Malik Willis Is NFL Draft's Most Polarizing QB Prospect in Weak Class

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistJanuary 21, 2022

FILE - Liberty quarterback Malik Willis (7) sets up to pass against Mississippi during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Oxford, Miss., Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021. Willis is set to lead Liberty against Eastern Michigan in the Lending Tree Bowl in Mobile, Alabama.  Liberty is seeking to join Appalachian State as the only teams to win bowl games in each of their first three seasons after transitioning from FCS to FBS. Willis is a projected first-round NFL draft pick. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, File)
Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

The football world has become accustomed to seeing quarterbacks taken first overall in the NFL draft. It happened in each of the past four years and six of the last seven. However, there's a very good chance that it doesn't happen this year.

The 2022 quarterback class is not seen as a particularly strong one. Only two quarterback prospects—Cincinnati's Desmond Ridder and Pittsburgh's Kenny Pickett—are ranked in the top 50 on the latest Bleacher Report Scouting Department big board.

Ridder and Pickett were the only quarterbacks to go in the Scouting Department's end-of-season mock draft too—with Ridder coming off the board ninth overall.

There's a chance, however, that a wild card emerges and winds up in the first round as well—possibly even being the first or second quarterback off the board. That wild card is Liberty quarterback Malik Willis.


"The Most Talented Quarterback in This Class"

There's a lot to be said for a draft prospect's floor. Even if a player doesn't have the greatest upside, he can be an early draft pick based on his potential for immediate contributions. Just take a look at former Alabama quarterback Mac Jones, a traditional pocket passer who helped the New England Patriots reach the playoffs this season.

Will Jones be a better quarterback than Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields, Zach Wilson or Trey Lance three years from now? Maybe, but he doesn't have the athletic potential of the four signal-callers taken ahead of him.

Willis doesn't have the safe floor of Jones, but he has the type of toolbox that could catapult him past Ridder and Pickett by draft day. He's a legitimate dual-threat in the mold of Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts.

Like Hurts, Willis could be playing in the postseason early, if he lands in the right situation. That lack of NFL readiness, however, makes him a very polarizing prospect.

The B/R Scouting Department pegs Willis as a third-round prospect, the sort of boom-or-bust quarterback that makes for a touch evaluation. Here's some of what scout Nate Tice wrote in his evaluation:

"Willis is a fun player to watch with his arm strength, and he's truly dynamic with the ball in his hands. But he will need a huge jump in polish with his pocket movements, progression on dropback concepts, anticipation on throws—especially over the middle of the field—and overall process to end up being an every-week starter in the NFL"

While a quarterback's floor is important, some teams are going to look at what Willis can be in a few years rather than right away. From that angle, he may be the best prospect in a weak quarterback class.

"The more tape I watch of his past two seasons and the more I talk to evaluators in the league, the more I like him," ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. wrote in his latest mock. "Put simply, Willis is the most talented quarterback in this class."

Kiper mocked Willis at No. 11 to the Washington Football Team. That's far different than the Bleacher Report Scouting Department, which didn't have him in its latest first-round mock

Where will Willis ultimately land on draft day? That might come down to the predraft process.


"Evaluators Are Taught to See Strengths"

Butch Dill/Associated Press

From a size and skill-set standpoint, Willis reminds me quite a bit of Hurts. At 6'1' and 225 pounds (Hurts is 6'1", 223 lbs), he's thickly built and physically suited to take the punishment that can come with playing quarterback in the NFL.

Also like Hurts, Willis has the arm talent to make all of the throws and the athleticism to chew up yards on designed runs and improvised scrambles.

This past season, Willis threw for 2,857 yards and 27 touchdowns while rushing for 878 yards and 13 scores.

From a situational standpoint, Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen is a more apt comparison. While Hurts played with NFL talent at Alabama and Oklahoma, Allen didn't enjoy the same strong supporting cast at Wyoming.

Allen was viewed as an unpolished prospect, but he oozed upside.

"Many will make excuses for Allen's struggles (two-year starter at Wyoming, poor supporting cast, etc.), but evaluators are taught to see Allen's strengths, and he has plenty of those," draft analyst Matt Miller wrote for Bleacher Report in 2018.

If we're looking at Willis' strengths, there's a lot to love.

"When Willis is in rhythm, his arm strength pops off the screen. He throws a catchable deep ball and can drive intermediate throws into tight spaces," Tice wrote.

"This is a dual-threat signal-caller—he rushed for 1,822 yards and 27 touchdowns over the past two seasons—with a powerful arm," Kiper wrote.

While the lack of polish is a concern, it was for Allen too. And that rawness showed early in his Bills career. As a rookie, Allen completed 52.8 percent of his passes and posted a passer rating of only 67.9. Over the next three years, though, Allen realized his upside. Over Super Wild Card Weekend, he pitched the NFL equivalent of a perfect game.

Against Jones' Patriots, Allen finished 21-of-25 for 308 yards and five touchdowns. He rushed for 66 yards. Buffalo finished every single drive with either a touchdown or a kneel-down—an NFL first.

Brett Kollmann @BrettKollmann

The Buffalo Bills just had the NFL’s first ever perfect offensive game. No punts. No picks. No fumbles lost. No field goals. All touchdowns on every single drive until the kneel downs. And they did it against a top five defense.

Players like Allen, Lamar Jackson, Patrick Mahomes and Joe Burrow are what modern NFL teams want and need at the quarterback position. Unpolished or not, if a team believes that Willis can reach that level, it will take an early flier on him.


"Quarterback-Needy Teams Should See Plenty of Allen in Willis"

There will undoubtedly be a subsection of NFL scouts, media members and draft Twitter that view Willis as too risky of a prospect. The Auburn transfer made his fair share of mistakes in college—he had 12 interceptions in 2021 and poor outings against Mississippi, Army and Louisiana Lafayette.

Detractors will focus on the negatives and ignore how Willis' small-school supporting cast played a part in them.

As CBS Sports' Chris Trapasso pointed out, though, Allen serves as an example of why this can be a faulty viewpoint.

"Quarterback-needy teams should see plenty of Allen in Willis," Trapasso wrote. "No, he's not as big. He doesn't quite have Allen's arm. But parallels between the two are there, critical ones."

As Trapasso explained, Willis has plenty of strengths, and his weaknesses showed up primarily against teams with superior talent. On an even playing field, he shined:

"Willis has game-altering arm talent, and he's a dynamic, powerful runner with the football in his hands. His decision-making is questionable at times. He played at a smaller school. His auditions against Power 5 schools were duds. All very Allen-like.

"... The fact was, in contests in which Wyoming had talent close to its opponent, Allen was mostly good and at times spectacular. That's precisely how I felt watching Willis' outings against Troy, Old Dominion, Syracuse, UAB, and Eastern Michigan."

Like Allen, Willis may struggle early in the NFL. That reality is likely to scare away a few teams who are looking for an immediate starter and looking to win now. Teams willing to be patient—as the Bills were with Allen—could see him as a future star.


"Quarterback Mobility Is Valued"

So where might Willis land on draft weekend? That depends entirely on which teams are willing to pull the trigger early. Given the importance of the quarterback position, though, it's hard to envision him lasting until the third round.

And if a team views Willis as worthy of a second-round selection, he could end up going in Round 1. Teams love to land the fifth-year option that comes with a first-round selection. Even if a team isn't willing to use an initial first-round pick on Willis, one may still trade back into the bottom of Round 1 to grab him—as the Baltimore Ravens did with Jackson.

A few teams stand out as logical landing spots for Willis. Washington, as Kiper noted, has a stopgap in place in Taylor Heinicke. It could afford to develop Willis for a year before turning him loose.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are in a similar situation with Mason Rudolph and/or Dwayne Haskins (restricted free agent)—though neither is the mobile quarterback that head coach Mike Tomlin would love to get.

Andrew Siciliano @AndrewSiciliano

Tomlin, yet again, makes it clear he wants next QB to be mobile. "Man, quarterback mobility is valued."

The Cleveland Browns could be a dark-horse candidate. They'll have Baker Mayfield on that fifth-year option in 2022. However, Mayfield hasn't established himself as a top-tier signal-caller. If Cleveland chooses to take a page out of Philadelphia's book, it could snag Willis in Round 2 or the bottom of Round 1 as insurance.

The Eagles had Carson Wentz as their starter when they took Hurts 53rd overall in 2020.

The Atlanta Falcons have 36-year-old Matt Ryan under contract through 2023 but no decisive succession plan in place. 2021 undrafted free agent Feleipe Franks probably isn't the answer there.

Willis would provide valuable dual-threat ability that Washington, Pittsburgh, Atlanta and Cleveland don't have at the quarterback position. His combination of mobility and arm talent is exactly what players like Allen, Mahomes, Burrow and Aaron Rodgers are about to flash in the divisional round of the playoffs.

In the NFL, you either have an elite quarterback or you don't. Not everyone will agree that Willis can become one, but he's going to have enough believers on draft weekend to wind up as one of the first signal-callers off the board.