleb Williams‘ 90.6 PFF grade is the best of any passer in this class when forced beyond their first read. Penix is second at 86.2, notably clear of the other top prospects. 

The final element – and the one that has coaches so keen on him – is that Penix has off-the-charts intangibles. He has been through adversity in his college career and emerged from the other side to take his team to a national championship game. He has elite leadership, and nothing on his tape suggests that he has glaring weaknesses that will undermine that leadership.

Michael Penix Jr. was pushing himself into the top half of the first round before a lopsided loss to the best team in the nation torpedoed his draft stock. The longer the process goes on the more people seem to be deciding not to let one game against elite opposition override a career that puts him among the best prospects in this draft. Don’t be surprised if Penix ends up going in the first round where he was expected to months ago, or if he becomes a lottery ticket of a consolation prize for somebody if he slides.

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