NASHVILLE – Three rounds into the 2022 NFL Draft, the Tennessee Titans made a move that may signal the beginning of one era and the end of another.
In selecting multi-talented Liberty University quarterback Malik Willis with the 86th overall pick on Friday, the Titans laid out a potential plan of succession for the most important position on the field.
It seems all but certain Ryan Tannehill will remain the team’s starter for the 2022 season, despite a disappointing 2021 that saw the 10-year veteran throw 21 touchdowns and 14 interceptions.
Tannehill’s contract makes him all but uncuttable this year, as the Titans would be stuck with $57.4 million in dead money, while saving just $18.8 million against the cap.
But 2023 is a different story. The team can save $27 million against the cap if it cuts Tannehill (post June 1) and will take on just $9.6 million of dead money.
That scenario would seem to set up nicely for Willis, who is considered a prospect with great upside – a cannon arm, tremendous running ability – but one that may need to sit and learn for a year before he’s ready to contend for a starting position.
“We’re really just excited about being able to develop young players and see what happens,” coach Mike Vrabel said. “I don’t think anybody is going to be able to talk about anybody’s future tonight.”
Added general manager Jon Robinson: “I can’t predict the future. But I know right now we’re excited to get him.”
A number of draft analysts thought Willis would be chosen in the first or second round. But as the middle of the third round neared, Willis was surprisingly still on the board. One could almost sense the Titans’ eyes getting wider and wider, to the point that Robinson chose to send the 90th and 169th overall selections in the draft to Las Vegas, allowing Tennessee to move to 86 and snatch Willis.
“As it started to kind of go on, I had my doubts (as to whether he would still be there),” Robinson said. “I thought some teams might look at it like us and be like, `Here’s a good football player who has a lot of good things to work with and develop,’ and then as it got even closer and closer, it became even more apparent that we got a shot here.
“He was the best player on our board. We were a couple of picks out. You’re looking at the teams ahead of you, but you’re also looking and being cognizant of the teams behind you and the potential for somebody to come up or a team in the fourth to come back in to the third.”
A Well-Rounded Game
So just what do the Titans have in the 6-foot, 219-pound Willis, who spent his first two seasons at Auburn before transferring to Liberty?
He’s an electric playmaker who throws an outstanding deep ball, a passer who totaled 5,117 yards in two years at Liberty, averaging 13.6 yards per completion and producing 47 touchdowns versus 18 interceptions.
Willis’ skills as a runner were unparalleled over the past two seasons. He carried 338 times for 1,878 yards (5.6 yards per carry) and 27 touchdowns. Per Pro Football Focus, Willis broke 89 tackles last season, more than any other player, including running backs.
“(He has a) good arm, athletic, moves around well, got a really good skill set,” Robinson said. “Throws a good ball. He’s tough to tackle. He’s got a lot of work to do, like all these rookies do. But (we’re) excited to add him to the team and let him compete.”
How must Willis better his game to excel in the NFL?
The Athletic’s Dane Brugler wrote that Willis’ field vision and decision-making are still “in the development phase.” Pro Football Focus noted that Willis’ eyes “telegraph his throws regularly. Will stare daggers through his targets.” Willis also gets hesitant when pressured in the pocket, as he was sacked 51 times last season, more than any other player in the FBS.
That means Willis has plenty of work ahead of him during the offseason and throughout his rookie year.
“You’re learning a new offense,” Robinson said. “You’re coming in, all these guys, whatever position they play. They’re learning new terminology, they’re learning new things. So how quickly he gets acclimated to that will probably determine how quickly he progresses.”
Said Willis: “I mean, I learned a college playbook before I got to college, well, when I got to college. So I feel like I can learn an NFL playbook whenever I get to the NFL. It's just about me putting in the time and effort more than anything.”
Willing to Watch, Listen
The fact that Willis is a third-round pick – as opposed to a first- or even a second-round selection – will lessen the pressure of becoming an immediate starter. Indeed, the 22-year-old sounded more than ready to learn while sitting behind Tannehill during the 2022 season.
“Ryan Tannehill is a great player and he's a great leader for this organization,” Willis said. “I just want to come in and just do all I can in order to get better at my craft. Whenever that time comes for me to get on the field, then that time will come. But until then, I'm just going to try to learn and be the best teammate that I can be.”
In the meantime, it would be hard to imagine Vrabel and offensive coordinator Todd Downing not finding some creative ways for Willis to contribute as a rookie, even if he isn’t expected to be a starter.
“I think there’s a lot of things we can do with different skill players,” Vrabel said. “Watching his tape, he’s a tough tackle. Obviously there’s a lot of things that we’re going to have to work with and develop. Our coaches are excited, and I know Malik is ready to get here and get to work.”
Just what happens after 2022 remains to be seen.
Whether or not Willis eventually becomes the starter depends, as Robinson said, on how well he learns the offense, improves his overall game and gains the respect of his teammates – just like any other player.
But in some ways, Willis looks unlike any other player the Titans have suited up, which is why anticipation will quickly build if he appears to be progressing.
“All it takes is somebody being able to teach me, and I have to go learn the playbook just like anybody else,” Willis said. “There’s no way that I don't feel comfortable learning it from what they taught me during the pre-draft process, and I feel like I retain information pretty well. I had an understanding of it. It's just me going and putting in work every day.”