Tennessee Titans general manager Jon Robinson was just as surprised as most to see that Liberty quarterback Malik Willis was still available as the third round of the 2022 NFL Draft wound down, given that he was the top-rated QB on many team’s draft boards.
Robinson decided to pull the trigger on a trade with the Las Vegas Raiders, sending a fifth-round pick to move up four spots and grab the 22-year-old signal caller, who was the highest-rated player left on Tennessee’s draft board, before another GM had the same idea.
Projected as a top-20 pick, Willis fell some 60-plus spots below where he was expected to go. In fact, league officials made Willis one of just 21 players invited to attend the draft. He was the 20th player of that group to hear his name called.
“I have faith that God is going to put me wherever he needs me to go,” Willis said of the long wait he endured before his selection. “I just have to understand that I don't run things down here and He does. So, He has a plan for me. I'm just appreciative that He put me somewhere where I feel like I can go and just get better.”
To make room for Willis on Tennessee’s roster, the team cut veteran QB Kevin Hogan, leaving Logan Woodside — who’s been largely unchallenged over the past two years as the Titans' backup quarterback — as Willis’ only competition for the No. 2 job.
While Willis may be the quarterback of the future, Ryan Tannehill is still very much the quarterback of the present.
Willis’ rookie year is expected to be a lot of sitting and learning. However, Robinson stated that how quickly he sees the field is entirely dependent on how swiftly the 6-foot QB picks up on and gets acclimated to the offense.
"I think his role will be determined by how quickly he comes in here and learns the offense and improves and gains the respect of his teammates," Robinson said. "No different than any other player. They're going to earn opportunities, but, again, he is a player that was just kind of staring at us there. We were excited that when we were able to get up and get him and not get jumped, if somebody was coming up."
Added Willis: “Ryan Tannehill is a great player and he's a great leader for this organization. I just want to come in and just do all I can in order to get better at my craft. Whenever that time comes for me to get on the field, then that time will come. But until then, I'm just going to try to learn and be the best teammate that I can be.”
The apprehension many scouts had about Willis entering the draft stemmed from how green he was under center. Concerns were raised about his mechanics, accuracy and decision making, and some scouts considered Willis the draft’s biggest project.
That may be exactly why the Titans were a perfect fit for the QB. Unless something seismic happens, Tannehill’s $38.6 million cap hit all but ensures his spot as Tennessee’s starter in 2022.
But after that, the Titans can get out of his contract and owe him no guaranteed money in 2023 — putting into place a legitimate succession plan for Tennessee and giving Willis a timeline of exactly how long he has to learn the Titans’ offense.
“All it takes is somebody being able to teach me, and I have to go learn the playbook just like anybody else,” Willis said. “There’s no way that I don't feel comfortable learning it from what they taught me during the pre-draft process, and I feel like I retain information pretty well. I had an understanding of it. It's just me going and putting in work every day.”
Willis was a yards-producing machine at Liberty, accounting for 3,736 of the Flames’ 5,671 total yards in 2021 (65.9 percent), leading the team in rushing (878 yards and 13 scores), and setting a new school record with 40 single-season touchdowns.
Completing 61 percent of his passes, Willis threw for 2,857 yards and 27 touchdowns. But the part of his game that has the potential to transform the Titans offense is what he can do on the run.
Willis led all FBS ball carriers with 90 missed tackles, and he had the best passer rating among all FBS QBs (91.3) while scrambling. His true dual-threat skillset could be just the thing to put the Titans offense over the top.
“Good arm, athletic, moves around well,” Robinson said. “Got a really good skillset. Throws a good ball. He is tough to tackle. He has a lot of work to do, obviously, like all the rookies do, but excited to add him to the team and compete.”
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