As the No. 20 pick in the 2022 NFL draft approached, Malik Willis felt like landing in Pittsburgh was a possibility.
Instead, Willis was informed just minutes before the Steelers pick that they preferred Pitt's Kenny Pickett.
“Obviously, Pittsburgh was the tough one. That was the one Malik felt good about, with the conversations Malik had with the Pittsburgh higher-ups and decision-makers during the process and his visit,” Sean McEvoy, Willis' quarterback coach, told Jeff Howe of The Athletic.
“So there was a moment there to let Malik know this is what’s about to happen so there’s no shock when they call a different name than yours. That was the toughest moment of Thursday night. Because then, it’s like, what’s next? There weren’t a lot of teams at the end of (the first round) that were looking at a QB. Obviously, the possibility is there of a team trading up to the back of the first round to get the fifth-year option. But the idea is kind of slipping away of being a first-round pick as those last few picks dwindled away.”
The Steelers were the only team to take a quarterback in the first two rounds of the draft, with Willis sliding all the way to the Tennessee Titans at No. 86. It was the first time since 2000 that only one quarterback went in the first two rounds.
Willis ultimately landed in a strong place for his long-term development. The Titans have Ryan Tannehill in place for at least next season as their starting quarterback, allowing Willis to take a backseat while he catches up to NFL speed. The Liberty product faced concerns about his competition level in college—especially since he didn't put up jaw-dropping numbers.
"I'm just blessed to have somewhere to call home and appreciative for the opportunity to play at the next level," Willis told reporters. "It hasn't really been difficult. At the end of the day when you don't have control over something, it's not something that you can really get mad at. I'm just grateful to be here and to be a Tennessee Titan."
While Willis tried to put on a brave public face, he lost millions of dollars in his free-fall down the draft board. Pickett's four-year rookie deal is slotted to pay him $14.1 million guaranteed; Willis will likely get around $9 million less than that, along with fewer guarantees.
Willis' opportunity to become a starter will also be more daunting. Tannehill has been the Titans' starter the last three seasons, leading them to three straight postseason appearances. Few would characterize him as an elite quarterback, but he's a strong game-manager who fits what Tennessee wants to do in its run-heavy offense.
Pickett, by contrast, will go into training camp competing with Mitchell Trubisky for the Steelers' Week 1 job.