NASHVILLE – Beginning with the 1999 season, nine different quarterbacks have started at least 10 games for the Tennessee Titans.
The expectation is that Malik Willis will join that group sometime in the next couple years. The third-round pick in this year’s NFL Draft, however, never will measure up – not literally, at least.
At 6-foot-1, Willis will be the shortest full-time starter of the Titans era (1999-present) – provided he actually gets the job at some point – and will match Matt Mauck, who started one game in 2005, as the shortest at any point. By contrast, recent starters Kerry Collins, Vince Young, Matt Hasselbeck, Marcus Mariota and Ryan Tannehill, who currently holds the job, are or were all listed at 6-foot-4 or 6-foot-5.
The fact that Willis can’t necessarily see over his offensive linemen or oncoming pass rushers means occasionally he has to drop his arm angle or raise it in order to get the ball out and in the direction of his intended receiver.
His willingness and ability to rely on unconventional deliveries was apparent during offseason workouts that were open to the media. There were sidearm throws. He cut it loose from three-quarters of over the top and any number of angles on spectrum.
“There was a time when I was coming up, there was a proper way you have to throw and all that,” Titans coach Pat O’Hara said. “We need to get the ball out with twitch and on time, early if (possible), and play with whatever physical tools we have. And Malik has a lot of cool tools.
“… I think it’s an athlete-type thing. I’m not one to discourage that at all.”
It should be noted that Willis did not face a serious pass rush during offseason drills. Sometimes, he even altered his delivery during seven-on-seven work, when there were no bodies in front of him at all.
That suggests a certain creativity and improvisation in his game that is consistent with some of the league’s more exciting starters of this era, including Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes, the 2018 MVP who relies on a wide array of deliveries to deliver the ball to his receivers.
Arizona’s Kyler Murray, who is listed as three inches shorter than Willis, is another who adjusts his arm position as needed to get the ball out of his hand. He finished second in the league last season with a 69.2 completion percentage.
“You've got to be able to move your feet and get your shoulders set,” Tennessee coach Mike Vrabel said. “And then you teach them that. Then at some point in time, they're going to go out and play and manufacture some plays on their own and just be talented and be instinctive. There's a fine line between both of those.”
Young, the third overall pick in the 2006 draft, was 6-foot-5 and had no issues seeing downfield. Yet critics focused on his failure to take advantage of his size because his throwing motion was not over the top, as was – at the time – considered imperative to play the position. As a result, Titans coaches spent years trying to “fix” his delivery.
Nonetheless, Young is one of five Tennessee quarterbacks during the Titans era to complete more than 62 percent of his passes in a season. He connected on 62.3 percent in 2007, his first full season as a starter. His completion percentage dropped from year to year in three of the next four seasons and he never completed at least 60 percent again.
More than a decade later, the current coaching staff has a much different attitude toward the subject with Willis, the third quarterback taken in this year’s draft and the 86th overall selection.
“I mean, we don't want to coach robots,” Vrabel said. “We certainly want to make sure that we're sound in what we're doing. … We're going to try to coach them and teach them, but then they go off play, and make sure that the results are there.”
Willis’ variety of throws is hardly a surprise to anyone who paid attention to him the last couple seasons at Liberty or scouted him as part of the pre-draft process.
“He shows the ability to throw off-platform and on the run, adjusting arm angle if needed,” The NFL Draft Bible wrote in its pre-draft analysis.
From Draft Wire: “He can throw at any angle, and when flushed from the pocket, Willis can deliver off-balance throws from awkward positions, and still find his target.”
Added Pro Football Network: “He puts excellent zip on the ball and can throw from multiple arm angles.”
It is a different approach for a Titans quarterback, and his coaches wouldn’t have it – or him – any other way.
“I love it,” O’Hara said. “I teach our guys, ‘If you need to use a different arm angle, do it. This is pro football.’”
At least, this is how it is played these days.