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Michael Penix Jr. vs. J.J. McCarthy: NFL Draft evaluations
College Football

Michael Penix Jr. vs. J.J. McCarthy: NFL Draft evaluations

Published Jan. 5, 2024 11:36 a.m. ET

Football is the ultimate team sport, with every member of the offense, defense and special teams contributing to the outcome of each contest. But there is no denying the supreme importance of the quarterback position. And in the rare moment you have two potential NFL first-rounders squaring off for a national championship — as we do on Monday in Houston (7:30 p.m., ESPN) — the event takes on the feel of a heavyweight boxing championship match.

So, with the help of film and an eye toward the NFL, let's break down the Tale of the Tape between Washington's Michael Penix Jr. and Michigan's J.J. McCarthy, who together personify the idea that differing styles make for a great fight.

The two quarterbacks were both born in Florida, share the same jersey number (No. 9) and have led their respective teams to 14-0 seasons. Their 2023 campaigns included clutch performances to defeat bitter rivals and sparkling efforts in last weekend's playoff victories.

But that is where the similarities seemingly end.



In part due to his wiry frame and the fact that he is left-handed, Penix was overlooked by many recruiters despite starring at the prep level for Tampa Bay Tech. Graded a three-star recruit who some felt projected best at safety, Penix initially agreed to play at Tennesssee as a quarterback, but when the Volunteers moved on from Butch Jones in favor of Jeremy Pruitt, Penix switched allegiances, ultimately choosing Indiana. Penix played in 20 games over four injury-plagued seasons for the Hoosiers, going 12-5 as a starter before transferring two years ago to Washington, where he rejoined his former position coach and offensive coordinator at Indiana, Kalen DeBoer. 

Penix flashed under DeBoer's play-calling at Indiana, earning second-team All-Big Ten honors in 2020 and leading the conference in multiple passing categories in 2021 (including yards and touchdowns). Each of his four seasons was hampered by significant injuries, including ACL tears to his right knee in 2018 and 2020 and season-ending shoulder injuries in 2019 and 2021, the latter of which was to his throwing arm.

Penix has shaken the injury bug at Washington, starting all 27 games the past two seasons. He finished the regular season this year as the runner-up to LSU's Jayden Daniels in the Heisman Trophy balloting, despite leading the Huskies to an undefeated season and college football in passing yards (3,899), with an impressive 32-8 touchdown to interception ratio.

McCarthy, a four-star recruit who played his prep ball at the prestigious IMG Academy, turned down offers from many top programs to sign with Jim Harbaugh and Michigan. McCarthy saw consistent playing time as a first-year freshman and emerged as the Wolverines' starter in Year 2.

Operating as the rudder of a run-heavy tanker of an offense, McCarthy's passing statistics are not as impressive as his counterpart's, with the third-year junior throwing for "just" 2,483 yards over the regular season (currently 2,851) with 19 touchdowns against four interceptions. Voted second-team All-Big Ten, McCarthy has since thrown three more touchdowns without an interception in Michigan's wins over Iowa in the Big Ten championship game and Alabama in last week's Rose Bowl.


One of the many ways in which Penix and McCarthy differ is the perception of how their NFL draft stock has been impacted by their respective performances in last weekend's playoff victories.

Penix's stock has risen all season long, but it's rocketed in the past month.

He was undeniably brilliant in the Sugar Bowl win over Texas. He completed 29 of 38 passes for 430 yards and two touchdowns without an interception and was even better than his statistics suggest, showing pristine ball placement on deep balls requiring touch and torque. Frankly, given the difficulty of the throws Penix was attempting, it was as impressive a performance as I've seen from any quarterback at any level in 20-plus years of evaluating college and pro football.

As such, it is difficult to imagine Penix's draft stock not rising for every NFL team following his New Year's Day. If scouts graded him based on just the Sugar Bowl, I believe Penix would leap past USC's Caleb Williams, North Carolina's Drake Maye and Ohio State's Marvin Harrison Jr. to be the first player selected in the 2024 NFL Draft. 

What makes Penix's performance against Texas even more exciting is that it came in such a high-pressure environment and on the heels of a stellar showing against rival Oregon in the Pac-12 championship. In that contest — another road game in which the Huskies entered as a significant underdog — Penix completed 27 of 39 passes for 319 yards with one touchdown and one interception, statistics that again, don't truly account for the depth and tight windows of the throws he's asked to make in Washington's aggressive downfield attack. The victory not only gave Washington the final conference championship in Pac-12 history and all but guaranteed the Huskies a spot in the playoffs, but it made Penix 3-0 against Oregon for his career. 

McCarthy deserves plenty of credit for his role in Michigan's success, but relatively ho-hum statistics (22 of 30 passing for 147 yards and no touchdowns) in the 26-0 whitewashing of Iowa in the Big Ten title game won't move the needle much for scouts, fans or the media. His final numbers against Alabama look better on paper than they did on tape, with McCarthy completing a solid 63% of his passes for 221 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions in the overtime win. Relatively "simple" plays like this one are only made easy because defenses have to account for McCarthy's ability to run (more on this later).

Scouts will certainly recognize the stellar Alabama defense McCarthy and the Wolverines overcame in the Rose Bowl. Scouts attending the game in Pasadena expected "a handful" of Crimson Tide defenders to eventually earn first-round selections, a vastly superior level of competition than Penix faced against Texas and Oregon. McCarthy showed poise and precision as a passer, as well as his trademark mobility, in escaping a vaunted Alabama pass rush and consistently completing passes against arguably the most gifted secondary in the country. McCarthy's pro stock may not have risen in the eyes of NFL scouts following these two games, but it certainly didn't plummet just because his production failed to impress fantasy football enthusiasts.


Simply put, Penix is the most gifted pocket passer in the 2024 NFL Draft. 

A year ago, I felt the same about C.J. Stroud (and wrote as much) recognizing the eventual No. 2 overall pick for his extraordinary accuracy on downfield passes. I've often written about the fact that I evaluate quarterbacks on the Five A's — Accuracy, Anticipation, Arm Strength, Athleticism and Attitude — and both Stroud and Penix possess the precise ball placement to eventually earn All-Pro honors.

Perhaps even more than Stroud — and certainly more than McCarthy — Penix also boasts remarkable arm strength. He has very large hands and a rifle for a left arm, showing a rare ability to simply rocket passes past defenders. 

For years, I've heard scouts use the expression that one could "hang their laundry" on the line of a strong-armed quarterback's throw. Hell, a 300-pound NFL defensive lineman could zip-line down the vapor trail of this touchdown strike — a pass that covers nearly 30 yards and is never higher than most players' helmets.

And Penix is far from just a strong-armed passer. He has a pillow-soft touch as this 77-yard drop-in-the-bucket in the Sugar Bowl demonstrated.

He's also shown a "clutch" factor that every NFL scout will appreciate, including tossing this game-winner on a fade to star wideout Rome Odunze to beat Oregon in the regular season.

So why isn't Penix a shoo-in for a top-five selection in the upcoming NFL Draft? 

Well, as listed before, Penix comes with significant medical baggage, which every NFL team will individually evaluate. Officially listed by Washington at 6-foot-3 and 213 pounds, Penix has a relatively slight frame with long, skinny legs. Further, his success at Washington and Indiana both came with DeBoer (and his talented offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb), which may not necessarily mesh with the scheme he's drafted into in the NFL. He has been protected a bit by the nation's best offensive line (as recognized as this year's recipient of the Joe Moore Award) and Washington's multiple future NFL draft picks at wide receiver and tight end.

Also, as the NFL increasingly shifts to dual-threat quarterbacks, Penix's relatively average elusiveness in and out of the pocket is a concern. While I expect him to show impressive straight-line explosiveness in the 40-yard dash and leaping drills, he isn't particularly nimble laterally. The 31 yards Penix generated on three well-timed scrambles against Texas were the most he'd run for in a single game all season. He's one of the quarterbacks that scouts and the media like to call "sneaky" athletic, but he's more of a traditional pocket passer who wants to throw the ball, not run it.  Like a lot of pocket passers, when pressured, Penix is inconsistent in re-setting his feet and consistently delivering catchable balls.

That said, let's be clear. While there are some struggles on tape when forced to reset his feet, there are also some dynamic plays, including this one on the road against last year's Heisman Trophy winner, Williams, and the Trojans.

McCarthy does not possess Penix's rocket arm, but his mobility and success in a more traditional pro-style offense will appeal to many NFL coaches. He throws with impressive accuracy of his own, especially between the hashes, targeting the Wolverines' tight ends and hitting receivers in stride to help them create big plays. 

He's quite dynamic with the ball in his hands, exhibiting both agility to make defenders miss in tight spaces, as well as smooth acceleration to turn the corner. McCarthy has rushed for 10 touchdowns in just two seasons as Michigan's starting quarterback, compared to Penix's 13 combined scores on the ground over six collegiate seasons at Indiana and Washington.

And while agile, McCarthy's primary focus remains downfield even amid a pass rush. He can escape pressure and still make very accurate passes on the move. 

What worries scouts about McCarthy is that he relies too much on his anticipation, and at times lacks the zip to drive passes outside the numbers. Scouts (and Michigan fans) won't need reminding that he threw two pick-6s against TCU a year ago in the Fiesta Bowl upset that saw the Horned Frogs leap into the national title game. 


Bigger and possessing a more electric arm, Penix has the higher upside — one that could potentially result in a top-10 selection. However, his durability concerns and advanced age (he'll turn 24 a week after the NFL Draft) are wild cards that NFL teams will need to weigh. After his scintillating performance in the Sugar Bowl, Penix is the "hot" prospect right now, but scouts won't show the same recency bias that the media and fans will. Though it would be an injury risk, Penix could attempt to dismiss these concerns by electing to compete in an all-star game, like the Senior Bowl or East-West Shrine Bowl.

As a third-year junior who to this point has denied he is focused on early entry to the NFL, McCarthy is himself a wild card for the 2024 draft. Should his head coach Harbaugh — the last Michigan quarterback to be selected in the first round of an NFL Draft — opt to leave Michigan for another shot at leading an NFL team, McCarthy may choose to follow him, potentially making 2024 yet another very rich quarterback crop.

Given the strong track records of both players, NFL scouts won't dramatically change their evaluations based on Monday's title game. That said, a noteworthy star or dud performance could certainly impact final rankings in a class as potentially tight as this one.

Regardless of which of these two talented signal-callers ultimately wins the national championship, both have bright futures in the NFL, perhaps as first-round NFL Draft selections as early as this spring. 

Rob Rang is an NFL Draft analyst for FOX Sports. He has been covering the NFL Draft for more than 20 years, with work at FOX, Sports Illustrated,, USA Today, Yahoo, and, among others. He also works as a scout with the BC Lions of the Canadian Football League. Follow him on Twitter @RobRang.

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