At one point, he was touted as the best quarterback in the 2022 NFL Draft, but Willis’ raw talent and athleticism wasn’t enough to get him picked at the top of the draft. Instead, Willis fell to the third round, where the Titans snagged him with the 86th overall pick.
He is as talented and “toolsy” as they come, but he reigns from a program at Liberty University that didn’t run a pro-style offense.
Willis is a project, but an important one, at that.
With fan patience running out on Ryan Tannehill after the 2021 playoff loss and Tannehill’s contract coming to end after the 2023 season, Titans GM Jon Robinson took a gamble by drafting Willis, a potential successor of Tannehill, a few years early, with hopes of developing him into a well-oiled machine under center.
Step one of that process was getting Willis into the Titans building, working with him every day, and watching him grow in his reps on the field.
Following Tuesday’s practice at Titans training camp, Willis told the media how significant he felt his progress has been. He also shared what he believes is the key to taking the next step:
Willis told reporters that he felt his timing was the biggest thing he’s learned from so far in camp, but also said that improving on his footwork would help him excel even more in that area.
“I’m processing faster than what I’m used to going within my footwork,” said Willis. “I’m processing the information and knowing what I need to do, but in order to be on time and throw with anticipation, I need to help my feet get up to my processing abilities. It’s about getting the reps where you’re able to do it without thinking.”
When asked what it would take to get there, Willis’ answer was simple: “Reps.”
According to both Willis and Titans offensive coordinator Todd Downing, the rookie quarterback’s progress has been coming along very quickly. Downing told reporters on Tuesday that he’s “excited about where he is at,” while Willis admitted he was surprised at how fast things were coming along.
#Titans' Downing: Malik Willis is so physically gifted. When you have those tools, you can make up for some things in college (like hesitation or late throws) more so than you can in NFL … Overall, excited about where he's at.— John Glennon (@glennonsports) August 2, 2022
When asked if he thought the progression would move this fast, Willis answered with “I didn’t, but they did,” referring to his coaches. “They told me it would. They told me to set an alert on my calendar for the first day of training camp to see where I would be from the time rookie camp started. He was right, I was light years ahead.”
The strides Willis makes this season will likely never impact the Titans on the field. ESPN’s Turron Davenport recently issued a prediction that Willis wouldn’t start his first NFL game until week 15 of 2023.
Even that might be generous.
But that doesn’t mean his growth is unimportant. As the season unfolds and the Titans are required to make difficult personnel decisions, Ryan Tannehill and his $36 Million cap-hit in 2023 are going to be a main point of discussion.
Tannehill’s play and the Titans postseason success (assuming they make it there) will definitely influence the organization’s decision, but Willis’ development may prove to be just as formative.
If Willis shows signs of being ready to take over by the start of next year, things could get interesting.
Willis said it himself. Reps are the only way he will get better, and just one week into his first training camp, things are encouraging. The real story, however, will be told by his play in the preseason games.
He has the tools to get it done, and the only question on Willis moving forward is something he said in his interview:
“How willing are you to work at it?”
Image via George Walker IV / Tennessean.com-USA TODAY NETWORK