The discourse surrounding this year’s quarterback draft class has been exhausting compared to past years, and much of it is largely due to the lack of overall talent.
One of the names at the top of the list, however, is Liberty’s Malik Willis.
Putting together a solid pre-draft campaign, Willis has made waves at the Reese’s Senior Bowl and the NFL Scouting Combine, and showed off his attractive personality and tremendous tools at his pro day.
Without a doubt, Willis possesses the highest of tools in this year’s crop of quarterbacks as he can line a football on a rope deep down the field. While they’re not on the level of Trevor Lawrence or Justin Fields of last year, his arm and lower half magic are top end nonetheless.
In fact, Willis had the second-highest average of air yards in the class to North Carolina’s Sam Howell (11.45), averaging over 11 yards in depth per pass attempt.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention Willis’ rushing ability as well, as it is a massive draw to his game. In 2021, Willis racked up the most scramble yards per carry of any quarterback in the class, averaging 6.64 per attempt.
He was second to only Sam Howell in terms of pure yards per carry (rushing plays and scrambles).
Context is key when evaluating talent for the NFL Draft. Howell lost all of his playmakers and played behind one of the worst offensive lines in the nation and Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder is one of two quarterbacks who actually operated an offense consisting of NFL-level concepts.
When looking at the context of Willis’ season, it is important to understand that he’s playing with the worst supporting cast in the country. With the tools, the personality, and a great pre-draft process, Willis has the ability to become a high-end quarterback at the next level.
The problem? Everything pre-draft is simulated and the wheels tend to fall off when the whistle of live play blows.
Looking at Willis’ game-by-game log, his best games came against Campbell, Troy, UMass and Eastern Michigan. In these games, his well-thrown percentage was over 86% twice, and over 77% for the other two games. The number of pickable passes that Willis threw against these bottom-of-the-barrel opponents went way down as well.
However, when turning to a few other Group of Five opponents such as UL-Lafayette, UL-Monroe, North Texas, and Army, Willis posted some ugly numbers. In the four games mentioned here, Willis’ pickable pass percentage jumped to over 10% of his attempts in half of these games. In the one game against Ole Miss of the SEC, a season-high 15.4% of his passes were deemed interceptable.
On the season, Willis stacked up the lowest well-thrown percentage of any quarterback in the class, finding the mark on just 74.6% of his passes in 2021. Looking at last year’s class, this would have ranked him among names like Notre Dame’s Ian Book and Texas’ Sam Ehlinger.
Additionally, Willis was also the most volatile passer in the country in 2021. He finished with the highest pickable pass percentage in the class at 4.9 – no other draftable quarterback had worse than 3.3% in that category.
In the two games against Power Five schools this past season, Willis took a total of 15 sacks between the Syracuse and Ole Miss performances. While Willis had the ability to make magic with his legs against lower-level schools, his improvisational skills were significantly neutered when playing against the speed and discipline of top-tier schools.
Though he rushed for 81 yards on 17 carries against Syracuse and 126 yards on 27 rushes versus Ole Miss, Willis averaged 2.9 and 2.6 yards per carry, respectively, in those contests. He averaged 6.7 yards per carry over his 11 other games.
Of course, not all of the sacks given up by the offense fell onto Willis’ shoulders, but quite a large number were on the Liberty quarterback when he ran defenders out of the path of his blockers.
Willis will have to display much more pocket integrity to find success in the NFL.
Willis will already be 23 years old by the time he reaches the NFL level and his learning curve is much steeper than most give credence to heading into the league. While Ridder and Nevada’s Carson Strong manned offenses with NFL concepts and had pre-snap responsibilities at the line of scrimmage, Willis seemed to have an extremely light workload.
As the season went along, Willis was able to get his eyes to backside digs with more frequency than early in the season when he was immune to working over the middle of the field. However, there may not be a more pedestrian and elementary offense in the country than the one Hugh Freeze is running at Liberty.
Willis had no pre-snap responsibilities and was not even asked to work concepts beyond two reads on most occasions. In fact, Willis was given the liberty to take any one-on-one backside shot he wanted at the college level. An NFL head coach may not be as lenient to these shot plays and Willis is going to be forced to work his eyes through concepts.
The common argument used in the discussion falls back to the 2018 NFL Draft class that produced Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen. However, banking on an outlier like Allen is never a winning formula.
And in terms of Jackson, Louisville asked him to do quite a bit as a passer in an NFL-translatable offense and he did so to the tune of two Heisman ceremony trips and one trophy. As a rusher at the college level in 2017, Jackson also averaged nearly a full extra yard per scramble attempt (7.58-6.64) more than Willis posted in 2021.
Neither Allen nor Jackson are adept comparisons to make when dissecting Willis’ game.
In a quarterback class that falls way behind the curve in terms of NFL talent, it makes a great deal of sense to take a shot on the guy with the biggest arm and the most mobility in his lower half. However, the actual elements of playing the quarterback position, his eyes and the progressions he’s asked to make, his accuracy, his pocket integrity, and overall volatility with the football need a lot of work with the 2022 NFL Draft is less than three weeks away.
Could Willis hit and become a big-time star at the NFL level? Sure, but he has a long way to go to get there.
Greg Gifford contributed. Graphic design by Briggs Clinard.