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Steelers draft profile: Michael Penix Jr. (QB, Washington)

The Washington quarterback is a potential first-rounder and the definition of a boom-or-bust prospect.

Washington Huskies quarterback Michael Penix Jr. (9) drops back to throws a pass during the second quarter against the Michigan Wolverines in the 2024 College Football Playoff national championship game at NRG Stadium. Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

It’s officially draft season here at BTSC — sure, a little earlier than we wanted, but it’s an exciting time nevertheless as we start to profile the numerous potential Steelers who will be entering the 2024 NFL Draft.

Given the Steelers’ presumed needs at quarterback, we start by breaking down all you need to know on Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr.

Penix is one of the more polarizing quarterbacks entering the draft this year, with some truly elite traits but also a number of glaring red flags. I’ve read draft profiles that love him, some that don’t, and projections ranging anywhere from the top of the first round to somewhere in the third.

The basics on Michael Penix Jr.

  • Quarterback
  • Sixth-year senior (Washington, transferred from Indiana)
  • 6’3, 213 pounds
  • 23 years old

Passing stats via Sports Reference

Michael Penix Jr. scouting report

Strengths

Okay, so let’s start with the good. Penix is one of my favorite quarterbacks in this class due to his massive arm and surgical deep ball, whether it’s dropping it in the bucket in-stride or placing it where only his receiver can get it on a back-shoulder fade. His downfield accuracy can be uncanny and is surprisingly consistent, with Penix making plenty of ‘wow’ throws in every game of his I watched this season.

Penix can put excellent zip on his passes all over the field, with great accuracy at every level. As a sixth-year senior, his game has more sophistication to it than your average third-year passer declaring for the draft. Penix has demonstrated the ability to work through the entire field when going through his reads, although he’s had struggles dealing with pressure. Still, his football IQ is comfortably where you’d want it to be for a player with his experience.

One of the cliches when writing about a quarterback with an arm like Penix’s is that “the ball leaps from his hand” — but that isn’t exactly true here. Penix has elite arm strength, but his throwing motion is closer to a shot put than an Aaron Rodgers-esque flick of the wrist. His longer throwing motion could be a problem in the pros, and his stiff mechanics aren’t exactly ideal.

Penix’s ability to win the big games — and just win in general — is another big plus on his resume. The Huskies played in seven games against ranked opponents in 2023, with their lone loss coming to top-ranked Michigan. In fact, Penix went 25-3 in his two years at Washington, with his 2023 team being the only one to ever have an undefeated season as a Pac-12 school.

Penix can win the big games and the close games, and his confidence and leadership are impressive as well. He was freestyling on the bench before leading a game-winning drive against No. 8-ranked Oregon last year, and he wore a jacket with his teammates and coaches’ names on it to the Heisman Trophy presentation. To go along with his physical traits, Penix has the gunslinger mentality and poise of a franchise quarterback, but the red flags in his medical history cast a large shadow over every positive.

In Washington’s playoff game against Texas, Penix had one of the best games a college quarterback has had all season, routinely making the types of throws most passers can only complete once or twice a game. Against that good Longhorns team, Penix proved that he has true franchise quarterback potential. But he’s still far from a blue-chip prospect.

Weaknesses

While Penix legitimately looked like a top-ten pick against Texas, one game is far from the whole story. The most concerning part of Penix’s draft profile is his extensive injury history prior to his time at Washington, which includes a whopping four season-ending injuries in as many years at Indiana: a torn ACL in 2018 and 2020, and shoulder injuries in 2019 and 2021.

While Penix was clearly banged up at points during his 2022 and 2023 seasons at Washington, he never missed significant time. You can bet that Penix’s health will be teams’ top priority entering the 2024 draft cycle. Even though he’s remained relatively healthy over the past two seasons, if Penix’s injury history looks like it could affect his NFL future, that, combined with his age, could drastically tank the quarterback’s draft stock.

The injuries have partially contributed to why Penix isn’t much of a dual-threat quarterback despite his solid all-around athleticism. However, although Penix is a pocket passer through and through, he’s far from a statue and he can be a serviceable runner when needed. In fact, his two-point conversion run that sealed an Indiana upset against No. 8 Penn State in 2020 is what put Penix on the football map for many.

Previously, I mentioned some struggles from Penix jr. while under pressure. Those struggles with pressure were accentuated in the National Championship against a sophisticated Michigan defense, in which Penix played one of the worst games of his career. With pressure in his face all night, Penix had extremely spotty accuracy and questionable decision-making in a brutal loss.

With a passing offense as explosive as Washington’s, Penix did have a habit of getting greedy at times. This was at its worst in Penix’s rough game against Michigan, where he was clearly trying to do too much at times. But more often than not this season, it worked, thanks to Penix’s arm talent and a ridiculously stacked receiver core including the likes of future top-ten pick Rome Odunze as well as Jalen McMillan and Ja’Lynn Polk, among others.

Finally, we’ll discuss the fact that some might see the talent around Penix as a negative on his draft profile. I’m undecided, as we’ve seen it not matter (Joe Burrow) and very much matter (Mac Jones) in the past. Penix will be at the upcoming Senior Bowl, and talent evaluators will get a chance to see how he looks outside of his system.

What others are saying

  • In a January 8 scouting profile from Pro Football Network’s Ian Cummings, Penix is described as a “rocket-armed left-handed thrower with elite drive velocity and high-end arm elasticity,” as well as a “high-IQ passer who gathers information pre-snap and processes the field without delay” amongst other strengths. As for weaknesses, Penix’s age, injury history, and “arm arrogance” are mentioned. The report adds that he grades out as a top-five quarterback in this year’s class and a first-round pick.
  • A January 6 profile from The Draft Network’s Damian Parson praises Penix for his “IQ and processing” and sees him as a “prototypical pocket passer.” Besides injuries, the greatest concerns are seen as his ability to handle pressure and his “accuracy out of structure.” The report concludes that Penix is the “best pure passing quarterback prospect in the 2024 NFL Draft class” with a first-round grade.
  • This Bleacher Report profile by Derrik Klassen from a few weeks ago is more harsh, grading Penix as a third-round prospect. The article praises his arm strength, deep ball, and “functional athleticism,” but states that Penix is a “one-speed thrower” who only throws line drives, adding that he struggles with intermediate accuracy and “flashes NFL progression ability, but too often triggers a beat late.” It’s interesting, however, that the article still sees Penix as the QB5 in his class.
  • Steelers Now’s Nick Farabaugh notes that he feels the league is much lower on Penix than outside evaluators are.

Michael Penix Jr.’s fit with the Steelers

If drafted by Pittsburgh, Penix would be an immediate candidate for the starting job and a potential franchise quarterback. He’d easily have the most potential out of anyone in the Steelers’ quarterback room, but you’d expect the team wouldn’t hand him the keys to the offense immediately. However, with Penix being a sixth-year senior entering the draft, the expectation is that he shouldn’t be too much of a work in progress.

Penix’s big arm and deep ball accuracy would be a great fit for the Steelers’ vertical passing game, with a Penix-George Pickens connection looking potentially lethal. Over the past few seasons, he’s proven to be a winner and able to handle close games, which fits perfectly with the Steelers’ winning style. But as is the caveat with every aspect of his scouting profile, Penix’s injury history poses major questions for his fit in Pittsburgh, or any team for that matter. The Steelers’ offensive line was majorly suspect in pass blocking last year, with weaknesses at tackle and center. And even if Pittsburgh did improve up front this offseason, you can still bet all of Acrisure will hold their breath every time Penix gets hit.

I still see Penix as worth the risk of a mid-first-round selection, but I wouldn’t mind the Steelers passing on him for a talented offensive lineman, defensive lineman, or cornerback with their first pick. However, if Penix is available in the second or third rounds, as some have predicted, he’ll be a fantastic option to throw into the Steelers’ quarterback mix in 2024. There’s a lot of bust potential with Penix, but the same can be said of every rookie quarterback. However, there’s just as much of a chance that he becomes a star at the NFL level.

BTSC grade: Mid-first round

What are your thoughts on Michael Penix Jr.? And which draft prospects would you like to see profiled next? Let us know in the comments below!