There’s a scene in American Hustle where the characters played by Christian Bale and Amy Adams bond over their shared love of Duke Ellington. They sit down to listen to “Jeep’s Blues,” which opens with a raucous big-band melody and sudden crescendo that leave Bale’s character in reverent wonder. “Who starts a song like that?!”
That was basically my reaction to Michael Penix Jr.’s first pass in Washington’s thrilling 37-31 College Football Playoff semifinal win over Texas last week. Stepping back onto the gridiron for the first time in a month, Penix wasted no time in getting right to the good shit, uncorking a perfectly placed moon shot deep downfield that hit Ja’Lynn Polk in stride, leading him away from coverage and helping him break free to the 2-yard line for a 77-yard gain. That throw (which led to a Dillon Johnson touchdown on the next play) was a tone-setting statement from Penix, whose aggressive play style, strong arm, and deep-ball prowess were on full display from start to finish in the Huskies’ big win.
Penix put together arguably the most impressive game of his life on the biggest stage this Washington team has yet played on, completing 29 of 38 passes for 430 yards and two touchdowns to lead the Huskies to a national championship game berth. That performance opened the eyes of those still unfamiliar with Penix’s game and almost surely boosted his stock in the eyes of NFL evaluators. If he can pull off anything similar against a much tougher Michigan defense Monday night, the growing hype will reach a fever pitch. With that in mind, let’s dig into the tape and some of the numbers to break down what caliber of pro prospect Penix really is heading into the 2024 NFL draft.
The battle for the title of QB1 in this year’s draft class will probably come down to USC’s Caleb Williams and North Carolina’s Drake Maye. The current consensus points to LSU’s Heisman-winning passer, Jayden Daniels, as the front-runner for QB3, and past that, there’s a handful of contenders vying for the projected QB4 spot. Penix seems to have moved into the pole position there with last week’s performance but will face stiff competition from his counterpart in Michigan, J.J. McCarthy (if he declares), and Oregon’s Bo Nix, among a few others.
It is, of course, way too early to write any of these projections in ink, so there is more than just a national championship at stake for the Washington quarterback. If Penix balls out against the Wolverines and leads the Huskies to a win, not only will he solidify himself as a likely first-rounder, but he could find himself in the discussion for the top 10. There are some variables that make me question how realistic that is—and I’ll get to those a little later—but from the narrative point of view, it’d be tough for fans, analysts, and perhaps some teams to ignore the hype a Joe Burrow–esque undefeated season would bring.
We see late risers at the quarterback position every draft. Burrow himself was a former transfer who came out of nowhere in his final year at LSU to lead the Tigers to an undefeated season and national title (he did so playing behind an elite offensive line while throwing to multiple future NFL receivers—sound familiar?). At this time just last year, most mock drafts had Will Levis over Anthony Richardson, and few, if any, had Richardson projected inside the top five (some didn’t even have him in the first round). There are obviously a million contextual and stylistic differences between Penix and Burrow and Richardson, but the point is that it’s not always easy to get a bead on how teams will view quarterback prospects. More to the point: Only one team has to fall in love with a guy for him to go higher than expected. And there’s plenty to love about Penix.
Above all else, Penix looks most comfortable when he is, to put it technically, gripping it and ripping it. After watching an NFL season that was at least in part defined by subpar quarterbacking and historic lows in yards per completion (10.9, tied for lowest ever), I gotta say, watching this dude throw the football feels like a breath of fresh air. Here’s a collection of throws I’ve affectionately named “Michael Penix Jr. lasers.”
The first thing that jumps out with Penix is his quick release and whiplike throwing motion. Yes, his form looks a little weird at times. And no, his footwork and mechanics are not always fundamentally sound. But I think if you’re thrown off by his unorthodox-looking throwing style, it’s probably mostly because he’s left-handed. Here are a bunch of highlight throws where the video is mirrored to make him look right-handed. This will help you calibrate his throwing-motion weirdness—it’s really not that bad.
In any case, the ball usually ends up where it’s supposed to go. Penix brings natural arm strength and has no problem hitting any spot on the field. He throws with excellent velocity when he needs to, but he can vary his speed depending on the coverage. He boasts an impressive collection of touch throws that look like “downfield handoffs,” where the ball seems to float gently into his receiver’s hands.
The deep balls are fun, but Penix brings plenty of other important traits to the table. The most critical among them may be his ability to avoid turnovers. Penix has thrown 66 touchdowns and just 17 interceptions over the past two years and has totaled just 17 turnover-worthy plays on 1,063 pass attempts in that stretch, per Pro Football Focus—a measly 1.6 percent turnover-worthy play rate. But at the same time, I do appreciate that he seems keenly aware he’s playing with three NFL-caliber receivers (two of whom, Rome Odunze and Polk, may go in the first round this year), and he shows a willingness to give his guys a chance to make plays. On these throws, you can almost see him saying, “F-ck it, he’s down there somewhere.”
Penix has also done very well to avoid sacks. According to PFF’s charting, Penix’s 8 percent pressure-to-sack rate ranked fifth lowest among 82 FBS quarterbacks with 100-plus pressured dropbacks in 2023. As this graph from Football Insights shows, when compared to quarterbacks in this class and those drafted over the past decade, Penix (top right quadrant) is in rare territory in sack avoidance over his entire college career.
Penix is a quick processor and can get through his reads to find the open man and get the ball out. But his low career sack rate isn’t just a result of throwing quickly. His pressure-to-sack rate on dropbacks where he held the ball for more than 2.5 seconds is also an astoundingly low 7 percent. He shows an understanding of where his outlets are, and, critically, he has an extraordinarily quick trigger and release, helping him whip the ball out without much wasted movement and without having to reset his feet. We saw a great example of that last Monday on this play, when he beat a Texas free rusher with this wild, off-balance, sidearm throw.
lovely flick from Michael Penix to beat the rush pic.twitter.com/T7z2PEJ2vP— Nate Tice (@Nate_Tice) January 2, 2024
In fact, we saw him impressively navigate muddied pockets several times in that game. He almost looks like a sparring boxer as he nimbly jukes and strafes to keep himself clean and buy himself extra time to make a few critical throws—including a touchdown pass to Polk.
Penix is willing to stand in the pocket and fire throws downfield even when pressure is coming right at him. He flashes the ability to manipulate safeties with his eyes and works the whole field to find the open man. And while he’s not much of a runner, he’s quick enough to scramble away from pressure and get positive yards when everything breaks down.
That all said, Penix is anything but a perfect prospect. He comes with a number of bright red flags that will make him a difficult evaluation for quarterback-needy teams in this year’s draft. For starters, Penix is a sixth-year senior who will be a 24-year-old rookie; some teams look at older quarterback prospects as maxed out and lacking room for growth and development. More critically, the Huskies star has an extensive and concerning injury history; he’s managed to stay healthy in his two seasons at Washington, but he suffered serious season-ending injuries in all four of his years at Indiana. He tore his right ACL as a freshman in 2018; he suffered a season-ending injury to his right shoulder/clavicle in 2019; he tore the same ACL again in 2020; and he missed all but five games in 2021 because of an AC joint injury to his throwing shoulder. The medical reports that team doctors draw up in the predraft process could be the difference between being drafted in the first round vs. falling to day two.
Past that critical health variable, though, there are on-field reasons teams could balk. Penix falls away in the face of pressure at times, which makes his accuracy erratic. We saw an example of that in the Pac-12 championship against Oregon, when he sailed a pass over the head of his receiver, leading to a pick. As Nate Tice points out, Penix’s numbers throwing into the intermediate middle area of the field are concerning. He relies heavily on short passes and screens to the outside, which help set up deep bombs down the field. If he’s not comfortable attacking that huge swath in the middle of the field, defenses at the next level will make his life difficult. And, of course, he’ll face level-of-competition questions from playing in the Pac-12, and he could be downgraded for perceived number juicing that results from playing with an outstanding supporting cast. Penix played behind the Joe Moore Award–winning offensive line this year and threw to three future NFL receivers, including Jalen McMillan, Polk, and Odunze. Apart from the worry about whether he’ll be able to stay healthy, teams will surely ask themselves, “If you take away his elite protection and playmaking receiver trio, what do you get?”
It will be tough for Penix to answer all of those questions on Monday night. But he’s got an incredible opportunity to do the next best thing and create the perfect College Football Playoff bookend to what he did with his first pass in the semifinal last week: end his college career by raising the national championship trophy.