The Falcons signed quarterback Kirk Cousins to a big-money contract, then drafted his replacement six weeks later. The change from Cousins to Michael Penix won’t happen now (and may never happen). But the No. 8 overall pick sitting behind the aging veteran creates a potentially combustible situation for the Falcons.

Cousins wasn’t happy when the Falcons told him they were drafting Penix. Would he have signed with the team if he had known they would end up taking a QB at No. 8?

“I don’t really deal in hypotheticals,” Cousins said after the team’s practice Tuesday. “We could go down that path for a long time in a lot of ways. It just doesn’t do us any good. I’m excited for this opportunity that we have.

“I think it’s a real privilege to be a quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons, and I’m trying to make good on the opportunity that they’ve given me.”

That’s what I expected to hear Cousins say. He may not like it that the Falcons used their top pick on a QB, but he’s been around long enough to understand that how he feels doesn’t really matter. The Falcons made a business decision, and Cousins is a professional.

The way it works in the NFL is that he’s the starting quarterback, until he’s not.

“Always going to be competition in this league, and you’ve always got to go out and earn it,” Cousins said Tuesday after the team’s practice. “I’m going to control what I can control, and also understand there’s a lot you don’t control.”

Cousins said he figured that out long before he made it to the NFL. Soon after Cousins committed to play football for Michigan State, then-coach Mark Dantonio signed future Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles. This also isn’t the first time Cousins’ team drafted a quarterback when he was the starter. The Vikings selected Kellen Mond in the third round of the 2021 draft.

“The response is that this is an exception when really, if you know my story, this is more of norm of the journey,” Cousins said. “And it’s, ‘OK, let’s just start working and building together.’”

I understand what Cousins is getting at. But the circumstances he faces with the Falcons are different than any he’s faced before. Cousins no longer is a modestly ranked high school recruit, and Penix isn’t a developmental draft pick like Mond.

Now Cousins is a proven NFL quarterback with four Pro Bowl selections on his resume. The Falcons signed Cousins to great fanfare and then immediately gave him a reason to look over his shoulder. Like everyone else, Cousins can see that Penix is a top QB prospect.

The potential for tension in the QB meeting room is low on the list of reasons why I believe the Falcons made a mistake drafting a QB with the No. 8 pick. The much bigger issue is that there is no way to get full value from both Cousins and Penix.

Only one QB can play at a time. The Falcons had other needs. That’s why it made no sense for Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot to draft a QB at No. 8 after he signed Cousins for $100 million guaranteed. That’s the main takeaway from that confusing decision.

But there’s also an interpersonal element to it because Cousins felt blindsided. There’s also the inevitable reaction among Falcons supporters should Cousins struggle at any point. That could happen given he’ll be 36 years old to start the season and is coming off a major injury.

“It’s my job to manage everything,” Falcons coach Raheem Morris said. “Manage expectations from the fans and wanting us to do something sooner than we want to do it. We had a plan going into this thing. Kirk is our quarterback, and that will play out as it plays out. We’ve got a guy in the building that we hope can be our potential guy in the future. ...

“(Cousins) might not like the initial reaction of what is going to happen. But if you sit down, go through the process, talk to other people, figure out what the goals are and get on the line (and say): ‘Let’s go. Let’s go to work.’”

So far, so good for Cousins on that front. He said he’s ahead of schedule in his recovery from a season-ending Achilles tear in October. Cousins appeared to be moving well while taking snaps during Tuesday’s non-contact practice.

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Kirk Cousins (18) attempts a pass during minicamp at the Atlanta Falcons Training Camp, Tuesday, May 14, 2024, in Flowery Branch, Ga. (Jason Getz / AJC)

Credit: Jason Getz /

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Credit: Jason Getz /

Morris said Cousins already has started to take leadership of the team because players are drawn to his confident demeanor. The coach said the onus is on Penix to learn from Cousins by watching him work, rather than Cousins having the responsibility to teach him.

“Kirk is trying to win a Super Bowl,” Morris said.

There’s every reason to believe that Cousins will remain professional about the situation. However, there is the potential for the team dynamic to be affected by having his replacement on the roster.

The public won’t know what Penix can do until we see him play in an official game. Falcons players will have a clue before then. If Penix is performing well in practice, and Cousins is struggling in games, then some of their teammates might start wondering why Penix isn’t getting his chance. That’s what happened with the Chiefs in 2017.

That year, Kansas City drafted Patrick Mahomes with the No. 10 overall pick. Incumbent QB Alex Smith started the season well but floundered during the middle. Coach Andy Reid stuck with Smith while some of his teammates wanted to see Mahomes under center, which didn’t happen until the next season. The Chiefs lost a wild-card playoff game when Mahomes was a rookie.

The chances are high that Penix will have to wait longer than Mahomes for his chance. Kansas City gained salary-cap space by trading Smith. The Falcons would blow a hole in their cap if they traded Cousins after one season. Penix likely will sit and wait for at least two seasons (and maybe three) while the clock ticks on his below-market, four-year contract.

That’s why it was a bad idea for the Falcons to take a quarterback so high in the draft when they already had one. The potential for a QB controversy is another factor. All is well in the team’s quarterback group in May. We’ll see if that’s still the case once they start playing games.