Malik Willis

Titans Sign QB Malik Willis, Wrap Up Draft Class

The Titans have finished signing their entire draft class. Jim Wyatt of the team’s website reports that the Titans have signed quarterback Malik Willis to his rookie contract.

After spending two seasons as a backup at Auburn, Willis emerged as a starting QB following his transfer to Liberty University. In 23 games between two seasons, Willis completed 62.4 percent of his passes for 5,107 yards, 47 touchdowns, and 18 interceptions. He was also productive on the ground, rushing for 1,822 yards and 27 touchdowns on 338 carries.

Thanks to his performance in college, Willis was projected to be one of the first QB prospects off the board during the 2022 draft, with some pundits predicting that he could be a first-round pick. He ended up being the third QB selected (behind Kenny Pickett, Steelers and Desmond Ridder, Falcons), with the Titans taking Willis with the No. 86 pick in the draft.

During OTAs and minicamp, Willis was working behind Ryan Tannehill and Logan Woodside. There’s a good chance the rookie QB will slide in third on the dpeth chart for most of the 2022 campaign.

With the signing, the Titans have now signed their entire draft class:

Round 1: No. 18 (from Saints through Eagles) Treylon Burks, WR (Arkansas) (signed)
Round 2: No. 35 (from Jets) Roger McCreary, CB (Auburn) (signed)
Round 3: No. 69 (from Jets) Nicholas Petit-Frere, OT (Ohio State) (signed)
Round 3: No. 86 (from Raiders) Malik Willis, QB (Liberty)
Round 4: No. 131 Hassan Haskins, RB (Michigan) (signed)
Round 4: No. 143 Chig Okonkwo, TE (Maryland) (signed)
Round 5: No. 163 (from Steelers through Jets) Kyle Phillips, WR (UCLA) (signed)
Round 6: No. 204 Theo Jackson, CB (Tennessee) (signed)
Round 6: No. 219 Chance Campbell, LB (Ole Miss) (signed)

Poll: Which Rookie QB Will Make Most Starts In 2022?

As players widely linked to first-round destinations fell into the third, the long run of skepticism about this year’s quarterback class manifested itself. While this was the lowest-rated quarterback crop since at least the 2013 class, a few of these passers have paths to early playing time.

Russell Wilson‘s rapid rise notwithstanding, third-round QBs do not have an extensive track record for extended QB1 run as rookies. Only six non-Wilson Round 3 QBs (Joe Ferguson, Mike Glennon, Chris Chandler, Davis Mills, John Hadl and Hall of Famer Fran Tarkenton) made at least 10 starts as rookies. (Wilson is the only third-round QB to start a full season.) The bar is low for the likes of Desmond Ridder, Malik Willis and Matt Corral, but they each landed in interesting situations.

Conversations around starter promotions for this year’s class must first include Kenny Pickett, who ended up going 54 spots before the next quarterback came off the board. The Pittsburgh alum, who will turn 24 next month, was a four-year starter at the ACC school. Pickett’s NFL entrance looks similar to new teammate Mitchell Trubisky‘s. The No. 2 overall choice in 2017, Trubisky unseated Glennon after the latter signed with the Bears that offseason. A value gap between being picked second and 20th certainly exists, but the Steelers clearly have Pickett penciled in as their long-term preference.

Four of the five QBs taken in last year’s first round were full-time starters by September, while three of the four 2020 first-rounders moved to the top depth chart position by October. The Steelers bumped 2004 No. 11 overall pick Ben Roethlisberger into their lineup in Week 3 of his rookie year, following a Tommy Maddox injury. How eager will they be to put Pickett out there? Trubisky has 50 career starts to his credit, and the oft-maligned Bears draftee rebuilt his value in Buffalo — to some degree — to create a bit of a market in March. A Trubisky-Mason Rudolph depth chart adds some fuel to a scenario in which Pickett waits a bit before taking the reins.

The second quarterback chosen this year, Ridder joins a Falcons team amid a full-scale rebuild. This is a similar situation to the one Mills walked into in Houston. Ridder started four seasons at Cincinnati, topping it off by helping the Bearcats become the first Group of Five team invited to the College Football Playoff. Marcus Mariota resides as Atlanta’s stopgap starter, and while Ridder’s No. 74 overall draft slot does not mandate a lengthy look as the team’s long-term arm, Mariota has not made it past October as a starter since 2018.

The former Arthur Smith Titans pupil would stand to buy Ridder time in a low-expectations season post-Matt Ryan, but Ridder has a clear path to an extended look — if he proves worthy in the coming months.

Willis’ tumble doubled as one of the modern draft’s most notable freefalls. Linked to teams in the top half of the first round, the Liberty prospect fell to No. 86, when the Titans traded up for him. Of the top QBs taken this year, Willis seemingly has the best chance for a full-on redshirt. Ryan Tannehill has not seen his job threatened since taking over for Mariota midway through the 2019 slate, though the Titans have featured one of the lowest-profile QB2 situations since Mariota left for Las Vegas.

Willis’ all-around skillset, which allowed the Auburn transfer to nearly put up a 3,000-1,000 season during a year in which he accounted for 40 touchdowns, will make things interesting for Tennessee — if the Titans struggle after losing a few key offensive starters.

Perhaps the biggest wild card here, Corral resides on a Panthers team that spent the past two offseasons trying to made a big quarterback splash. Sam Darnold still represents Carolina’s projected Week 1 starter, unless the team finally decides to acquire Baker Mayfield. The Panthers have balked at trading for the disgruntled Browns QB for several weeks, due to his $18.9MM fully guaranteed contract. Darnold and Corral’s performance this offseason may well determine if Mayfield ends up a Panther, with Matt Rhule on the hot seat and Darnold showing little — albeit behind a bad offensive line — in 2021. Corral finished last season with a 20-to-5 TD-to-INT ratio, adding 11 rushing scores, and led Ole Miss to its first major bowl game in six years.

Which quarterback will make the most starts for his team this season? Vote in PFR’s latest poll and weigh in with your thoughts in the comments section.

NFC Rumors: Cowboys, Falcons, Saints, Trask

Going into the 2022 offseason, the Cowboys knew that they needed to bolster their defensive line. Early reports rumored that Dallas had interest in adding a former rival in Jason Pierre-Paul, who spent eight years as a Giant before going to Tampa Bay.

ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler reported that the Cowboys’ interest in Pierre-Paul seems to be waning, as Dallas believes they have “at least six capable edge rushers.” In the offseason, they added Dante Fowler through free agency and drafted Sam Williams out of Ole Miss last month. They’ll find themselves in the pass rushing rotation with the likes of Dorance Armstrong, Tarell Basham, DeMarcus Lawrence, and Chauncey Golston.

Here are a few other rumors from around the NFC, starting with a few more rumors from Jeremy Fowler’s article:

  • Atlanta selected Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder in the third round, over every quarterback in the Draft, besides Kenny Pickett who was the only passer off the board at that point. Fowler reports that Ridder’s biggest competition for the pick was Liberty’s Malik Willis, but the Falcons felt that Willis lacked the signature moments at Liberty, even though he had incredible talent. Ridder, on the other hand, had a more complete body of work, in their opinion. It didn’t hurt that Ridder reportedly came to interviews with a plan on how to unseat a veteran starting quarterback wherever he landed.
  • Another team that was long rumored to be looking at quarterbacks in the Draft, New Orleans instead drafted wide receiver Chris Olave with their first round pick. According to Fowler, the Saints had no plans to draft a quarterback. They had Olave in their sights and, upon seeing Drake London and Garrett Wilson come off the board at Nos. 8 and 10 overall, they knew they needed to make a move to ensure Olave would be available. New Orleans apparently did an outstanding job of keeping their plans a complete mystery to the rest of the NFL.
  • With Tom Brady coming out of retirement to quarterback the Buccaneers, Tampa Bay has been evaluating their backup quarterback position. According to Greg Auman of The Athletic, Buccaneers quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen doesn’t see Kyle Trask competing with Blaine Gabbert for the backup job. This shouldn’t put Trask’s roster spot in jeopardy, though. Gabbert is one of the better backup quarterbacks in the league, but the plan for Trask was always for a post-Brady team. Tampa Bay is happy with Trask’s progress so far and will likely keep developing the 24-year-old for the future.

Seahawks To Hold QB Competition, Did Not View Malik Willis As NFL-Ready

To the surprise of most, the Seahawks have stood pat at quarterback since trading Russell Wilson. They did re-sign Geno Smith, who has been a backup for seven years, and are prepared to give him a legitimate shot to succeed Wilson.

Smith and Drew Lock are engaged in an open competition for the job, Brady Henderson of ESPN.com notes. Pete Carroll has praised Lock throughout the offseason and said during a KJR 93.3 appearance (via Pro Football Talk) Lock would have been the first quarterback taken had he been in this year’s draft.

[RELATED: Carroll Does Not Envision Seahawks Trading For QB]

Lock, who went 42nd overall to the Broncos in 2019, is entering a contract year. He has largely struggled as a starter, and while the ex-Mizzou prospect did play in two offensive systems in his first two years, Teddy Bridgewater beat him out for Denver’s QB1 job last year and held him off throughout the Broncos’ time in playoff contention. Lock replaced an injured Bridgewater in a close Week 15 game against the Bengals; the Broncos lost that game and their final three to finish 7-10. This came after the strong-armed passer tied for the 2020 interception lead, with 15, despite missing three-plus games.

Seattle also has ex-Indianapolis draftee Jacob Eason on its roster, but Lock-Smith appears to be the battle. Refusing to capitalize on the non-Kenny Pickett QB prospects’ collective freefall, the Seahawks did not select a QB with their nine draft picks. A player they were connected to, Malik Willis, did not appeal to them. Seattle did not view the Liberty prospect as close to NFL-ready, Henderson adds. Seattle passed on Willis, Desmond Ridder and Matt Corral three times on Day 2.

Smith, 31, has made five starts over the past seven seasons. Three of those came last season, his third with the Seahawks. The former second-round pick did show some promise, completing 68% of his passes on 7.4 yards per attempt — numbers superior to his Jets-era work, albeit in a small sample size — and finishing with a 5-to-1 TD-INT ratio. But he has been a backup on four teams since 2015.

If the Browns end up releasing Baker Mayfield, the Seahawks will surely look into adding him to this mix. They were connected to the four-year starter earlier this offseason, and he would seemingly give the team a better chance to win this season. For now, however, Lock has a legitimate opportunity to snag another starting gig.

Latest On Titans QB Ryan Tannehill

The Titans made things interesting in their quarterbacks room yesterday when they traded up to select Liberty quarterback Malik Willis with the No. 86 pick. Speaking with reporters, Titans GM Jon Robinson said the front office didn’t consult with veteran QB Ryan Tannehill before making the selection (via Terry McCormick of TitanInsider.com on Twitter). Further, the executive seemed to indicate that Willis’ playing time will be dependent on the rookie’s development (vs. Tannehill’s production).

[RELATED: Titans Trade Up To Select Malik Willis At No. 86]

“His role will be determined by how quickly he comes in here and learns the offense and improves and gains the respect of his teammates,” Robinson said (via ESPN’s Turron Davenport).

“[Willis] was the best player on the board, and we’re excited to have him on the team. Good arm, athletic, moves around well and has a really good skillset. He throws a good ball and is tough to tackle. He’s got a lot of work to do like all these rookies do.”

Tannehill has seen plenty of team success during his three years with the Titans, guiding the squad to a 30-13 regular season. However, you can’t blame the Titans for seeking a QB with a higher upside; Tannehill finished last season with only 21 touchdowns vs. 14 interceptions, and the Titans have had two-straight one-and-done appearances in the postseason.

Of course, yesterday’s move doesn’t necessarily indicate that Tannehill is slowly being pushed out of Tennessee. While some pundits believe Willis has first-round talent, he was still selected in the third round, a pick that’s easy to write off. Perhaps the Willis selection will even light a fire under Tannehill and solidify the 33-year-old as the team’s sure-fire starter going forward.

Titans Trade Up To Select Malik Willis At No. 86

The long wait is finally over for Liberty quarterback Malik Willis. After seeing Pittsburgh select Kenny Pickett at No. 20 overall and then waiting for what seemed like forever until Desmond Ridder was selected by the Falcons at No. 74, Willis finally heard his named called by the Titans with the 86th overall pick of the 2022 NFL Draft. 

After sitting out for a year, due to his transfer from Auburn, Willis was named the Flames’ starting quarterback in his first eligible season at Liberty and decided to set college football world on fire. In his first season at the helm of the Flames’ offense, Willis had eye-popping numbers, despite the COVID-shortened season. In ten games, Willis completed 64.2% of his passes for 2,250 yards, tossing 20 touchdowns to 6 interceptions. He tacked on a casual 944 yards rushing, nearly averaging 100 yards per game, along with 14 additional touchdowns on the ground. The Flames were ranked as high as 21 throughout the season with their only loss being a one-point road defeat at NC State. In their bowl game, they were matched up with fellow small-market phenom Coastal Carolina in an exciting overtime affair that left Willis victorious over the Chanticleers.

Willis decided to return for his redshirt-senior year and led the Flames to an impressive 8-5 against a tougher schedule than the prior year. Despite constant pressure from a less than reliable offensive line, Willis put up career passing numbers throwing for 2,857 yards with 27 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He again added a huge component on the ground, racking up 878 yards and 13 rushing touchdowns.

The obvious asset that Willis brings to the table over the other quarterbacks in the Draft is his legs. He has a quick burst and excellent vision on designed runs and options. The Cardinals, Ravens, 49ers, and plenty of other teams have shown that an offense that incorporates run-pass-option plays (RPOs) can have a ton of success in the NFL if you have a quarterback who can run it effectively.

That being said, Willis is a quarterback, and a good one at that. He’s impressed NFL teams in meetings with his intelligence and ability to pick up on NFL concepts. He has elite arm strength and flashes the ability to fit the ball in tight windows. There are some technique/coaching issues that may help him improve his consistency and touch. He can take some gas off the ball effectively, but needs to improve the arch he puts in the ball’s flight. There are quite a few things for Willis to improve on, but he has so many tools already that the potential from these improvements gives him the highest ceiling of any quarterback in the 2022 NFL Draft.

Luckily for Willis, he’ll have some time to develop and improve those issues as he waits patiently behind Titans’ starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who is under contract for the next two seasons.

Draft Notes: Remaining QBs, Jets, Vikings, Burks, Johnson

One of the main storylines from last night’s first round was the fact that only one quarterback came off the board. The Steelers have their preferred choice in Kenny Pickett, but the other top options likely won’t have to wait long to hear their names called.

Jeff Howe of the Athletic reports (via Twitter) that “several teams” are trying to move up in the second round. As a result, there is “anticipation that a QB run could be on the way”. A number of teams could be interested in adding the likes of Malik Willis, Sam Howell, Desmond Ridder and Matt Corral as intriguing developmental options.

On that point, Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer names the Titans, Falcons, Seahawks and Commanders as teams to watch for. He reports that “Ridder’s name has been consistently connected to Tennessee”, who now holds the 35th overall pick. The other teams have done significant work on signal-callers as well. Perhaps eyeing a passer, the Seahawks have made “exploratory calls” about moving up tonight, per CBS Sports’ Josina Anderson (Twitter link).

Here are some other notes looking back on last night:

  • The Jets, as it has been reported, were willing to part with the No. 10 pick for Deebo Samuel. They almost made a different deal with that selection, though, as detailed by ESPN’s Rich Cimini (on Twitter). New York wanted to swap with Seattle for No. 9 to avoid a team leapfrogging them to select Garrett Wilson. Both teams were able to successfully stand pat, ultimately getting Charles Cross and Wilson, respectively.
  • Not long after the top-10 was complete, the Vikings ceded the 12th overall pick to the Lions. With their second first-rounder, Detroit selected Jameson Williams, who may have been the pick at that spot had Minnesota kept it. Breer reports that the Alabama receiver “was very much in play ” for the Vikings, who added Lewis Cine and two Day 2 picks as a result of the deal.
  • Another of the top receivers to be taken last night was Treylon Burks, whom the Titans selected as a replacement for A.J. BrownWhen speaking to Pat McAfee, NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport said the Arkansas alum “was the guy Aaron Rodgers wanted” (video link). With him off the board, the Packers extended their streak of not using a Round 1 pick on a wideout, but he reports that they are a candidate to trade up for one tonight (video link).
  • One of the most surprising fallers on Thursday night was pass rusher Jermaine Johnson II. Part of the reason he was still on the board for the Jets at No. 25, Breer notes, was poor interviews with teams in the pre-draft process. Thought by some as a top-10 pick, he ended up with the Jets anyway, and figures to serve as a notable boost to their pass rush.

Latest On Panthers’ QB Pursuit

4:46pm: The Panthers and Browns have continued their conversations on Mayfield, Tom Pelissero of NFL.com notes (video link). The expectation now is Cleveland needing to eat a chunk of Mayfield’s $18.9MM fifth-year option salary would stand to improve Mayfield’s price tag, but NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport adds the cost for the since-replaced QB is expected to be a Day 3 pick.

The Panthers are also a candidate to trade into Round 2 for a rookie, but that would be quite costly. Because of its trades for Sam Darnold and C.J. Henderson, Carolina does not pick again until No. 137. Carolina is, however, high on Willis and Corral. Both visited the Panthers earlier this month, joining fellow potential Carolina target Howell in doing so.

12:04pm: Day 1 of this year’s draft has come and gone, and Sam Darnold remains at the top of the Panthers’ quarterback depth chart. While that doesn’t come as a surprise, the team’s situation at the position could still change in the near future. 

[RELATED: Panthers Select Ekwonu At No. 6]

According to Jeff Howe of the Athletic, Carolina’s interest in veterans such as Baker Mayfield and Jimmy Garoppolo could heat back up. Given the fact that they made the expected move to bolster their offensive line by drafting Ikem Ekwonu sixth overall, he writes, the Panthers “now should be players for Mayfield.”

The two parties were linked in the build-up to the draft, with Carolina finding themselves as one of the runners-up to acquire Deshaun Watson. After initial reports indicated the team had little, if any, interest in Mayfield, the Panthers emerged in the eyes of many as the favorite to acquire him. Doing so, however, was only thought to be feasible after at least the draft’s opening round.

As Howe notes, any potential trade involving Mayfield is complicated by a number of factors. One is his contract; the 2018 No. 1 pick is due $18.86MM on the fifth-year option, just as Darnold is. For that reason, Howe writes, “the Browns are prepared to pay a portion of Mayfield’s salary to facilitate a deal.” Another is the team’s complete lack of Day 2 picks, taking them out of the running to draft the likes of Malik Willis, Desmond Ridder, Sam Howell or Matt Corral without sacrificing 2023 capital.

“I think we’ll look at every opportunity out there” said general manager Scott Fitterer, via Howe’s colleague Joe Person, regarding the QB market. “There’s still some really good players in this draft. And we’ll also look at every opportunity outside the organization.” Whether the team acts on those opportunities will be worth monitoring as the weekend progresses.

Texans Considering Round 2 QBs; Baker Mayfield, Jimmy Garoppolo On Radar?

Although Lovie Smith voiced support for Davis Mills early in the offseason, GM Nick Caserio was noncommittal about the second-year QB’s starter status going forward. Everything Houston has thus far done points to Mills receiving another opportunity, but the team may make a late entrance to the quarterback market.

The Texans considered the prospect of trading back into Round 1 for Malik Willis, Jeff Howe of The Athletic notes (subscription required). Houston, which also liked Kenny Pickett, holds the fifth pick in Friday’s second round (No. 37 overall). Willis’ fall opens the door to a potential investment for a Texans team that can certainly afford to give a rookie quarterback a redshirt season, given where the Caserio-led franchise is on its rebuild track.

This draft producing the first one-QB first round since 2013 opens the door to teams making lower-cost investments tonight. Ole Miss’ Matt Corral, who is on the Saints’ radar, and Desmond Ridder qualify as potential second-round picks. North Carolina’s Sam Howell may well go off the board tonight as well. The Buccaneers, Vikings, Titans and Giants pick in front of the Texans in Round 2. There are some QB landmine spots here for Houston, which runs the risk of missing out on its preferred second-day passer by standing pat.

Should the Texans not take a quarterback tonight, two veterans are available in trades. The team is likely to explore a Baker Mayfield or Jimmy Garoppolo addition, Howe adds. This would seem contingent on Houston not drafting Willis or another QB in Round 2. While the Texans are still fine with running Mills back out there in 2022 and did not consider drafting a passer with either of their first-round picks Thursday, per Howe, the team is not committed just yet.

The Panthers and Seahawks have been connected to Mayfield, with the former a bit more closely linked. Garoppolo’s market has yet to take shape, with the longtime 49ers starter still rehabbing from surgery on his throwing shoulder. The Texans were not interested in Mayfield when they traded Deshaun Watson to the Browns, but Howe adds the expectation of Cleveland needing to eat some of the QB’s fifth-year option salary ($18.9MM) has changed the equation. The 49ers’ asking price for Garoppolo remains too high for the Texans, however, though Caserio’s time with the ex-Tom Brady backup in New England does create a logical connection here — Garoppolo’s desire to end up with a contender notwithstanding.

Another wrinkle here is the 49ers’ willingness to keep Garoppolo through training camp. That could put the former Super Bowl starter in position to need another team’s QB injury to prompt a trade. Absent a reasonable offer, the 49ers are willing to carry Garoppolo’s salary ($26.9MM cap number) to camp, per Howe. This would hinder their ability to extend Deebo Samuel or Nick Bosa, but Garoppolo doubles as an insurance policy in case Trey Lance is not ready to take over.

AFC Draft Notes: Chiefs, Jaguars, Texans, Steelers

We’re only two days away from the NFL Draft. Let’s take a look at some assorted draft notes out of the AFC:

  • The Chiefs are armed with 12 selections in the upcoming draft, including picks No. 29 and No. 30. According to Albert Breer of SI.com, Kansas City’s front office has started to call teams in the 20s about trading up. Breer opines that a potential deal could precede a second trade up the draft board.. Breer speculates that the Chiefs could be eyeing one of the league’s top receivers, but he also cautions that the front office could make “an aggressive move” for a cornerback or pass-rusher.
  • We can add two more teams to the list of Trevor Penning suitors. According to Aaron Wilson of ProFootballNetwork.com, the Titans and Chiefs are among the teams being mentioned as landing spots for the Northern Iowa left tackle. Kansas City would likely have to trade up in order to acquire the lineman. The Ravens, Titans, and Panthers have previously been linked to Penning.
  • Four prospects are believed to be in play for the Jaguars at No. 1 overall, but ESPN’s Todd McShay is hearing a lot of buzz around Georgia edge rusher Travon Walker. Sources believe the Jaguars prefer Walker’s “upside and traits” over Michigan defensive end Aidan Hutchinson‘s “proven production, motor, and leadership.”
  • The Texans are high on Ohio State wide receiver Garrett Wilson, according to McShay. However, the Texans won’t take the wideout at No. 3, and they’d probably have to trade up from No. 13 in order to select Wilson. If that ends up being an unrealistic path, McShay could also envision the Texans trading out of the No. 13 spot.
  • The first QB off the board could end up going to the Steelers at No. 20, according to McShay. Pittsburgh is apparently eyeing Liberty’s Malik Willis, and the signal-caller could end up falling in their lap. However, the reporter seems to be cautioning that the Steelers may not be able to pull off “a Bill Belichick” (referring to last year’s Mac Jones pick), meaning the front office may have to trade up if they want Willis.