From now until the 2022 NFL Draft takes place, we hope to scout and create profiles for as many prospects as possible, examining their strengths, weaknesses, and what they can bring to an NFL franchise. These players could be potential top 10 picks, all the way down to Day 3 selections and priority undrafted free agents. Today, I’ll be profiling a controversial quarterback prospect that comes from a small-school, but is a dynamic athlete with the mobility and arm talent that resemble a growing trend in the NFL.
#7 Malik Willis, QB, Liberty (R-Senior) – 6004, 219lb
Senior Bowl/Combine Invite
|Player||Ht/Wt||Hand Size||Arm Length||Wingspan|
|Malik Willis||6004/219||9 1/2||31 3/4||77 3/8|
|40-Yard Dash||10-Yard Dash||Short Shuttle||3-Cone|
|Broad Jump||Vertical||Bench Press|
— Has good open-field speed and explosiveness, being a threat to tuck and run
— Long speed is good, but not elite while initial burst is strong
— Has a stocky build that can power through arm tackles as a runner
— A natural fit for the zone run/RPO system that can keep it and make defenses pay for not committing defenders to him
— Has the feet and athleticism to evade pressure in the pocket and extend the play
— Generates good velocity on his throws, having the zip to hit the deep out or fire it in tight windows over the middle
— Has the arm strength to hit the throws off-platform while on the run
— Improved his ball placement this past season, showing better touch on tight window throws
— Has noticeable accuracy issues when it comes to ball placement on his intended receiver
— Ball security as a runner and thrower needs to be improved to avoid unnecessary giveaways (14 fumbles w/ five lost in two seasons)
— Trusts his arm strength a little too much, trying to hum it into coverage leading to picks
— Needs to progress through his reads better and play with better anticipation when throwing to a receiver coming out of his route
— Will drop his elbow on some deep passes, causing him to air the ball over the intended receiver
— Redshirt Senior prospect from Atlanta, GA
-— Played his sophomore and junior seasons at Westlake High School in Atlanta before transferring to Roswell High his senior season, Honor roll student
-— Also recognized as a quality baseball player in high school
— His uncle, James Anderson, played for 11 seasons in the NFL and was a third-round draft pick in 2006 as a linebacker for the Panthers
— Attempted just 14 passes during his Tigers career from 2017-2018, completing 11-of-14 passing attempts for 69 yards and a touchdown as a backup adding in 28 rushes for 309 yards and two touchdowns
— Transferred to Liberty from Auburn
— Sat out the 2019 season due to NCAA transfer rules and redshirted
— Played and started in ten games in 2020, completing 170 of 265 (64.2%) for 2,260 yards, 20 TDs and six INTs while adding in 141 carries for 944 yards (6.7 average), and 14 TDs
— Missed one game in 2020 due to injury
— Played and started in 13 games in 2021, completing 207-of-339 attempts (61.1%) for 2,857 yards and 28 TDs with 12 INTs while throwing in 197 carries for 878 yards ((4.5 YPC) and 13 TDs
— Named Lending Tree Bowl MVP in 2021
— Completed his bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies in May 2021
Last season, the Liberty Flames were one of the lesser-known college football teams to grab the national spotlight, running toward a 10-1 record under HC Hugh Freeze. A big reason for the team’s success can be attributed to QB Malik Willis, an Auburn transfer that took college football by storm in 2020. Willis had moments where he was able to showcase his dynamic running ability as a scrambling QB during his first two seasons with the Tigers, but never earned a starting role with the team, prompting him to transfer to Liberty for a chance to be a starting QB. After sitting out the 2019 season due to transfer rules, Willis showed out in a big way for the Flames, impressing the nation as a passer as well as with his legs on the ground.
For the QB position, Willis is a great athlete who is a perfect fit for a read option/RPO-heavy option offense. He is a legit threat to tuck the ball and run if he keeps it, having the initial burst and speed to be a problem to contain as a runner. Check out this play against Eastern Michigan where Willis drops back to pass, but gets flushed from the pocket by the rush, taking off up the field and maneuvers his way around multiple defenders as he scoots into the end zone with his legs.
He is elusive in the pocket and can sidestep pressure with ease, making defenders miss with impressive footwork and lateral change of direction skills as he finds space to accelerate forward. On this run against Florida International, we see Willis demonstrate his burst and contact balance as he gets pressure right up the middle which flushes him out to the right, but he has the speed to get the corner by the sideline and turn up field. He stays upright from the diving tackle attempt by the defensive lineman in pursuit, spinning and staying on his feet as he runs up the sideline until he is finally caught from behind inside the red zone by the defensive back for the long run.
He is a smooth runner of the football when he wants to keep it himself, but he also utilizes his mobility well as a passer. He can evade pressure as the pocket breaks down and get to the outside to extend the play, having the athleticism and arm strength to throw on the run to his intended target. On this play against the Eagles, Willis spins out of pressure in the pocket and works his way to the sideline, buying time for his receiver to get on top of the coverage and delivers a bomb off his back foot into the breadbasket of his receiver for the chunk gain down the sideline.
We see a similar play here with Willis stepping up in the pocket with pressure coming off the edge, having room to run but notices the defender coming up to him and sees his receiver cutting across the middle of the field, hitting the sidearm throw off-platform on the run around the defender right in front of him to his receiver in a tight window as he gets sandwiched in-between two defenders in coverage for the clutch reception.
Willis’s ability to throw on the run without his feet set underneath is a testament to his arm strength and his mobility as a QB prospect. Here against Eastern Michigan, we see Willis take the snap and roll to his right, targeting the receiver running the comeback on the right sideline. He whips the ball on-the-run to his receiver in the end zone who manages to keep his feet in=bounds for the score with the defender in tight coverage.
If you want to see Willis’s arm strength and athleticism encapsulated in one play, this throw against Virginia Tech is the one for you. He takes the snap and immediately rolls out to the right, spinning out of a wimpy tackle attempt in the backfield and then unloads the ball while on the run to the sideline, uncorking it 45 yards with his feet not set underneath him to his receiver who catches the ball along the sideline inside the five-yard line to set up first-and-goal.
Look at this throw from the bowl game where Willis stays in the pocket and has the rush coming in on him. Having no room to step into his throw, Willis still delivers a shot down the left sideline from his goal line to the 45-yard line, dropping it over the corner in coverage and just above the safety running over to make the play to his receiver along the sideline. The receiver ends up dropping the ball, but an impressive display of arm strength and touch by Willis to give his receiver a chance to make the play.
Not only is Willis able to drive the football down the field on deep shots, but he also throws with good velocity outside the numbers. The deep out route is known to be the hardest throw for NFL quarterbacks due to the accuracy and zip you need on the football, and there are several instances in Willis’ tape that show he can make these throws thanks to his arm like this play against the Rebels.
Willis has moments where he shows the ball placement and touch on the football you look for in NFL-caliber passers with the plus-athletic traits that are highly coveted in today’s league. Watch this hold shot against Syracuse where Willis delivers a strike to his receiver running down the sideline from the pocket, dropping in it in over the cornerback trailing in coverage with the safety working his way over to the pass. The receiver high points the football and comes down with the catch for the big gain.
Willis would be wise to be more risk-adverse and choose to live to fight another down rather than trying to force the ball where it shouldn’t go. His faith in his arm can fail him at times as a passer, attempting to make passes he never should. Take, for example, this INT thrown against Ole Mis this season where Willis looks at his check down option in the flat, but then takes his eyes to the receiver streaking down the field, not stepping into his throw and throwing the ball short where the safety easily undercuts the pass and picks it off and starts running the other direction.
Here’s another play against Syracuse where Willis is sloppy in his mechanics, lifting his back foot off the ground and trying to power the ball to his receiver running up the right sideline rather than maneuvering the pocket to create space to deliver a more accurate pass, lofting the ball over his intended target’s head into the reach of the coverage defender who tips the pass away. Willis should throw back-shoulder here to give his receiver a chance to make the play instead of putting the ball at risk with the defender in position to make a play on the ball.
Here’s another off target throw against Virginia Tech where Willis drops his elbow upon release of the football, subsequently sailing the ball well over his intended receiver’s head in the end zone for the missed scoring opportunity.
Another big problem that constantly pops up in Willis’ tape is his overall ball security. In the Virginia Tech game, there were too many times where he would drop the snap in his hands and try to make something happen afterwards rather than handle the snap properly to execute the play.
Along with ball security issues, Willis seemingly doesn’t have much pocket presence when it comes to being a passer, not having the awareness to understand when pressure is coming to tuck and run or throw the ball away if the defender isn’t coming directly in line of sight. Below are several where Willis doesn’t sense pressure and coughs up the football to the defense. As a starting QB in the NFL, you have to be able to sense when pressure is coming and get rid of the ball or at least hold onto the football when hit, and that is something Willis cannot do at this moment in time with plays like these littering his film.
The example against Syracuse above came at the end of the game, giving the Orange the ball in field goal range where they would go on to kick a field goal to win the game. Willis’ talent as a passer and runner is evident on film, but he can be his own worst enemy at times trying to do too much and forcing the issue instead of choosing to live another down. No better example than this play at the end of the Ole Miss game where Willis faces pressure and commits the cardinal sin of throwing off his back foot on the run across his body into the end zone on first down, throwing up a prayer ball that get intercepted ending any chance at a comeback.
Overall, the athleticism, arm strength, and ability to create out of structure are enticing traits that offenses are desperately searching for. Willis has these traits in spades, but the intangibles that come with the quarterback position in terms of decision making, pocket presence, consistent accuracy down the field, and ability to read defenses while going through route progressions just aren’t there right now to be considered a reliable starting option from a small-school FBS team to facing NFL defenses. Sure, his legs and improvisation skills will help keep plays alive that traditional pocket passers can’t, but his lack of protecting the football and being risk adverse could lead to ample turnovers unless the mental aspect of his catches up to the physical.
As far as player comparisons go, Willis is unique because of his arm strength and mobility as a runner and passer outside of the pocket. Many have pointed to Eagles QB Jalen Hurts as a sensible comp, having nearly identical size, athleticism, and ability to create as a passer outside of the pocket. From my examination though, Hurts has a stouter frame and is less turnover-happy, playing more conservative than Willis. When it comes to strictly play style as an elusive runner, a player that can sling it off-platform with good arm strength but struggles with the mental aspect of the game from the QB position, I personally see Willis as a poor-man’s version of Lamar Jackson coming out of Louisville.
Obviously, Jackson was far more dynamic as a runner possessing better long speed, but the two have a similar running style. They also have similar throwing mechanics, making the sidearm, off-platform throws while on the run as zone read/RPO threats. Also, Willis can be more oblivious to pressure which is also something Jackson tends to struggle with. The best way to describe Willis would be as a mix between the two, having athleticism and size like Hurts, but play style and tendencies like Jackson.
The talent is evident with Willis, but the issues are just as glaring and need to be addressed if he is to be a successful starting QB in the NFL. Whatever team that drafts Willis will likely have to change their offensive system completely to match his strengths while covering up his deficiencies like Baltimore did with Jackson. Given how much HC Mike Tomlin has talked about mobility, Willis could be an option given Pittsburgh’s exposure to a guy like Jackson the past few years. However, his small-school status and lack of production against top-flight competition do work against him to be the eventual successor in Pittsburgh.
Malik Willis would be best suited for a run-heavy system like Baltimore or Philadelphia that utilizes QB-designed runs and zone read/option work in the running game that requires their passers to work out in space. However, I would suggest that Willis needs more time to develop the mental aspect of the game and become more of a consistent passer while avoiding taking so many risks. I would like to see him sit for initially when drafted to have him adjust to the speed of the game and learn from a veteran presence and a coaching staff that doesn’t put too much on his plate too early. The talent is undeniable with Willis, but the bust potential is arguably just as high as the boom.
Projection: Day One
Depot Draft Grade: 8.7 – Potential Starter/Good Backup (1st Round)
Games Watched: at Virginia Tech (2020), vs Southern Mississippi (2020), at Syracuse (2020), at Ole Miss (2021), at Syracuse (2021), vs Eastern Michigan (2021)
|Previous 2022 NFL Draft Player Profiles|
|QB Sam Howell||OL Kenyon Green||LB Chad Muma||C Tyler Linderbaum|
|OT Trevor Penning|