Malik Willis: 2022's Most Boom-or-Bust Draft Prospect

Liberty Flames QB Malik Willis
Liberty Flames QB Malik Willis
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NFL Draft - The quarterback pantheon has been taken over by super-soldiers. As general managers look around the top of the quarterback landscape, all they see are athletes with powerful arms and a knack for making the impossible possible. What has driven these decision-makers mad is that many of these current superstars were once incomplete college prospects, ranging from the inconsistent Justin Herbert to the total project Josh Allen. The Herberts and Allens of the world have given credence to the idea that physical talent is the only thing that matters, and that all of the mental aspects of quarterbacking will figure themselves out in due time.

Malik Willis is a test to see how far the NFL is willing to stretch that logic. A former Auburn transfer who started for two seasons at Liberty, Willis comfortably rocks the best arm and athletic profile among this year's quarterbacks. No other player is close in either category, at least not among any of the serious prospects. However, Willis is a redshirt junior whose film is wholly uninspiring from a processing perspective.

As always, Football Outsiders' 2022 NFL draft coverage is presented by Underdog Fantasy.

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From blitz replacement to eye progression to anticipation over the middle of the field, Willis just does not deliver in the advanced pillars of quarterback play right now. That is not to say Willis can never do those things moving forward, or has never shown brief glimpses of them, but they are not yet reliable parts of his game. He showed improvement in executing quick-game concepts from 2020 to 2021, which is an encouraging note, but as far as the 301- and 401-level quarterbacking skills go, Willis' film is dicey at best.

Take this blitz response, for example. Willis sends the back out wide to the right before the snap to get Liberty into an empty set. UMass responds with an empty check and shows a six-man blitz. While adjusting to a check can be a whirlwind, Willis should see the clear blitz intent and know that his pass-catchers have 1-on-1s across the board. The pass protection will also be down a man. In turn, Willis should want the ball out right away to beat the blitz. The closest and easiest option is the No. 3 running the stick route to Willis' left. Not only would that throw allow Willis to get the ball out right away, but it would put the ball away from the free rusher.

Willis instead turns away from the pass protection slide, directly to the free rusher side, and stares down the hitch route outside the numbers before realizing the throwing lane is inaccessible. Bad process, bad result.

Vision and trigger over the middle of the field are also issues for Willis. For all of Willis' impressive tight-window throws amidst chaos and outside the pocket, he teeters towards conservatism when eyeing the middle of the field in structure. His willingness to throw the middle of the field does not align with his arm talent. Willis just is not comfortable coming to a second or third read over the middle and pulling the trigger in anticipation that it will be open. In an odd roundabout way, Willis' hesitancy probably saved him from bad decisions that could have been made off the back of his late eyes, especially considering his legs can bail him out instead, but a legitimately great quarterback prospect should not require that kind of backwards logic to rationalize his play.

In this instance, Willis gets his eyes where they need to be. He starts by giving the trips side of the formation a chance, but the Cloud coverage takes everything away. By the time Willis gets to the top of his drop, his eyes are near the left hook area where the isolated receiver is breaking over the middle of the field. That's nice, so far. Ideally, Willis would work his eyes to the weak hook area, see the linebacker still getting width, and fire the ball in on the left hash away from the linebacker's flow. Easy pitch-and-catch—if Willis could anticipate it. Unfortunately, Willis stares at the receiver for a couple of ticks, then ultimately decides to bail out of the pocket. Willis ends up finding someone late in the play anyway, so there's a positive spin to this play if you really want to find it, but Willis is going to need to make those in-structure throws in the NFL.

Here is another missed opportunity, this time paid for with an interception. To start the play, Willis checks the middle of the field safety and peeks over to his left at the "alert" go ball before checking the safety again at the top of his drop. At that point, Willis should know the safety is on the left hash, meaning the right-hash area is open. His eyes move to the receiver running vertically down the right hash, as they should. All Willis needs to do from there is throw with the zip to beat the safety as well as the arc to keep the ball over the linebacker underneath. The receiver knows he is open and calls for the ball as he crosses the goal line. Once again, Willis gets gun-shy, opts to leave the pocket, and ends up tossing a prayer into the end zone for an interception. That seam ball would have been a legit NFL throw and Willis moved right past it.

The same issue shows up when Willis gets opportunities to attack down the field within structure. Willis will throw a quick go ball on the sideline or heave up a prayer after scrambling around a bit, but when it comes to attacking the seams and posts within the structure of the offense, the Liberty passer too often shies away. That is not to say he has never made those throws—some of his best throws are on those exact routes—but there were far more opportunities that he left on the field than ones he took advantage of. He just is not a big-game hunter within the rhythm of any given passing concept.

Fourth quarter. Tie ball game. First-and-10 with four minutes left. If there was ever a time to turn up the aggression meter and try to win a ballgame, this is it. The read on the post route from the No. 2 (slot receiver) is simple as can be, too. Syracuse shows the field safety at 8 yards depth capped directly on top of the slot receiver. With the "slot" defender being closer to the formation than the slot receiver, Willis should have a good sense that the slot receiver will get a 1-on-1 with the safety. Willis just needs to trust that it will be there, let the slot receiver work the route, and fire away downfield. Instead, Willis waits and runs himself into a sack, ultimately derailing Liberty's shot at winning this one.

Willis will be a work in progress in the NFL. All of the intricacies of seeing the field as a quarterback are not there for Willis right now. Perhaps some of that is due to the system, perhaps some of that is his 6-foot frame making it difficult to see the middle of the field. However you want to twist it, Willis is going to need time to get up to speed with the NFL.

That being said, there is no denying Willis' physical tools and his gift for making plays. Willis' talents are such that he can make himself right even when he is wrong. His arm is the best in the class, and he can access that arm strength with ease on the move. Willis will enter the league as the second-best athlete at the position behind Lamar Jackson, a skill set that is unlocked by his calm yet commanding presence as a scrambler. As frustrating as Willis can be in the pocket, everything slows down for him once he breaks structure.

Willis opens to his right, to the slot blitz side. He sees it as he gets into his drop. The right play would be to replace the blitz with the ball by throwing to the slant route by the No. 3 (innermost) receiver. Instead, Willis skips over the right throw and runs himself directly into the blitzer. Most quarterbacks would be dead in the water here, but Willis has the athleticism to wiggle out of pressure and the cool demeanor outside the pocket to deliver a good ball on the move.

Similar situation here. The difference is that Willis' "hot" option is the wide receiver swing to the right side rather than a quick slant over the middle. Getting 3-on-3 to the swing side versus a pressure look should get Willis to trigger immediately, seeing as the receiver will effectively get a 1-on-1 opportunity in space. Willis instead holds the ball and goes coast-to-coast with his eyes for whatever reason. It's hard to tell where he was trying to go with the ball. Then, suddenly, Willis springs himself away from the free rusher and flicks an easy 40-yard pass, conjuring an explosive play out of thin air.

This is not textbook quarterbacking. Both plays could have been "solved" at the top of the dropback. Still, the reality is that quarterbacks are going to be wrong at times, especially early in their pro careers. Willis has the talent to right enough of his wrongs and afford himself time to develop the rest of his game.

Willis also has the arm talent to get away with throws that most other quarterbacks could never dream of. Willis can generate both distance and zip with ease, and he has all the flexibility in his upper body to access the full might of his arm talent from any platform.

This is a 0.1% caliber play. It is Willis' best advertisement for being the first quarterback off the board. Scrambling around and remaining calm is impressive by itself, let alone squeezing in a pass near the boundary 45 yards down the field while on the move. The athleticism, arm strength, and fluidity to make this throw are tough to come by, and even tougher to pass on in the draft when general managers look around at all the league's top quarterbacks being capable of these kinds of plays.

 

Willis' athleticism stems beyond scrambling, of course. As mentioned before, Willis will step into the league as the best running quarterback behind Lamar Jackson. Even then, Willis can provide something a little different from Jackson. Whereas Jackson is more of a speed, vision, and finesse style of runner, Willis, while still plenty fast, is more of a hard-nosed runner with stunning balance. Whether or not that is a viable style long-term (see: Newton, Cam) is another discussion, but at least for the early portion of his career, Willis will have that card in his deck.

Trying to settle on exactly where Willis should be valued is a hair-pulling exercise. The rarity of Willis' physical tools makes them hard to turn down, but the developmental journey ahead of Willis is long and winding, and there is no guarantee he ever reaches the end.

Willis is both the first overall pick and a Day 3 prospect wrapped into one. The trick is trying to decipher which version of Willis shows up more often and which is a more likely outcome long-term. For that reason, Willis is a Day 2 prospect who will get bumped into the first round based on potential, positional value, and the general weakness of the class around him.

Comments

17 comments, Last at 27 Mar 2022, 9:54pm

1 ATL should take a shot at him

Homecoming at 8 seemed reasonable...until Mariota happened for whatever reason. Doubt they double up when itd be quite reasonable that only Carolina might pick one in front of them so I'm guessing they just don't like the class. 

5 A tiny part of me wants the…

Even though the rational part of me says "no thanks, not this year", the chaos-loving part of me wants the Lions to take him, just for the sheer fact that watching him scramble around and spray howitzer shots everywhere would be a hell of a lot more fun than watching Goff throw wobblers in the 5-15 yard range over and over.

8 Early on, I was thinking he…

Early on, I was thinking he'd be a decent flyer at 32 (because it's basically a free pick, so why not?), but as the pre-draft process has gone on, his hype train has gotten so out of control that there's no way he makes it that far.

11 Last year, probably 2nd or…

Last year, probably 2nd or 3rd round is my guess, but who really knows?  Josh Allen's improbable transformation into a superstar has skewed everyone's expectations for developmental "toolsy" guys.

12 Heck, the top 10 sure thing…

Heck, the top 10 sure thing guys go bust enough. Wentz, Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Tua, Daniel Jones, Trubisky, Goff....pro level is hard. Lots of those will probably settle into "ok but flawed starters" but still. 

13 The good thing about QB's…

The good thing about QB's that are plus runners, is that it elevates their floor a bit.  If you have a decent run-blocking line and running backs, you can get, at minimum, a poor man's version of the 2021 Eagles offense, even if the quarterback is a minus passer.

The one thing that gives me pause about the Lions potentially being in on Willis (I don't think they really are), is that Dan Campbell came from the Saints.  Maybe he'll talk Brad Holmes into Willis being a Taysom Hill with the potential to turn into something between Cam Newton and Lamar Jackson.

17 None of the guys you were…

None of the guys you were listed were considered locks to be great NFL QBs.  Especially not Wentz, Trubisky, Darnold, Jones, or Tua as all had serious questions about things ranging from where they played(wentz), how much experience (trubisky, darnold), injury(tua), or low projected ceiling (jones)

3  "Willis will step into the…

 "Willis will step into the league as the best running quarterback behind Lamar Jackson."

Josh Allen would like a word with you.

9 I love Josh, but …

… I’d put him third in the league right now behind Lamar and Kyler. They have more twitchiness to their games, which makes them more dangerous runners, IMO. Josh’s passing game and ability to deliver downfield strikes on the run, though? Those guys haven’t shown that they can deliver on that. 

15 I am normally very wary of…

I am normally very wary of QB prospects that are hyped-up for their physical tools (e.g. Kyle Boller throwing 50 yards from his knees) rather than for decision making. However, Willis feels less risky to me than the typical physical-hype QB prospect. A lot of his questionable decision making cited above seems to be him being either (a) overly cautious when throwing down the middle or (b) reluctant to take the easy, early / check-down throws. These flaws seem more fixable than those of the repeatedly-throw-into-double-or-triple-coverage kind.

Maybe it's the recency bias of Josh Allen's successful transformation, but if my team drafted him in the top ten (without trading up), I don't think I'd be disappointed.

16 Good call!

Lebo, that was my assessment too.  If anything, Willis' hesitations to throw in certain situations suggested to me that he was being prudent, that he knew his or the situations' limitations.  That's commendable and hopefully as the limitations decline with experience and confidence, so too will Willis' hesitations to attempt beneficial passes.