2022 NFL Draft Rookie Profile: Malik Willis (Fantasy Football)
Liberty QB Malik Willis put on an impressive show this weekend at the combine. As my colleague Matthew Betz shared in our 2022 NFL Draft Props tracker, we both put down a wager for Willis to be the 1st QB Drafted as things are trending in that direction.
The dual-threat QB from Liberty University is the highest-profile player ever from the school and some of the major question marks from dissidents are his lack of competition and the erratic play that sometimes shows up on film. Let’s take a deep dive on Willis, discuss his college production and athletic profile before spending the majority of our time analyzing some of his highest-profile games.
Editors Note: This article is part of our Rookie Profile series going on until the 2022 NFL Draft. For more on each rookie, check out Andy, Mike, and Jason’s exclusive rookie rankings and production profiles found only in the Dynasty Pass, part of the UDK+ for 2022.
College Production Profile
As Commanders head coach Ron Rivera recently shared, Willis’ journey to the NFL eerily follows a route Cam Newton took. Willis played three years at Westlake HS in Atlanta, the same school Newton attended) before transferring to Roswell HS his senior year. However, Willis did his Auburn tour in reverse transferring from the SEC school after sitting behind future NFL draft pick Jarrett Stidham and after Bo Nix was recruited. Newton of course went from Florida and Blinn College before winning the Heisman in his lone year at Auburn.
While Willis doesn’t possess quite the same eye-popping numbers, his college rushing yardage share actually outpaced Newton’s 2011 season.
Among QBs taken in the 1st round since 1995, Malik Willis is top-5 in college rush share (37.1%… his 2020 season).
It is elite. But not quite Jake Locker. 😎 pic.twitter.com/fQ3ZcrMcgs
— Kyle Borgognoni (@kyle_borg) February 28, 2022
His breakout age (21.3) is a bit older than most QB prospects although we’ve seen recent success from transfers in college (Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray, Joe Burrow) that just needed a chance to start. Willis wasn’t the most efficient runner in college but 40 combined TDs in 2021 certainly puts him in an elite category. His 13 rushing TDs in 2021 were tied for 2nd in Division I among QBs. Arguably his best game came against previously undefeated #9 Coastal Carolina in the 2020 Cure Bowl. Liberty upset the Chanticleers 37-34 on the back of Willis going 21/137/4 on the ground! In 2021, Willis was a Heisman candidate through the first two months of the season before running into a wall in November with just five total TDs and six INTs in three straight losses for Liberty. He completed 51.4 percent of his passes in those games against Ole Miss, Louisana, and Army. In his final collegiate game against Eastern Michigan in the LendingTree Bowl, Liberty put up 56 points on the back of five total Willis TDs and he was named MVP.
Willis came in 1/2 inch shorter than advertised and five pounds over what many projected him. In the NFL Combine era, there are only four QBs smaller than 6’1″ and within 210-220 pounds to get drafted in the first four rounds: Michael Vick, Tua Tagovailoa, Drew Brees, and Ian Book. That is quite a range of outcomes. Willis’ game and quick flick release somewhat mirrors Vick while Brees made up for his lack of height by being the most accurate QB of all time, a trait Willis definitely does not possess as you’ll see below.
While he surprisingly chose not to run the 40, Willis’ deep ball impressed many on hand in Indianapolis.
— NFL (@NFL) March 4, 2022
What’s On Tape
My method for watching film is simple: get out a pen and pad of paper. Watch each passing attempt taking note of the down and distance and simply write down what I see. For a QB, I focus on accuracy, aDOT, footwork, locating 2nd reads, and how they stand in the pocket under pressure. For Willis, I took six of his highest-profile games including two bowl games and some big-time opponents on the road.
Games Viewed: Louisiana (2021), Syracuse (2021), Ole Miss (2021), Eastern Michigan (2021), Coastal Carolina (2020), NC State (2020)
1. His arm action & “flick” of the wrist is special for someone his size.
Vick is the poster child for this elite trait as he could effortlessly throw the ball 60-70 yards downfield almost video game-esque. Willis isn’t on that level by any means but he throws a “lively ball” for someone his size. In his final college game versus Eastern Michigan in the Lending Tree Bowl, he felt much more in control of the flow of the game including ripping a few downfield attempts that showcased his arm strength. But beyond going deep, it was his throws outside the numbers that impressed me more.
The velocity is impressive although sometimes he trusts himself too much. In arguably his toughest collegiate game at Ole Miss, I wrote down “where things could go wrong” while watching the tape. To put it simply, the Flames were outmatched continuing to get upfield with their edge rushers and forced Willis to beat them through the air. Below, it’s clear the play call is simplified where either he has one read or Willis makes up his mind too early. Regardless, there was zero reading of the coverage as the Ole Miss safety easily picks off Willis who tries to fit the ball in a tight window. I won’t nitpick too much as every young QB is given the opportunity to learn and progress as a field visionary.
In the Syracuse game, Liberty lost by a field goal at the end but Willis was efficient throughout the game completing 14-of-19 passes including three passing TDs. Syracuse shut him down in the 1st quarter wreaking havoc in the backfield on multiple occasions. But Willis continually found gaps deep especially outside the numbers with two second-half TDs where his WRs used double moves to get open. He seemed comfortable placing throws 30+ yards downfield.
2. Anything in the intermediate range was rough.
While Willis displayed more than enough strength on the deep throws, I found him consistently putting way too much air under his deep ball. But probably the biggest knock on Willis being able to develop at the next level is this area of the field. All-Pro QBs slay in the 10-19 area. Not only are they chain-movers but you are getting to the next level of the defense where missed tackles by cornerbacks and safeties are more of the norm. Think of a WR like A.J. Brown taking a throw in the middle of the field to the house because he’s gotten behind linebackers and is able to manhandle the rest of the secondary. You have to give your playmakers a chance with the ball in their hands whether that is on deep slants or out routes. The issue isn’t can he get it there but can Willis get it there on time, in stride, and accurately.
The touch was there on the deep ball but as you pile on film from multiple games, he consistently sailed over his pass-catchers’ heads. Against Louisana, there was a mixed bag of nice throws stepping up in the pocket to ones where he stared down his target and was picked. Against NC State, he started out a meager 4-of-13 before throwing a TD right before halftime. There was never a question if he could make the throws, just his ability to hit his spots.
Here is how Willis stacked up to the rest of this 2022 QB Class in the “intermediate area”
|% of Att.
|Adj Comp %
3. The open field running is going to be gold for fantasy at the next level.
As I mentioned in his college production profile, Willis’ rushing share is a top-5 number for QBs drafted in the 1st round since 1995. It’s a big deal and it’s a big deal in a game where our scoring is somewhat broken towards mobile QBs. For example, Justin Fields somehow finished as a top-10 QB in four of his final five starts last year despite completing only 60 percent of his passes. Jalen Hurts (who Willis is often comped to) finished as a QB1 11 times in 2021 despite totaling 16 passing TDs on the season. Willis can easily jump into the conversation as a top-5 rushing QB in the league in a tier with Hurts, Josh Allen, and Trey Lance. He’s not Lamar Jackson… no one is but Willis displayed more than enough flash as a runner to see 650+ rushing yards being his floor right from the get-go.
Watch the film against Coastal Carolina against a defense that was lauded for creating pressure all year long. He was the go-to option inside the redzone with all four of his rushing TDs being QB keepers inside the 20. Here’s a run against Eastern Michigan in his final game where he simply outruns defenders straight up the middle of the field.
I thought they would use him more in the option on the outside making defenders pick. But with his arm, the game plan was to freeze linebackers and safeties with the read-option and give him the ability to pull back and locate wide receivers downfield. He will be a problem for opposing defenses at the next level.
What’s Not on Tape
1. He never lined up under center.
Shotgun… shotgun… shotgun. Yes, we’ve seen this narrative before but I do not think this is a red flag the way others might caution due to the simple fact the NFL lives in shotgun-ville these days. It is worth mentioning as the landing spot and offensive scheme he finds himself in the NFL should take advantage of his expertise and skillset, not reinvent himself as a sole I-formation pocket passer the way Marcus Mariota steadily declined in his progress in Tennessee.
To give you a picture of how this could work, Jalen Hurts certainly improved in 2021 with the Eagles totaling the most rushing yards in the league on the back of Hurts’ team-leading 784. The Eagles didn’t mask what they were doing throwing on just 27 percent of their snaps under center, 31st in the NFL. The play-action component will need to be a key part of Willis’ development if he is going to transition to taking regular snaps under center.
2. He didn’t take huge hits.
You can look at this from a couple of different viewpoints:
- Willis is a smart runner who knows when to avoid pressure.
- He avoided “big hits” at an unsustainable rate. In other words, they will come.
I made the same exact observation with Joe Burrow at LSU in his 2020 Rookie Profile. Willis can escape and showcase “Houdini-like” qualities but sometimes dancing around in the pocket gets you into trouble if you trust your ability too much.
2022 Fantasy Outlook
Finally, let’s delineate what we’ve seen from Willis as an NFL prospect from what we can project for fantasy football. Ultimately, that is what we care about in this silly game we all play. How do Willis’ skills translate to helping fantasy managers? As I mentioned earlier, he can give Jalen Hurts-like rushing numbers from Day 1. As a passer, he has better raw tools but his decision-making is going to be his biggest litmus test at the next level.
If Willis is selected by a team like Washington or Pittsburgh, he could be given the chance to start right away. Regardless of the weapons he’s surrounded with, his rushing ability is a true fantasy trump card making him the top QB on my board for rookie drafts ahead of Kenny Pickett. I would rather take a shot that he develops as a passer knowing explosive games where he runs for 70+ and a couple of scores are on the table. As I detailed Breakouts & Busts in Every Dynasty Rookie Draft Since 2015, QBs tend to fall further than they should. In SuperFlex, he’s a top-3 pick and if he is selected by the Steelers, I get it if you want to take him with the 1.01. In a normal 1QB dynasty draft, I wouldn’t let Willis slide past the 1.07.