Matt Ryan is the starting quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons. After winning the MVP in 2016, Atlanta trusted their veteran to be the star for years to come.
Entering his 14th season, the 36-year-old in definitely in the twilight of his career. With Ryan's end in sight, the Falcons should realize that before they can be good, they must accept that a rebuild is on the horizon. Ryan, who remains under contract through 2023, might not be a part of that plan.
It was reported that new general manager Terry Fontenot was considering drafting a quarterback with the No. 4 pick. Head coach Arthur Smith was against it, believing that Ryan still had enough left in the tank for a bounce-back season. Ultimately, the Falcons elected to go with do-it-all tight end Kyle Pitts out of Florida.
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Depending on how the season unfolds, Atlanta could be in line for a new gunslinger of tomorrow. If so, would Liberty's Malik Willis be a name to watch for?
The Athletic's Dane Brugler sees the Flames' star as a strong candidate with an NFL future.
Brugler recently released his early summer evaluations on quarterbacks of the 2022 draft class. North Carolina's Sam Howell enters the year as No. 1, with Oklahoma's Spencer Rattler No. 2.
Willis comes in at No. 5, but has the upside to grow into perhaps the best of the bunch by season's end.
"As both a runner and passer, Willis’ athleticism is what makes him such an exciting talent," Brugler wrote. "He owns the light, quick feet to be elusive as a scrambler or buy time behind the line of scrimmage. Willis’ loose athleticism also shows as a passer, delivering off-platform and adding zip to throws with ease."
The former Auburn quarterback surprised the college football landscape in Hugh Freeze's offense during the 2020 season. Teams quickly learned of his legs and how dangerous he could be in open space.
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They forgot about his arm.
Last year, Willis threw for 2,260 yards and 20 touchdowns with only six interceptions. He also for 944 yards and 14 touchdowns.
The Falcons know a thing or two about dual-threat players. Before Lamar Jackson and Cam Newton were making defenders miss on draw plays, there was Michael Vick. The former No. 1 pick put the NFL on notice with his arm and speed and transformed the game to another element under center.
In six seasons with the Falcons, Vick produced four years of 500-plus rushing yards. In the same span, he had four years of at least one-plus rushing touchdown.
Could Willis produce numbers even better than him?
This isn't a small-school kid who played against lesser opponents either. Willis marched into Blacksburg, Virginia to put Virginia Tech on blast in a 38-35 upset win. Consistency was his best trait, completing 66.7 percent of his passes and scoring four total times.
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The Flames picked up wins over Syracuse and Coastal Carolina as well to finish 9-1. The only loss came in a 15-14 defeat to North Carolina State. It was Willis' worst performance, as he threw half of his season's interceptions in Raleigh.
Scouts and evaluators have been impressed with not just his legs and arm, but also his vision. One scout told Fox Sports' Bruce Feldman that his quick release made it challenging for defenders to time it in mid-air.
Naturally, that would lead to big-time plays from the Flames' receivers, ultimately playing in favor of the team's strengths.
"He wasn't as accurate when he first got here," Freeze told Feldman this offseason. "I think (Liberty offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach) Kent Austin's done an outstanding job with him on that. I think the sky is the limit if the NFL keeps trending towards quarterback with this dual-threat nature."
Brugler did say there were areas for improvement for Willis entering his final season. One of which was ball placement and accuracy. In games against Coastal Carolina and NC State, Willis threw multiple interceptions.
At least one in each were overthrown and landed in the hands of the defender. At the NFL level, defensive backs are waiting for an overshot play to take it back to the house. Even minor mistakes could be costly when playing on Sundays.
Brugler isn't alone in his findings. In a recent conversation with ESPN's Matt Miller, two scouts raised their concerns on Willis' size and arm. One stated that his arm still had "a long way to go" before starting in the NFL.
The other said that “If you worried about size and level of competition with Zach Wilson, you’re going to worry about it with Willis too."
Both valid opinions, but also flaws the Falcons could live with?
If Ryan performs well and the team elects to keep him for a season, Atlanta could wait until the second round to draft a quarterback. Currently, Willis is expected to be a late first or early second-round pick.
With the extra pick gained by the Julio Jones trade, Atlanta would have two chances to grab him, let him sit for a season and eventually became the face of the franchise.
The Falcons also could be welcoming home an native to the state. Prior to committing to Auburn, Willis played He went at Roswell High School, a mere 25 miles north of Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
The quarterback Atlanta seemed most interested in during the 2021 NFL Draft was Ohio State's Justin Fields. He played at Harrison High School in Kennesaw, just 45 minutes northwest of downtown Atlanta.
Willis is in for a long season ahead that will be met with big expectations. If he lives up to them, NFL teams will be looking for ways to make him the next "it" quarterback at the professional level.
Smith and Fontenot could be in the market for a new do-it-all quarterback. If so, Willis might be Falcons' answer in stabilizing the most important position for years to come.
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