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Malik Willis Is the New Face of the NFL’s QB Evaluation Debate

The Liberty star has become the 2022 draft’s ultimate boom-or-bust candidate. But what will it signal for NFL teams if he succeeds—and what will it mean if he doesn’t?

Jarett Sitter

The first 57 throws of the workout would have been enough. Malik Willis had already put his impossibly talented right arm on display, tossing effortless passes that drew approving groans and nods from scouts as they jotted down notes during his March pro day.

There was no pass rush harassing Willis, but there was still plenty of pressure on the man who is the odds-on favorite to be the first quarterback taken in the 2022 NFL draft. Every quarterback-needy team sent at least one representative to watch him throw. The Panthers, who have the sixth pick, sent head coach Matt Rhule and offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo. Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot, who had traded Matt Ryan to Indianapolis the previous day, was there. The Commanders sent de facto GM Marty Hurney. And the Steelers were present in full force with coach Mike Tomlin, GM Kevin Colbert, offensive coordinator Matt Canada, and personnel coordinator Dan Rooney Jr. It was arguably the most important day of Willis’s career to date, but you wouldn’t have known it from watching him.

“It looks like a walk-through,” Liberty co-offensive coordinator Kent Austin muttered to a scout after Willis ripped yet another dart out to the perimeter. Everything just looked so easy.

The 58th and final throw of the full-field session, though, required a little more effort. Willis took a five-step drop from under center, spun out to his left, and quickly flipped his hips before launching the ball from the 35-yard line toward the opposite end zone. It looked as if it were headed out of Liberty’s indoor practice facility and into orbit … right up until it dropped into the hands of the receiver, who never broke stride.

That throw should look familiar if you paid attention to last offseason’s draft cycle. All of the top quarterback prospects of that class seemed to be in competition to see who could produce the most impressive throw on the move. Trevor Lawrence set the bar high with a deep shot while rolling to his right. Zach Wilson set draft Twitter abuzz with a cross-body throw while running to his left. Trey Lance and Justin Fields put their own spin on this throw at their respective pro day workouts. Even Mac Jones, who doesn’t have the strongest arm, gave it a shot.

Sean McEvoy, a coach at QB Takeover in Atlanta, has been working with Willis since his senior year in high school. He says the throw has almost become a prerequisite for prospects, as teams have increasingly emphasized finding quarterbacks who can make off-platform throws.

“You’re trying to highlight the things your quarterback does well and encapsulate it in one throw,” says McEvoy, who also helped put together Lance’s pro day script a year ago. “When we started planning out what we wanted that big throw to look like, we just wrote down, ‘Can he throw it 75 yards off platform?’”

Willis answered that question with a definitive yes. The building erupted as Willis streaked down the field to celebrate with his teammates, and if the goal was to put on a show, he emphatically checked that box. But Willis’s arm talent hasn’t been questioned. It’s concern over his ability to operate in NFL offenses—which are far more sophisticated than Liberty’s scheme and require a level of comfort in the pocket his college offense never did—that has scouts wondering whether he’s worthy of a top pick.

Willis’s critics believe those questions outweigh his high ceiling, making it difficult to view him as a bona fide Day 1 prospect. But in recent years, we’ve seen other potential boom-bust prospects hit more often than not. The most obvious example is Josh Allen, who possessed the physical traits to be an elite NFL quarterback but not the polish. Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert inspired similar critiques before blowing up the league upon arrival. But there is one clear difference between those guys, who are all at least 6-foot-3, and Willis, who stands just over 6 feet: They had the stature of quarterbacks who have traditionally gone at the top of the draft.

Willis doesn’t have that going for him. He’s short, he played at a small school, and his college offense did little to prepare him for the next level. A decade ago, we wouldn’t have even discussed the Liberty product as a viable first-round pick, let alone an option in the top 10.

The fact that we are proves that the Allens and Mahomeses of the world have caused a shift in the QB evaluation paradigm. But what would happen if Willis, the ultimate outlier, also develops into a superstar? Or what would happen if he flops, and one of the more “pro-ready” quarterbacks in this underwhelming class turns into a longtime starter?

Either way, Willis’s development will be closely monitored by more than just the team that drafts him—and his success or failure could dictate the draft strategy of QB-needy franchises for years to come.

The 70-yard bomb will be the lasting image of Willis’s pro day, but the other throws he made will likely have a bigger impact on when he gets drafted. Having played in an RPO-heavy college offense built around the QB run game, Willis doesn’t have much experience with pro-style concepts. His pro day script, McEvoy says, was designed to fill in the gaps on his tape and allow NFL teams to imagine Willis running their respective offenses.

“The first thing you say is, ‘What are the question marks around a QB?’” McEvoy says. “He didn’t make a lot of throws over the middle, so we’re throwing in-breakers over the middle and we’re throwing crossers and glance routes from the slot. All these things they didn’t see on film, we’re going to show them a ton of that.”

The lack of throws to the middle of the field has been one of the bigger concerns about Willis during the evaluation process. The Liberty quarterback attempted just 50 passes between the hash marks in 2021, per Sports Info Solutions. Of the five quarterbacks who might go in the first round of this draft, Willis ranked last in that stat by a comfortable margin.

Throws Aimed in Between the Hashmarks, 2021 Season

Player School Attempts Total Dropbacks Rate
Player School Attempts Total Dropbacks Rate
Kenny Pickett Pittsburgh 97 576 16.8%
Sam Howell North Carolina 83 447 18.6%
Matt Corral Ole Miss 94 463 20.3%
Desmond Ridder Cincinnati 75 434 17.3%
Malik Willis Liberty 50 452 11.1%
Data via Sports Info Solutions

There’s a whole lot of blue concentrated in the middle of the field on his passing heat map, via Pro Football Focus:

This is concerning for two reasons. For one, NFL quarterbacks who aren’t comfortable making throws over the middle typically have a hard time seeing tighter throwing windows opening up, and it’s awfully hard to be successful in the pros without that. And second, many passers who struggle over the middle tend to be shorter. Height isn’t something you can improve on.

Former Jets and Dolphins general manager Mike Tannenbaum sees that as the biggest obstacle Willis will have to clear in order to develop into a top-level NFL quarterback.

“He’s got all the arm you want,” Tannenbaum says. “And he’s got a powerful lower half, which shows up in the run game. I really like him. But you just wish he was a few inches taller. There are ways to coach around it—Sean Payton had his offensive line take shorter sets to help [Drew] Brees—but it’s not something you want to have to do, especially when you’re taking a guy that high.”

Brees’s height did not prevent him from attacking the middle of the field at any point in his career, but other, shorter quarterbacks—even the successful ones like Russell Wilson and Kyler Murray—have struggled in that area. The issue with Willis is that we don’t know his comfort level over the middle because he wasn’t given a real chance to develop that skill in college.

“One of the knocks on quarterbacks during the predraft process is, ‘We don’t think he can do this,’ or ‘We didn’t see a lot of that on his film,’” McEvoy says. “Just because [Liberty coach] Hugh Freeze didn’t ask Malik to do it doesn’t mean he can’t do it.”

Freeze, who called plays on first and second down, told me the dearth of throws to the middle of the field was just a product of Liberty’s offense. “Our concepts tend to attack outside the numbers,” Freeze says. “You’re not going to throw [to the middle] if that’s not where the play is supposed to go.”

Now, it’s in Freeze’s best interest to cover for his quarterback; if Willis succeeds in the NFL, it will be easier for Freeze to recruit other good quarterbacks. But the data back up what he’s saying. Here’s a heat map showing where Liberty receivers ran their routes last season. It’s almost an exact replica of Willis’s target heat map:

That doesn’t fully explain Willis’s aversion to throwing over the middle, though. When Liberty did run concepts attacking the middle of the field, Willis had trouble reading those plays. There are many examples of a receiver coming open and not getting the ball.

But there are also examples that show him working through his progressions and having success, which suggests that at the next level, Willis could make those plays more consistently:

The other big point of criticism is the number of sacks Willis took last season. His 11.3 percent sack rate was comical, the highest of this quarterback class by far. Only North Carolina’s Sam Howell was within 6 percentage points, according to Sports Info Solutions.

QB Prospects Under Pressure in 2021

Player School Sack Rate Pressure Rate
Player School Sack Rate Pressure Rate
Malik Willis Liberty 11.3% 34.1%
Sam Howell North Carolina 10.7% 35.1%
Desmond Ridder Cincinnati 6.0% 23.3%
Matt Corral Ole Miss 5.2% 27.6%
Kenny Pickett Pittsburgh 5.0% 28.6%
Data via Sports Info Solutions

Liberty’s offensive line was poor, which contributed to the high sack rate, but Willis certainly didn’t help matters. He held on to the ball for an eternity and regularly abandoned clean pockets—issues we typically see from quarterbacks who aren’t processing information quickly.

But, again, we can’t expect a quarterback to find answers that aren’t built into the offense. For a team like Liberty, which lacked talent at many spots on the depth chart, it’s preferable for Willis to scramble rather than throw a checkdown to a two-star running back on third-and-long.

“One of the knocks, and it’s well deserved, is him playing a lot of hero ball,” says McEvoy. “That’s a legitimate concern when you watch his film. But you have to juxtapose that with Hugh Freeze on the field right before the Ole Miss game on national TV and saying, ‘Our only chance to win is if Malik goes crazy.’ And it’s like, OK, you can kind of understand where that mindset comes from.

“They wanted the ball in Malik’s hands [when things broke down], and he made a ton of plays for them.”

The plays he made came at a cost, obviously. But it’s useful to look at when those sacks happened. Twenty-two came on third down, when Willis’s sack rate spiked to 19.8 percent. And many of those came on third-and-long—18, to be exact. Willis’s sack rate jumped to 26.1 percent on third-and-6 or more, when a quick throw was less likely to move the chains, and it fell to 6.3 percent on third-and-5 or less.

Willis’s Sack Rate by Down in 2021

Situation Sack Rate Pressure Rate Pressure to Sack Rate
Situation Sack Rate Pressure Rate Pressure to Sack Rate
Early Downs 8.6% 30.2% 28.4%
Late Downs 19.3% 45.6% 42.3%
Data via Sports Info Solutions

In the 2020 season, when Liberty had a better team and there was less pressure on Willis to create, he had a sack rate of 5.7 percent, which is more in line with what we typically see out of quarterback prospects. So what makes more sense: that Willis somehow got worse at reading defenses and working the pocket, or that the environment around him changed and forced him to hold on to the ball longer?

The challenge for NFL teams evaluating Willis—or any quarterback prospect—is figuring out ways to fill in the blanks of what they haven’t seen. That’s why predraft meetings are so valuable. NFL coaches can ask prospects to go over the concepts they ran in college, and also throw their own stuff at them to see how the player handles it. By all accounts, Willis has aced that part of the predraft cycle.

Regurgitating information doesn’t tell you much about a player’s ability to apply it on the field. But Tannenbaum says there are tests designed to gauge that ability. During his time in Miami, the Dolphins used the Athletic Intelligence Quotient to measure how quickly a player is able to process information.

“The test measures sport-specific cognitive abilities,” says cocreator Scott Goldman. “Like how you see the playing field, reaction time. If you think of sports as an unsolvable puzzle, this is just how you go about solving it.”

That’s not something you can glean from film—especially if a quarterback hasn’t played in an offense that asks him to solve typical NFL problems. And this proprietary data might explain why we often see a wide gap between the public’s perception of a quarterback’s ability, which is entirely built on statistics and publicly available film, and that of people who have access to these results.

We’ll never know how Willis did on those tests, but his time at the Senior Bowl could be just as illuminating. The Lions coaching staff, which ran the American team that Willis helmed, sent him the playbook the day before he traveled to Mobile, Alabama. McEvoy says Willis stayed up until 2:30 a.m. that night studying the verbiage and using the voice memo app on his phone to memorize the concepts and 15-word play calls he’d have to make throughout the week. That work paid off.

“One of the things we heard at the Senior Bowl from [Lions QB] coach [Mark] Brunell and people in the know is they loved the way he picked up their concepts and worked through everything,” McEvoy says. “That’s where decision-makers at the next level have been most impressed with Malik through this process … when they get a chance to sit down with him and just kind of talk football with him.”

In Mobile, Willis was asked to play like an NFL quarterback for the first time in his life, and he came away from Senior Bowl week as one of the big winners. During the game, you could see some of the things his Liberty tape was lacking, such as the willingness to navigate a tight pocket while keeping his eyes downfield.

Liberty’s simple offense doesn’t explain away all of Willis’s shortcomings as a quarterback. On his tape, you can find several examples of him misreading a coverage, or missing a receiver running wide open downfield—even on some of his more impressive plays. Here’s one from the last game Willis played at Liberty, a 56-20 drubbing of Eastern Michigan in the LendingTree Bowl. After faking a handoff, Willis spins out to his left to avoid edge pressure, flips his hips quickly, and unloads a perfectly thrown pass 50 yards downfield. This is some video game shit:

That play encapsulates why Willis is such a divisive prospect—and not just because of the unreal throw that capped it off. Rewind the tape to the last step of his dropback, and take a look at the receiver in the middle of the field:

He’s wide open! For whatever reason, Willis turns down that option before salvaging the play with the ridiculously difficult throw outside the pocket. The result of the play is objectively awesome, but the process leading up to it was not. Being the best athlete on the field, Willis was mostly able to overcome those types of errors on Saturdays, but the margin for error is much slimmer for NFL quarterbacks—and those highlight reel plays can carry you only so far.

The good news is that Willis is still early in his development, and the most common mistakes you’ll find on his tape are typical of an inexperienced quarterback. Now that football will be his full-time job, the two-year starter has all the time to work on whatever weaknesses you might find in his game. And his college coach believes Willis can address those quickly.

“I’ll say this, if the best guy I ever coached needed three reps to [pick up on a concept],” Freeze says, “it probably takes Malik four. … He will not have a problem picking up your playbook or [meeting] your expectations of football IQ. He’s going to get it because it matters to him.”

At this time two years ago, Willis was not on the NFL’s radar. He had transferred from Auburn after losing out on the starting job to Bo Nix, and he believed Liberty was where his football career would end. After sitting out a year, though, the then-21-year-old took over as the team’s starting quarterback. He helped the Eagles get off to a 6-0 start and earn a no. 25 ranking in the AP poll, and then led them into the biggest game in program history: a road contest against Virginia Tech.

Willis officially arrived in the second quarter of that game. Liberty was facing a fourth-and-3 from the Virginia Tech 38-yard line, and after taking the snap, Willis escaped the pocket to his right, where he ran into a blitzing defensive back. He stiff-armed the DB while spinning out of the tackle, then looked up and uncorked a perfectly placed pass to a receiver running about 50 yards downfield.

It was a breathtaking display of arm strength, power, and mobility, and Willis spent the next 18 months producing similar feats of athleticism—especially with difficult throws to the perimeter of the field, where Freeze’s offense often asked him to look.

“Ain’t many quarterbacks who can make those,” Freeze says of throws outside the numbers to the wide side of the field. Freeze says he’s had years when throws to that area were off limits. But with Willis, “I could put on a three-minute reel of throws we made from a hash outside the numbers, in tight quarters, and that’s a rare quality.”

In the past, an impressive highlight reel may not have been enough for NFL front offices to overlook the deficiencies in a quarterback’s game. But that seems to be changing. Tannenbaum, who got his first front-office job in 1995, says that Willis would probably be a Day 3 pick if he had come out before 2011. Now, he says, teams are willing to take a chance on guys who aren’t 6-foot-3 pocket passers.

“I’m having a hard time with Malik because he goes against all my beliefs about quarterbacks,” he says. “I really like Malik. It’s all there on his tape, and he’s a great kid and hard worker. The height is a concern, but teams are taking chances on those outliers now.”

McEvoy says recent results have forced teams to “cast a wider net” when looking for a quarterback, and that’s led evaluators to put more emphasis on a passer’s physical ability rather than his ability to cosplay as an NFL quarterback at a young age.

In the past five years alone, we’ve seen teams use first-round picks on a reckless Air Raid quarterback who didn’t win a lot of games, a Mountain West quarterback with a passing statline straight out of the 1980s, and a Pac-12 quarterback whose production fell off over the course of his college career. Those three are arguably the NFL’s three best quarterbacks right now. There’s also Zach Wilson, a small kid with one year of good production at BYU who was taken second overall in part because of the strength of his off-platform throws, and Trey Lance, who played one full season at the FCS level and was taken third thanks to his physical tools. Meanwhile, Mac Jones, who led Alabama to a national title while doing a spot-on impression of a veteran NFL starter in 2020, had to wait until the 15th pick to hear his name called.

“I equate it to being back in fifth grade at recess,” McEvoy says. “I haven’t seen a guy’s fourth-grade film. I don’t know what he did last year. But that guy’s the fastest kid out here at recess. He’s got the best arm. If you’re picking teams, you’re going to take those guys first. … In some way, the NFL has gotten to that point. … If coaches or scouts have changed on anything over the last four or five years, I think it’s that: Let me take the traits, and I’ll coach the rest.”

With quarterbacks like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Drew Brees having dominated the league for so long, it might be difficult to understand why this shift is happening. But those guys—even the one still winning Super Bowls well into his 40s—are now relics. There’s a reason we have to reach so far back into draft history to find superstars who fit their mold. In recent years, the so-called “project” picks have hit at a higher rate, while the more “pro ready” prospects have maxed out as good-but-not-great players.

Betting on talent isn’t just working on the playground these days. It’s also working on the field. The quarterbacks who possess superhuman traits are winning games and redefining our expectations for the position.

How Willis’s career plays out will obviously decide the fate of the front office that drafts him, but it could have an even bigger impact on the league as a whole. The NFL is at a tipping point when it comes to quarterback evaluation, and teams are leaning toward the more physically gifted passers who can create outside the framework of an offense. If Willis ends up failing, we could see things shift back toward more traditional prospects. But if he emerges as a star—or even just a long-term starter—teams will have to reassess their notion of what a “safe” prospect looks like or risk falling even further behind the teams that already have.

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