After spending the week scouting the top quarterbacks in this year’s class at the Senior Bowl, my biggest takeaway might be just how divided we are on some of these prospects. The best example of this is probably Liberty’ QB Malik Willis, depending on who I am speaking to is either projecting as the runaway QB1 in this class or as a gadget guy who will take years to develop into a starter. I believe that both sides of this discussion are simultaneously on the right track and completely missing the point. If you are firmly on side of this discussion, you are very likely to be surprised by the player that actually shows up in an NFL uniform. Let’s have an honest, nuanced conversation about Malik Willis.
The Draft’s biggest riser
From where Willis was one year ago to where he is today in terms of draft outlook is quite astounding. In my 2020 evaluation, I noted Willis as a hyper-athletic playmaker that was more of a “one read and run” style of player. I wasn’t sure that he had the accuracy or the ability to work within a structure of an NFL offense, in 2021 he took a tremendous leap in terms of accuracy and displayed the ability to perform well while executing half-field reads. The second half of the season saw Willis struggle with his consistency and decision-making as he was asked to make more full-field reads. At this past week’s senior bowl Willis stole headlines by displaying his strong arm by throwing with more velocity than any QB prospect since 2018. He also had the best single day of practice of any player on day 2 in the rain and inclement conditions. His dynamic rushing ability and his arm strength have him shooting up the boards, in some cases all the way into the top 10.
The Multi-Year Project
Willis’ detractors often point to his issues reading the full field, there were multiple examples on tape, including some at the senior bowl of wide receivers being open by several yards (some going as far as to wave Willis down), Willis looking in their direction and either waiting too long to throw the ball, making it a much harder completion or in other instances, passing up the wide-open player altogether. The counter-argument for this is that every one of these young players has missed some open reads in their time in college. The problem is that with Willis, it’s something that shows up in nearly every game and some of the examples are egregious. In the game against ULM for example, Willis had four wide-open reads that Willis just flat out missed…. on the first drive alone. During a study, I completed last year over which traits best translate to the NFL, I found that nearly every single QB Prospect that entered the league whose worst trait was reading the field, either underperformed or flat out busted.
That’s not to say that Willis is without hope, what I do see is that Willis does move his eyes from read to read in rhythm, and in most reps, Willis even resets his feet well to deliver an accurate pass. The issue with most young QB’s is that they need to see guys get open before they will throw a pass, they lack the anticipation to see guys about to come open and throw the ball early enough and to the correct spot to help them get open. With Willis, it goes a step further as he seems to struggle to recognize guys who are in fact, wide open. Is this just a case of a young player who is just learning to trust his eyes and pull the trigger? Is it fixable? Or will it need to be schemed around for Willis’ entire career?
So how do we view Willis?
In a league with players like Josh Allen, Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson and so many others who are not only great Quarterbacks, they are special from a physical standpoint as well; it would be completely understandable to view Willis as the top Quarterback in his class. He provides the most special physical traits that you very well may need to challenge a Mahomes or an Allen. In viewing the glaring missed reads on his tape, it would also be understandable upon viewing recent historical data, to view Willis as a project that may never work out in the league.
The truth is likely somewhere in the middle, Willis is both an electric playmaker that presents team’s with an extraordinarily high ceiling and a project that will take multiple year’s away from becoming a nuanced passer of any kind. Decision makers will need to decide whether they can successfully develop into that nuanced passer, or whether they will opt for a player with a more narrow range of outcome.
For fans, if your team drafts Willis, expect inconsistencies game to game and throw to throw. Willis will flash. There will plays every single game that will be worthy of anyone’s highlight reel, but he will need a great teacher, and a scheme that will simplify reads in the meantime.
In the near future I’ll release my final grade and rankings but for now my feelings are that there are real issues, but the talent is there. I’ve also heard he’s extremely coachable and great leader. Willis is definitely a risk worth taking. The question is at what point in the draft do you take that risk? That’s what evaluators of all kinds are trying to figure out.