Digging For Diamonds: Malik Willis, QB, Liberty – 2022 NFL Draft
Over the past decade, seemingly every college football season there’s been at least one quarterback that has exponentially grown their personal draft stock after entering the transfer portal in search of greener pastures. This draft cycle it was Malik Willis who transformed himself from a relative unknown into the prospect who has the highest upside in this class. A three star recruit coming out of Roswell High School in Georgia, he originally committed to Virginia Tech before making the decision to sign his letter of intent with Auburn. Willis found himself stuck behind current New England Patriots back up QB Jarrett Stidham for his first two seasons on campus, relegated mostly to sporadic zone read plays and option packages. Following Stidham’s graduation, Willis was also quickly supplanted on the depth chart by true freshman Bo Nix which led to him leaving Auburn in his rear view mirror. As abundantly clear it is that Willis is a supreme athlete, as a converted wide receiver who began playing quarterback midway through his junior season, not many coaches or programs were willing to give him a true opportunity to prove his skills as a full time starter.
Height: 6″0 1/2
Career Stats: 2,857 passing yards, 63% completion percentage, 48 touchdowns, 18 interceptions, 2,131 rushing yards, 29 rushing touchdowns
Career Record: 17-6 (23 starts)
The Liberty Flames signal caller has a legitimate argument for the quarterback with the most arm talent in this crop of prospects. Only a 2 year starter in college, Willis has shown a litany of promising signs as he underwent his transition from a Uber athlete to an exceptional athlete who has the toolbox of skills to be a successful NFL QB.
Regularly played under heavy duress behind his offensive line which at times led to a bad habit of him taking him eyes away from his receiving options downfield to survey the incoming pass rush in an attempt not to get decapitated. More of a thrower at this point of his career than a pure passer, a crucial element of his development will be executing passes that require touch and a change of speed, not overly relying on his fastball at all times.
His errant throws were usually the result of his passes sailing high on him which can be tied back to inconsistent footwork and issues at times with a narrow base. Acknowledging the fact that Willis is still a work in progress, some evaluators may ding him for some of the more routine passes that he missed on tape. However I believe this has a chance to age abominably in the same way that it did with Josh Allen after a few more seasons of additional refinement.
His throwing motion is extremely quick and he’s able to generate a lot of velocity on his throws without much wasted motion. Athleticism allows him to square his hips and feet while on the move which lets him make throws without losing much accuracy or power. Played in a heavy RPO system, however showed the growing characteristics of an aggressive downfield passer who isn’t only looking to dink and dunk. Capable of manipulating deep field safeties for long enough to let vertical routes develop before taking a deep shot.
His short passing game in rhythm is adequate and his high end arm strength allows him to work the sidelines and place the ball in spots where only his receivers have a chance to make a play on the ball. Flashed several high level back shoulder NFL throws which is a requisite requirement as a thrower when the passing windows minimize at the next level.
Trusting his diagnosis of what the defensive coverage he detects will be the biggest obstacle towards early success for Willis during his career. Several times a game you’ll notice plays where he hesitates throwing into windows that would be considered open on NFL Sundays. This indecision as a passer has led to several issues that Willis will need to clean up to reach his ultimate upside. During his senior season at Liberty, he was sacked 51 times in 13 games; many were the result of poor pass protection but several others were the product of Willis having an undeveloped internal time clock that recognized when the pressure was mounting.
Tipped passes, errant throws and turnovers are all a result of Willis not trusting what he sees with his eyes. As someone who only started 23 games during his collegiate career this is an aspect of his game that can be improved over time but here lies the risk of projecting future improvement as these reads only become more difficult as a professional.
As a rusher the native ATLien is in rarified air along with only a select few other QB prospects over the past decade that can match his potency with his legs. A high level quick twitch athlete, Willis is consistently able to outrun pursuit angles from defensive linemen and linebackers with ease due to his electric change of direction and catlike quickness. For as much as a cheat code he is as a scrambler, over the course of his collegiate career he has grown quite adept at not tipping his intention to run until the jailbreak scenario within the pocket has presented itself at the last moment.
Willis has an innate nose for the first down marker, made obvious on tape with the recurring theme of him converting on third and long instances with his legs to keep drives going. In the open field, Willis has a reserve tank turbo boost that he can hit at any time as a runner that makes squaring him up extremely difficult.
Outside of the pocket, Willis is a magician who can turn nothing into a soul crushing big play in the blink of an eye. A walking highlight waiting to occur, his elite tight area burst and acceleration allows him to weave in and out of traffic and over the course of his two years as a starter at Liberty he’s proven he can can both extend plays to turn into a ball carrier and gash the defense with a 30+ yard run or uncork a downfield pass into tight coverage. As if life as a defensive back wasn’t already difficult enough due to the way the passing game is officiated by referees, going against a dangerous threat like Willis makes life even more burdensome as a result of what he can do on broken plays and when the game simply turns into backyard football.
A sturdily built athlete at 215 pounds, Willis isn’t shy about finishing plays through contact, he possesses enough strength to run through lazy arm tackles and can take on smaller defensive backs head on. The comparison to Lamar Jackson as a dual threat QB is one that will be made quite often between now and the start of Willis’ career. The Baltimore Ravens offense over the past few seasons has had a dependency on Jackson’s ability to create chunk plays with his legs while also carrying the ball anywhere from ten to twenty times in a game. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Jackson’s rushing ability is that he’s found a way to limit the amount of collisions he takes mid game by having a keen understanding on when to slide and when to give himself up as a runner.
Jackson had remained relatively healthy throughout his career until an ankle injury forced his 2021 season to end prematurely, the reality is mobile QB’s still retain an additional risk of injury. Although Willis isn’t allergic or simply incapable of sliding to avoid contact ala former Heisman trophy winner Robert Griffin III, he does need to lessen the amount of hits per game he takes to ensure a safe and healthy career.
Malik Willis is the 2022 NFL Draft’s ultimate mega millions lottery ticket. Willis received rave reviews for being an extremely quick learner and being receptive to coaching at the Senior Bowl. The organization that chooses to invest in him will need to be patient as they bring him along to work out some of the kinks in his profile. His collegiate production looks much more impressive when considering the lack of in game reps compared to other prospects and the improvement level that he has already shown over the years. His 27 cumulative rushing touchdowns over his 23 games started at Liberty speak volume to the rare level of fantasy upside he possesses, easily making him one of the best dynasty stashes in this upcoming draft.