Matt Waldman shares his pre-NFL Draft scouting report of Titans second-year quarterback Malike Willis.
QB Malik Willis Scouting Profile
RSP Ranking: QB9
Height/Weight: 6-0/219 School: Liberty
Comparison Spectrum: Lamar Jackson-Michael Vick-X
Depth of Talent Score: 73.89 = Reserve: A player with specific talents that could help him emerge into a contributor in an offense that limits the scope and demands of how he has to execute.
RSP Accuracy Charting
Games Tracked (Opponent/Date/Link):
- NC State 11/21/20
- VaTech 11/7/20
- Syracuse ‘21
- Ole Miss ‘21
- ULM ‘21
The Elevator Pitch for Willis: In consideration as a first-round pick, the narrative that seems associated with Willis is that if Josh Allen can develop from a raw athlete into a top quarterback then maybe Willis can do the same thing. A significant thing linking Willis to Allen’s developmental path is the fact that Willis has a top-tier throwing arm.
Allen arrived in the NFL as a big-armed and big-bodied talent who could buy time and win with the playground style of remaining on his feet until the defense lost track of a receiver. Early on, Buffalo Allen made as little as one read and then use his legs to gain yardage.
To Allen’s credit, he continued working at his craft to become a player capable of reading the entire field and limiting his impulsiveness to play Hero Ball. To the Bills’ credit, they built an offense that spreads the field and runs receivers across the width of the field.
This maximized Allen’s strengths to buy time because at least 2-3 routes had multiple windows of opportunity during a play so Allen could work away from pressure without having to recalculate what he was seeing against coverage. It also minimized Allen’s flaws of trying to squeeze targets into unrealistic windows of coverage on vertical-breaking routes.
Allen has acclimated into a complete quarterback—a star producer. Given where he was when he began his career, Allen is the exception to the rule when it comes to players developing the conceptual and intuitive acumen required of the position after arriving in the league. Allen is also the exception that proves the rule in the same way that you can create a template to create the next Patrick Mahomes.
Denver tried with Drew Lock. Green Bay tried with Jordan Love. And New York might be thinking Zach Wilson is that guy. All three might develop into starters, but the gap they have to travel just to become competent starters is as great as the gap between a competent starter and an elite passer.
Willis is not the next Allen – or at least the odds are too great to bet on it. What I find fascinating is that I haven’t seen any comparisons between Willis and Lamar Jackson. The difference in arm talent is probably the most logical reason. Jackson throws for distance but his lack of velocity is a big reason why the Ravens have a unique offensive system.
Although Allen is a rushing threat, he’s not the breakaway runner Jackson and Willis are. There’s also another reason why Willis isn’t generating the Jackson comparison—Jackson was a far more advanced thrower of the ball and pocket manager than either Allen or Willis at the collegiate and rookie level.
Even so, I’m more inclined to make the comparison because as someone who has long-recognized quarterbacks who were exceptions to the Robo-QB template that the NFL leaned on to a fault (Jackson, Mahomes, and Russell Wilson), Willis lacks the decision-making of a top prospect. The decision-making immaturity is pervasive in his game—from the touch he uses to throw the ball, to reading the leverage of coverage on receivers, and even with the choices he makes as a scrambler behind the line of scrimmage.
If Willis can mature in each of these areas of football, there are tremendous physical gifts within his game to unlock. Willis throws the ball with velocity and like Alex Smith, who had Gil Brandt proclaiming to major media that it was the best Pro Day he ever saw, he’ll impress every time he gets to throw against air. He already wowed beat writers at the Combine.
Still, the team that drafts Willis will need to provide patience and structure because Willis is more potential than reality at this stage. He’s better at reading leverage with man-to-man coverage than zone, which plays well into the ways the NFL likes to generate big plays in the passing game. And with Willis’ skills as a runner, he’ll make it difficult for teams to remain in zone coverage if they can’t generate pressure with 7-9 players dropping back.
Willis by no means is a hopeless case. He’s a reserve-caliber player at this stage earning first-day acclaim due to his superstar athletic ability. The reality is that Willis is a developmental quarterback prospect who could become a productive starter, but he has some obstacles to work past that aren’t remotely a given that he will.
You’re going to hear a lot of comparisons to Allen and probably Jackson. Allen was the exception that proves the rule, Jackson’s game gets mischaracterized due to biases that are rooted in football and/or social ignorance.
Willis will have to generate the most fantasy appeal at the position because fans will think about rushing yards. Jalen Hurts had more advanced skills as a quarterback than Willis when he entered the league but fans will cite Hurts’ 782 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns bolstering his value into the top-10 producers at the position in 2021.
Eagles’ Head Coach Nick Sirianni and GM Howie Roseman say they are committed to Hurts in 2022 despite trade rumors for Russell Wilson and Deshaun Watson. Hurts will get one more year, but with Gardner Minshew in tow, Hurts is on a short leash if he doesn’t take another step forward with his development.
If you’re a fantasy player, Willis’ draft capital will give him an opportunity to develop on a timeline of 2-3 years and he’ll generate at least low-end QB1 production thanks to his legs. Beyond that, Willis’ long-term potential has a lot more risk because production and wins are separate outcomes and if Willis isn’t generating wins, his fantasy value will dry up sooner than players far less exciting.
Where has the player improved? Willis has narrowed the width of his stance to set up his release. He still has lapses, but it’s not as pervasive of a habit in 2021 as it was in 2020.
Where is the player inconsistent? Willis has to learn when to throw the ball away. This is often a troublesome issue for quarterbacks with top arm talent and elite mobility. Willis gets himself and his team into trouble because he thinks he can create miracles. He must learn his limits—even if he has fewer of them as a runner and thrower than many of his peers.
What is the best scheme fit? The team that drafts Willis would be wise to make adjustments. Instead of focusing on his potential in a traditional scheme seen on Sundays, a mix of the Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson Development Templates is the best course. It means, giving Willis free rein to run when he’s not clear about his throwing decisions.
Most quarterbacks get injured in the pocket and it often happens when they are in a prone position. This vulnerability often occurs as they are getting rid of the ball or trying to change their mind about the course of a play. Until Willis gains more comfort and grows into a better pocket passer, allowing him to be decisive with when to run will also reduce the chances of overthinking and being in a vulnerable position.
Giving Willis the green light to skip progressions and run as well as using him on designed runs will help him grow at a more comfortable pace as he acclimates to throwing the ball at the NFL level.
What is his ceiling scenario? Willis could become a Vick-like producer.
What is his floor scenario? Willis never acclimates as a decision-maker as a passer and he becomes a one-dimensional player.
Physical: Willis has all of the physical tools to become a star quarterback.
Technical: When used as a receiver on trick plays, he can catch targets at chest level with his hands in an overhand position and arms away from his frame.
Conceptual: Willis reads tight man-to-man leverage well but off-coverage is troublesome at this time.
Intuitive: Willis lacks the intuitive feel for managing the game, especially with scrambling. He’s a skilled runner but running and scrambling have different purposes and Willis often creates more trouble as a scrambler.
Build: Willis is built like a running back.
Drops: Willis has efficient one-step and two-step setups for quick throws. When he drops from Pistol more than 1-2 steps, he heel-clicks his way back without an efficient drop plan. There’s a lot of wasted movement here that he can clean up and it should help him set up faster when necessary. It will also help him see the field better without the leaping.
He has a three-step drop with a crossover step, but he doesn’t stick the end of the drop consistently when he has an opportunity to do so and it takes away some of the uniformity from his setups to throw the ball.
His setups are often wide and it encourages his baseball pitcher’s spread of his feet when delivering the ball. This leads to targets that sail in the short and intermediate ranges of the field. He’ll also lean back as he releases downfield targets beyond 20 yards and the ball sails there, too.
Ball Security: When executing designed runs, Willis will use his sideline arm to carry the ball to the left or right side of the field. The base area where he keeps the ball tucked is his lower chest and abdomen, but he has a tendency to swing the ball away from his frame as he accelerates or changes direction. He tucks the ball close to his frame when he knows he’s close to a pursuing defender, especially in the pocket. Willis had a pair of fumbled pistol/shotgun snaps in the first half and neither snap was bad.
Play Fakes: Willis extends the ball deep into the stomach of the runner on read plays. He could hold the ball there longer and sell the fake with his body a little more. When working from center, he extends the ball but not far enough or long enough into the runner or receiver’s stomach. This is common with plays where he executes multiple play fakes during the drop.
He’ll use two hands and one hand as he drops and turns to the back and then transitions to the receiver working across the backfield, but he doesn’t use his body or timing of the exchange to sell the fakes effectively. Wills must slow his process just enough to execute with details that will sell the fakes and remaining fluid.
Pump Fakes: Willis has a quick shoulder fake with both hands on the ball and moderate violence and he can bring the ball back and deliver a short pump fake with one hand and mild violence.
Release: Willis has an over-the-shoulder release motion and three-quarter delivery and a sling-shot motion to the elbow where the elbow slides back behind his frame before the rest of his arm begins its release. He leans on the three-quarter motion a substantial amount of the time—with or without pressure.
He generates torque with his lower body through the release point, keeping his cleats in the ground as he begins torquing his hips through the motion to generate velocity. However, his legs are often so spread apart that he can’t get all of his cleats into the ground to generate a balanced release motion to place the ball where he wants, and because all of his cleats aren’t in the ground, he has difficulty generating that velocity he’s consistently capable of achieving.
In 2021, his legs aren’t always as wide apart when opening his frame to the opposite side of the field if it’s a one-read throw without a need to adjust his feet for any reason, but he was still prone to this habit on plays where he had to slide a couple of steps in the pocket and reset quickly to throw the ball.
Accuracy (No Pressure)
On-Platform Accuracy: Willis has the arm to throw for distance and velocity, but he must be more discriminating with when to place air under the ball and when to throw the ball more on a line with greater velocity so he doesn’t give the safety more time than necessary to cut off the target. He delivers the vertical range honey hole shot between Cover 2 up the boundary with pinpoint accuracy.
Willis can be a half of a beat to a beat late with delivering the football on short outs against off-coverage and the ball is at the back shoulder rather than the front, which can give a defender with an early step on the break a chance to cut off the route. His anticipation needs to be a beat earlier.
Off-Platform Accuracy: Willis can deliver off-platform with a jump pass at a range of 30-35 yards to an open zone.
Opposite-Hash Accuracy: Willis’ setup encourages a baseball pitcher’s release stance that can lead to high throws in the short and intermediate ranges of the field.
Mobile Accuracy: He will target tighter zones on the move with good velocity and placement. He’s skilled with sprint passes in the red zone.
Decision-Making: Willis can work from one side of the field to the other and make his way through three progressions in the process, appropriately reading the leverage of defenders playing man-to-man coverage. He’ll hold the safety on designed shot plays.
Willis will get too goal-focused with downfield targets where he has two choices in adjacent areas and only considers one—even if the other is the more favorable if he accurately saw the coverage.
He misreads favorable leverage for him to throw the ball, especially the position of safeties or corners playing off coverage, and turns quick-hitting opportunities for intermediate-range completions into sacks.
He will help his receiver manipulate the out-and-up against a man-to-man defender playing off. Willis does this by making a sharp turn to the boundary as if he’s setting up the beginning of his release as the receiver is running the speed-out portion of the route. Willis then takes pair of gather steps to set up his release on the vertical shot.
Sense Pressure: Willis is confident in his athletic ability to wait for pressure to arrive within 1-2 steps of him before making a move to escape. He’ll spot edge pressure with an angle within 3-5 steps of the pocket and wait until that pressure closes before making his move.
Maneuvering From Pressure: There were plays against pressure where Willis flips the switch from pocket passer to runner without buying time behind the pocket and keeping his eyes downfield. He’ll climb, flush, and spin to a side of the field, but his movements aren’t controlled and deliberate so he’s maintaining a throwing base. Instead, he’s running close to full speed and then forced to pull up in open space and throw or throw off-platform with pressure bearing down while he’s moving at a faster-than-comfortable pace to deliver a pinpoint accurate throw.
Willis has a good feel for sliding to the open field with more controlled movement that helps him keep his eyes downfield. This is especially the case as he feels pressure at one side during the end of his drop. He finds that open spot in the pocket to give himself room to deliver the ball.
In over 100 snaps, I’ve seen Willis climb from edge pressure with controlled footwork and his eyes downfield once. And there was a lot of space to maneuver so he wasn’t forced to execute that type of movement.
On-Platform Accuracy: Willis had a low sample size due in part to how he manages pressure. When he threw the ball, he flashes short and intermediate accuracy.
Off-Platform Accuracy: Willis has the arm talent to throw off-platform and on the move while under pressure and deliver passes with general accuracy in the short and intermediate ranges of the field up to 20 yards from the pitch point. The decisions behind the throws are bigger concerns.
Opposite-Hash Accuracy: Willis had a limited sample size, but can be counted on to deliver accurately to the shallow zones.
Mobile Accuracy: Willis has the arm to move to his left and throw off-platform with general accuracy in the short and intermediate ranges.
Decision-Making: Willis communicates pre-snap adjustments to pressure looks. He can try too hard to throw the ball with a difficult, off-balanced release on the move with pressure in his face just to target a receiver 2-3 yards away and pinned to the boundary. These are plays where Willis would be wiser to throw the ball out of bounds earlier and end the play.
Making a difficult throw of his nature leads to less accurate targets that are tipped in traffic and can lead to turnovers. Although Willis has demonstrated that he’ll throw the ball away, he must recognize situations to do so much earlier during the play’s progression. It’s also preferable if he makes the appropriate decisions to terminate plays without a bad decision earlier in the game prompting him to do so.
Too often against NC State, Willis had a chance to throw the ball away after avoiding the first defender and with a receiver in the area where he could make an easy throwaway but his confidence in his athletic ability led him to attempt 1-2 move moves that led him into deep trouble and nowhere to throw the ball. He either took sacks deep in his own territory or chose to attempt ill-advised and inaccurate throws that could have generated turnovers.
One scenario where Willis is consistently good about throwing the ball away is when a defender is bearing down him and in a position where Willis can accurately gauge that contact will be imminent when he releases the ball.
When on the move, Willis recognizes when a cornerback is peeling off a downfield receiver to return to a receiver underneath who is breaking into the flat or sideline. This type of coverage exchange is a common thing that quarterbacks miss, especially when throwing on the move and under pressure. Willis often recognizes this exchange and doesn’t throw the ball into danger.
Scrambling: Willis’ speed is an asset. The more he can control the pace of his running to manipulate defenders, the greater the chance he has of spotting open receivers. There are plays where he’s either throwing or running but not scrambling to potentially stop and throw or throw on the run. He’s not maximizing the potential of his legs as a passing-down weapon.
When he buys time as a scrambler, it’s happening more often by accident after he had the intention of breaking the pocket and running but an unblocked defender Willis didn’t account for cut off the lane and forced a scramble.
Running: Willis has excellent acceleration. He can work to the opposite edge of the pocket and earn separation from pursuit before he turns downhill. He changes direction smoothly to work away from pursuit angles before they can draw closer. He has chain-moving and breakaway ability as a runner on whatever side of the field (near or far) that he works—even when reversing field.
He’ll spin, juke, or use a stick to create space in traffic. He’ll combine all three moves in different variations to make defenders miss.
Willis has a good feel for pursuit and when a defender reaches for him, Willis can stop, duck, and slide away from the defender’s angle. He’ll drop his pads into defensive backs, leading with his free arm to deliver a forearm shiver or stiff-arm when possible. He can push through a direct collision with a cornerback in the open field.
Willis also has an effective straight arm to swat away reaches from pursuing defenders. He has enough strength to bounce off glancing shots from linebackers and defensive backs and he can spin away from contact or pull through it to extend for extra yards while falling forward. He’ll take hard contact to his back from the backside pursuit of a defensive end as he works through a hole and bounces off it.
Willis’ sliding needs work. He has an awkward motion that appears as if he doesn’t know how to drop smoothly and quickly in one fluid movement. It leads to hits that he could have avoided.
He’ll also take unnecessary sacks when breaking the pocket up the middle because he takes a slow approach to the line of scrimmage in order to survey the field rather than accelerate immediately to clear the pursuit from the pocket and he’s run down from behind.
Durability: He missed a game in 2020 with a left elbow injury suffered the game prior and tested positive for COVID-19 that same week.
Boiler/Film Room Material (Links to plays):
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