Malik Willis waited longer than expected to hear his name called during the 2022 NFL Draft.
Considered by many to be the best quarterback available this year, he instead fell to the Tennessee Titans in the third round.
There was no waiting in the preseason. Willis was the Titans’ starting quarterback in their opener Thursday against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium. The rookie out of Liberty University played the entire first half, which ended with the Ravens on top 14-10, plus the first two offensive snaps of the second half. Baltimore ultimately won 23-10.
Willis directed seven full possessions capped by a brief attempt at a two-minute drill (Tennessee got the ball back with 28 seconds to play in the half) with mixed results. Three were three-and-outs. One ended with a fumble on the first play, and there were no third-down conversions in five tries. But the other two resulted in points – one touchdown, one field goal – and offered a glimpse of what Willis offers and why franchise officials wanted him.
He completed six of 11 passes for 107 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions. He also ran it five times for 38 yards and was sacked twice. His last play was a 17-yard scramble.
Here is a look at what Willis showed in his first taste of professional football.
• His arm strength is as good as advertised. With just over 12 minutes to play in the second quarter, Willis connected with wide receiver Racey McMath for a 48-yard gain. McMath stepped out of bounds immediately after the catch. So, basically the throw accounted for all of the gain on the play and was consistent with what Willis has shown during offseason and training camp workouts. Consider that since Mike Vrabel became head coach in 2018, the Titans have had one preseason pass gain more yards. That was last season when fullback Khari Blasingame took a short throw from Logan Woodside and went 50 yards. The connection with McMath accounted for nearly half of his passing yards on the night.
• He still has work to do when it comes to seeing the field. In the first quarter, Willis threw five passes – three to running backs behind or near the line of scrimmage. The two times he went down the field did not turn out well. His throw to Kyle Philips on an out route was late and nearly intercepted (it should have been a Pick-6). His attempt to Dez Fitzpatrick, which was well off the mark, came after he scrambled out of the pocket and was not the result of his normal progression. Outside of the long throw to McMath, it was largely more of the same in the second quarter until the offense got the ball back with 35 seconds to play in the half and Baltimore’s defense backed off.
• When he decides to run, he is a problem. His second rushing attempt was a 7-yard touchdown run that tied the score 7-7 in the opening minute of the second quarter (it was the Titans' only touchdown of the night). It was an improvised moment in which he first dropped back to pass and looked right. Willis soon took off to his left, made one defender miss, beat another to the corner and then made another miss as he went for the goal line. On the ensuing possession, a 6-yard scramble on third-and-14 was short of the first down but was another example of how elusive he is. On his last snap – out of the shotgun – he spun out of a tackle in the pocket and threw the ball away.
• He has imagination. Two plays after the long throw to McMath, he connected with tight end Tommy Hudson for five yards. It was not a big gain, but it was an eye-opening moment nonetheless. It was play-action call on which Willis rolled to his left where he was confronted by linebacker Malik Harrison, who was unblocked. Rather than try to throw it over the 6-foot-3 Harrison, Willis dropped down and delivered it sidearm to Hudson.
• The kid is cool. Willis never looked like he was flustered and did not try to do too much. He ended the 6-yard scramble on third down when he stepped out of bounds because it was apparent there was no more ground to be gained. The throw-away on his final play was a situation in which he could have been forgive for trying to force something (third-and-12, 16 seconds to play in the half), but instead he just tossed the ball out of bounds. That type of patience and poise is not necessarily common from guys who feel like they have something to prove.