FLOWERY BRANCH — If Michael Penix Jr. ends up being a good quarterback for the Falcons someday, then general manager Terry Fontenot will be hailed for his vision. Fontenot will get some credit if he trades Penix for a good haul in the future.

Any other outcome and Fontenot might never live down this pick. There’s no in-between. That’s how it goes when a GM makes a confusing and polarizing decision with one of the team’s most precious assets, a high draft pick. It just doesn’t make sense.

Fontenot took Washington’s Penix No. 8 overall Thursday night in the NFL draft even though the Falcons just signed veteran QB Kirk Cousins for $100 million guaranteed. If everything goes as planned with Cousins, then Penix won’t see the field for at least three seasons. Fontenot took a huge gamble by spending a high draft pick on a player who isn’t likely to have much value for the Falcons this season or, perhaps, ever.

Said Fontenot: “We’re very excited about Kirk, very excited about this team. Michael Penix is, we’re talking about the future. You look at the future, you look at big picture.”

That might make sense if the Falcons are a winning outfit. But they haven’t made the playoffs since 2017 and have only two winning seasons since 2012. The Falcons fired coach Arthur Smith because he wasn’t meeting expectations. They replaced him with Raheem Morris and declared that they are ready to win now, then used the No. 8 draft pick on a QB after splurging for Cousins.

Picking Penix might be logical if Cousins were in the final year of his contract. The Falcons signed Cousins through 2027. They essentially are committed to him for three seasons because of salary-cap ramifications.

Cousins is less than one year removed from Achilles surgery, so Penix is insurance as a backup. But the Falcons already have a good backup QB, Taylor Heinicke. They had their pick of defensive prospects at No. 8 because the first seven players selected were offensive players, including four quarterbacks. The Falcons decided to take a quarterback when they already had one with a salary that’s taking up about 10% of their cap room now and could eat 20% of it in 2026.

It was a strange decision by Fontenot. It caught Cousins off-guard. His agent, Mike McCartney, told AJC Falcons beat writer D. Orlando Ledbetter that the Falcons didn’t tell Cousins about their decision to draft Penix until they were on the clock. Fontenot and Morris said they didn’t want to talk about Cousins’ reaction because it was a private conversation. I suspect they would be more willing to share if Cousins were excited about the pick.

The Falcons had needs at other positions. Pass rusher was at the top of the list. They could use another top-level wide receiver. Every team needs multiple cornerbacks who can cover pass-catchers. Few teams invest so much in two quarterbacks because only one of them can play at a time.

Fontenot previously used high draft picks for players at positions where the team already had competent starters. He selected running back Bijan Robinson No. 8 overall in 2023, wide receiver Drake London at No. 8 in 2022 and tight end Kyle Pitts No. 4 in 2021. But the Falcons didn’t have a running back, wide receiver or tight end as accomplished at their positions then as Cousins is at quarterback now.

Also, Penix is a relatively older prospect. He’ll be 24 years old next week. It’s strange for the Falcons to take a long-term prospect at that age. There’s a chance that Penix won’t play meaningful snaps until he’s 26 or 27 years old.

“That’s not an issue,” Fontenot said of Penix’s age. “We have a lot of confidence in him, the way he plays the game.”

Who knows when we’ll see Penix play for the Falcons in a game that counts. I’m trying to give Fontenot the benefit of the doubt, but so much about this doesn’t make sense.

My criticism of the GM’s decision shouldn’t be construed as a knock on Penix. I like him a lot as a prospect. The left-hander throws a nice, accurate ball. Washington was 25-3 with Penix at quarterback. The Huskies won last year’s Pac-12 championship before losing to Michigan in the national title game. Washington’s No. 2 final ranking was its highest since it finished No. 2 in 1991.

Said Fontenot: “If we all are all sitting here a few years from now, and this guy is playing pretty good for somebody (else) ... and we passed him up, you can’t do that. If you believe in a quarterback, you have to take him. And if he sits for four or five years, that’s a great problem to have because we are doing so well at that position.”

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

Falcons’ Fontenot, Morris on selecting Michael Penix Jr. in first round of NFL draft.

I don’t see it that way. If Penix is sitting for four or five years, it will mean the Falcons could have drafted a top prospect who helped them win during that time. Penix’s rookie contract will be for four years with a team option for a fifth. The Falcons might not have much to go on when deciding whether it’s a good idea to pay Penix to keep him around.

Penix has a lot of potential. He just won’t get to fulfill it with the Falcons so long as Cousins is healthy. The Falcons have seven more picks in this draft. Fontenot said there are good players still available. But it will take a lot more luck for him to find an impact player in the later rounds than at No. 8.

Fontenot made his bold move after he and other team officials went to Seattle to meet with Penix on April 5. At the time, it seemed as if they were sending up a smokescreen. If they could make the QB-needy teams drafting below believe they might take Penix, then they could gain leverage for a trade. But it turns out the Falcons really were interested in drafting Penix.

It’s a very strange decision by Fontenot. It could turn out that he’s a visionary if, as Fontenot believes, Penix becomes a franchise player for the Falcons in the future. But as things stand now, picking Penix at No. 8 just doesn’t make sense.