NASHVILLE – When it comes to NFL rookies, few prospects draw as much immediate attention as highly drafted quarterbacks.
Such was the case over the weekend for Malik Willis. Every snap, throw and scramble during the Tennessee Titans' rookie orientation came under scrutiny.
A third-round selection out of Liberty University, Willis is the Titans’ highest-drafted quarterback since the team took Marcus Mariota with the second overall pick in 2015.
The fact that circumstances make it seem possible -- maybe eve probable -- Willis will be a starter in 2023 only adds to the intrigue.
Here are five first-impression observations on Willis, who predictably had good and bad moments in his first taste of the NFL.
“That was a lot better than what I thought it was going to go like,” he said. “You go through something for the first time, you don’t know what to expect. Everybody put their opinions out there about what they think, but don’t nobody know until you go through it.
“I was just really, really appreciative of (quarterbacks coach Pat O’Hara and offensive coordinator Todd Downing) in just preparing us to get out there and just go have fun, play the game we love to play. I felt really good about it.”
• Arm strength – What was considered one of Willis’ greatest attributes did indeed stand out during the minicamp. It wasn’t necessarily 60-yard throws downfield that I’m talking about, as Willis really didn’t throw a lot of deep passes. But the zip on his more routine passes was impressive.
A few in particular come to mind: One was a short out route to fifth-round pick Kyle Philips, the kind of pass that quarterbacks can’t miss to the inside because of the possibility a closing cornerback could snatch it for a pick-six. But Willis’ pass was a rope -- right on target, making sure no one but Philips had a chance to catch it.
Another throw Willis appeared especially comfortable with was the seam pattern to the tight end. He was on the money with a few throws to speedy fourth-round pick Chig Okonkwo, offering a tempting glimpse of a future connection between the rookies.
Willis also smoked a few passes to targets over the middle, hitting mid-range targets in a hurry. One was to undrafted SMU receiver Reggie Roberson, who hauled in a Willis fastball for what would have been a good gain.
• The mechanics question – Willis’ throwing motion takes a little bit of getting used to. For starters, he doesn’t come over the top. It’s certainly not a Phillip Rivers situation, but probably more of a three-quarters movement. Willis’ arm also appears to stay a little tighter to his body than is customarily seen. A lot of NFL quarterbacks have found success throwing from all sorts of different angles in recent years, so it’s certainly not a huge red flag. But it’s worth wondering if Willis will need to make any changes to the motion, considering he’s 6-foot-1.
Another thing that looked a bit different was Willis’ habit of picking up his right foot as he followed through on his throws. One would think that might affect the velocity of his throws, but it certainly didn’t appear to.
It will be interesting to see how much – if at all -- the Titans try to change Willis’ base and throwing motion. He did, after all, throw for a combined 5,107 yards and 47 touchdowns over the last two seasons at Liberty using his current mechanics.
• Accuracy – Willis was good, but not great, in this department during team and seven-on-seven drills Friday and Saturday. As mentioned, Willis’ arm strength made for some very impressive darts delivered both to the sideline and over the middle. There were some off-target tosses as well, with one of those instances forcing Philips – open on a short crossing route – to have to turn and catch the ball behind his body.
One thing that seemed surprising was that when Willis was working in individual quarterback drills – simply standing still and throwing to trainers or managers – he missed a few stationary targets at medium range, throwing high or wide. One possible explanation: Willis might have been using those sessions with O’Hara to work on adjustments to his base or mechanics, which would obviously have affected the throwing motion.
• Thickness – Willis carries his 219 pounds on a thickly muscled frame. The rookie minicamp was non-contact (and quarterbacks wouldn’t be hit in practice anyway), so we don’t yet know for sure what the powerful build will mean. But presumably, it should help Willis handle some of the hits – whether on the run or in the pocket – that he’ll eventually take on the NFL level.
Remember, this is a quarterback that broke more tackles (89) than any other player – including running backs – on the FBS level last season, per Pro Football Focus. He also played all 13 Liberty games last season despite getting sacked 51 times, most in the FBS. So he can both deliver and absorb punishment.
“I just got to give glory to God on that one,” Willis said when asked about his strength. “Pray like it’s up to God, work like it’s up to you. I just try to go out every day and try to get better, whether it’s on the field or in the weight room.”
• Perseverance and poise – There were times during Friday’s initial minicamp session that Willis looked a little frazzled. It wasn’t so much his play during the team drills that was an issue, but more what led up to the plays. The offense made several pre-snap mistakes in the early going (some due to quarterback cadence), and Willis also had a hard time handling snaps under center – after playing almost exclusively under shotgun at Liberty.
But things progressed for Willis and the offense on Friday, and looked much smoother on Saturday, with noticeably fewer breakdowns and bad snaps.
Willis also didn’t come apart at the seams after a bad toss, such as the interception he threw to sixth-round defensive back Theo Jackson on Saturday.
“I think it got better,” Vrabel said of Willis’ work on Friday. “It got better in seven-on-seven, and that’s all we’re looking for is to make some improvements and have a great attitude and be coachable, be willing to learn.”
Added Willis: “Hey, we got one percent (better) each day, that’s all we’re trying to get. In 100 days, you’ll be 100 percent better. That’s what (Vrabel) told me, so it’s all good, and (I’m) just going to work every day.”
Willis also showed a poise and comfort level in his first live session with Titans media, smoothly dealing with the Ryan Tannehill mentor comment that could have proven awkward.
“It was never anything negative,” Willis said. “Ryan’s a good dude. Like I said, he had us over to the house, man. Everything’s cool.”