Tennessee Titans rookie quarterback Malik Willis showed glimpses during the first few weeks of training camp of the raw talent that led many scouts to consider him the best quarterback prospect in the 2022 NFL Draft.
That same raw talent was on display Thursday night in the Titans’ 23-10 loss to the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium in the preseason opener for the two organizations.
Willis started seven drives, leading Tennessee to scores on two of them. He completed 6 of 11 passes for 107 yards and added 38 yards on the ground with a rushing touchdown on five carries. More importantly, he showed that there is in fact a legit competition for the No. 2 QB spot behind Ryan Tannehill.
“You’ve got a lot to learn from it, a lot to look at on film,” Willis said. “It’s really cool to get out there again and play football. There were some things I just of made up for with my legs. I can’t continue to rely on that though, but that’s what the preseason is for so you can see those things against a live defense and one we haven’t played before.”
The 23-year-old rookie showed off his rocket arm early in the second quarter, connecting with Racey McMath on a 48-yard pass down the left sideline. Willis, who made a number of similar deep throws during training camp, affirmed that he was equally adept at making such passes in live-game action.
Willis also displayed some creativity when the pocket breaks down, rolling out to his left and rifling a side-arm pass to Tommy Hudson that went for a first down early in the second quarter.
Aside from his arm talent, Willis also showed off arguably his best asset: his wheels. At times, Willis was most effective at Liberty while on the move, leading all FBS ball carriers with 90 missed tackles in 2021, and recording the best passer rating among all FBS QBs (91.3) while scrambling.
His 7-yard touchdown run early in the second quarter was just a glimpse of that elusiveness he displayed at Liberty, where he led the Flames in rushing last season with 878 yards and 13 TDs.
While there were some encouraging moments from Willis’ performance Thursday night, there were also clear concerns — chief among them was the rookie quarterback's inability to see the full field.
On more than one occasion, Willis seemed to struggle progressing through his reads, either missing already open receivers or the opportunity to throw to open receivers. His throw to Kyle Philips early in the first quarter should have been intercepted, and toward the end of the quarter, he missed tight end Chig Okonkwo, who had a linebacker beat and was streaking down the middle of the field.
“He needs to try to throw the ball when guys are open, be more decisive,” Titans head coach Mike Vrabel said. “We’ll evaluate that and see if there’s a timing issue. Wanted to get him out there and wanted to see how he responded. He did OK; obviously, there were some good plays and obviously some plays that we’re going to have to look at the timing on the release and if we’re making the right decisions.”
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