When I gave Liberty’s quarterback Malik Willis to the Steelers in my way-too-early mock draft a few weeks ago, there was much discussion on how he would fit with the Steelers. Some were intrigued by the idea, while others said that there is no way he would fall to the Steelers. Some fans liked his dual-threat ability, and others said that the Steelers would never draft a quarterback that is 6’1” like Willis. Today, we are going to take a closer look at the Liberty quarterback and determine whether or not he would be a good fit with the Steelers.
Before we dive into Willis, let us look at why Steelers fans should focus on Willis. First of all, we do not know where the Steelers will be picking. I truly hope the Steelers are picking at 32 in next year’s draft, but we have no clue what the Steelers are going to be this year. With a new offensive scheme, a defense that lost several key pieces, and an offensive line that still has question marks, we have no clue how the 2021 Steelers will truly look like. Considering that we do not know where we are picking, any player that is not currently a consensus top five or ten pick should be looked at as a potential pick for the Steelers. Willis has been occasionally mocked inside the top ten, but most mock drafts currently have him in the mid to late first round.
We also do not know if the Steelers will go the route of the big-bodied pocket passer. The Steelers seem to prefer that, but Brandon Hunt, the expected heir apparent to Kevin Colbert, might have a major say in who the Steelers take considering he will be the man trying to put pieces around him in the future. There is no guarantee that Hunt will abide by the same philosophy, which means that nothing is off the table. It is also worth noting that there are not as many traditional pocket passers coming out of college anymore, and the big pocket passers with no athleticism have not had much success in recent memory. We will see what happens with Mac Jones, but D’Wayne Haskins did not work out for Washington in 2019, and Josh Rosen never developed into a starting quarterback for Arizona. As the NFL game continues to become more like the college game, I am afraid we are going to see fewer and fewer quarterbacks with limited athleticism have success in the NFL. Those are just a couple reasons why Steelers fans should take prospects like Malik Willis seriously.
The nephew of former NFL linebacker James Anderson, Willis graduated from Roswell High School in Roswell, Georgia, as an honor roll student. After Gus Malzahn chose Bo Nix over Willis as the Auburn starting quarterback, Willis decided to transfer to a school where he would have an opportunity to start. After sitting out the 2019 season due to transfer rules, Willis was determined to make his mark in a 2020 season that was anything but normal. Liberty had several tough games on the schedule, but Willis only had one truly poor performance the entire season. Capped off by an impressive bowl game victory against Coastal Carolina, who was the 9th ranked team in the nation, Willis led the Flames to a 9-1 record while recording a nearly 65% completion percentage, 2,250 passing yards, 944 rushing yards, 34 total touchdowns, and only six interceptions.
When you watch Willis play, the first things that pop out are his arm strength and athleticism. He has proven that he can deliver a 50 yard pass off his back foot or on the run. Being able to make things happen when nothing is open is something that only a select few can do at a high level. His ability to throw it from just about any arm angle allows him to fit the ball into tight windows, and his shiftiness and quickness as a runner makes it difficult for defenders to bring him down in the open field. His offensive line was not too consistent this past season, but his escapability prevented a lot of sacks. His ability to avoid a sack and gain positive yards as a runner is the best you will see outside of maybe Lamar Jackson. Surprisingly, Willis is a relatively accurate quarterback as well. There were a couple instances where he would put too much velocity on his throw and the receiver would not be able to haul it in, but for the most part, he threw catchable balls and put his receivers in a position to succeed.
When it comes to areas that Willis needs to improve in, I would like to see Willis step into his throws more. He throws off his back foot too often, and that is something you do not want to become a habit. He does a decent job going through his progressions, but he occasionally throws the ball a little too late in the route, allowing trailing defenders to catch up and potentially make a play on the ball. His footwork is inconsistent, but it improved as the season progressed. There are also a few throws where he gets too excited and throws it too high for his receiver to catch it. If Willis can show more patience as a passer in 2021, he could become a top ten pick next April.
Today, we are going to look at two of Willis’ toughest matchups of the season: Virginia Tech and North Carolina State. Jacob Bost and I are trying a new way of cutting up the clips. He has cut them into small YouTube clips. Please mention something in the comment section if you are experiencing problems viewing the clips.
Here is the first play I want to look at against Virginia Tech.
Willis is in the shotgun and sees that Virginia Tech is in zone coverage. I want to use this play more as a comparison rather than a complement. This is a good example of Willis showing confidence inside a clean pocket. In the very few opportunities he was given at Auburn, he would run the ball whenever there was any open space in front of him, no matter how much open space there was. This play shows Willis’ progression from an athlete to a quarterback. That clip is, of course, only one play, but he continued to improve as a passer from inside the pocket as the season went on. Rather than dropping further back and throwing off his back foot or choosing to run with it, he stepped up into the clean pocket and stepped into his throw. As Steelers fans, we know very well that you must apply pressure for zone defense to work, because zone defense eventually breaks down. Willis was given time to throw, and he found a soft spot in the defense.
The following play against North Carolina State shows how his confidence as a passer increased as the season progressed.
Willis steps up in the pocket to avoid the pass rush and delivers a strike to wide receiver Noah Frith, who is not open. Yes, he could have easily run it in for the score. That would have been the wiser thing, but it shows Willis’ increased confidence to fit the ball into tight windows. Most of the North Carolina State game was not good for Willis, but for most of the second half of the season, he was willing to throw it into tight coverage. And more times than not, he delivered those balls in accurate fashion. There is still room for improvement, but the fact that he has grown as much as he has in such a short period of time shows me that he is capable of becoming an even better passer this season.
The play below is about as good as you will ever see from anyone. Willis is in the shotgun.
I am not comparing Willis to my highest graded quarterback I have ever evaluated, but that throw is something that only Patrick Mahomes and possibly a couple others on the planet are capable of doing. Virginia Tech’s Chamarri Conner comes on a cornerback blitz, and Willis avoids the shoestring tackle with a nice spin move. He immediately gets his eyes back downfield, and with only one receiver he can realistically throw to, he throws it off-balanced toward the sideline and hits his receiver, who shows excellent sideline awareness and stays in bounds to make the catch. Willis realizes that an accurately thrown ball on the boundary line is unlikely to be intercepted. He delivers a beautiful ball, and the receiver makes the catch for a huge gain.
It does not take a rocket scientist to see Willis’ athleticism, but his elusiveness, shiftiness, and change-of-direction speed are what make him different than many other athletic quarterbacks. Here are two prime examples.
In the first clip, it is a read option, and Willis chooses to keep it. He does an excellent job following his blocker but knowing when to cut upfield. He accelerates quickly and gets past defensive back Devin Taylor, who is unable to cut back and bring Willis down. If Willis is given any daylight, he is able to take full advantage of it.
In the second clip, it is a designed quarterback run. Willis once again shows his ability to make defenders miss in the open field. The way he makes Divine Deablo look foolish in the open field is a testament to not only his talent, but also his mental quickness. He sidesteps Deablo and turns what would have been a short gain into an eleven yard pickup and a first down.
There are flaws in every quarterback’s game, but some are more obvious than others. This is most certainly the case with Willis’ fumbling. In 2020, Willis fumbled the ball eleven times in ten games. Yes, it is a teachable issue, but it is clear that the student has not learned the lesson yet. See for yourself.
Willis has proven to be dedicated to football, but it seems as if he is so concerned about making big plays and making the right decisions as a passer that ball security is merely an afterthought. When he runs, he holds the ball with very little security. When he is standing in the pocket, he seems to be focused downfield, but he is not always aware of oncoming pass rushers trying to knock the ball loose.
Here is the last play we will look at. Willis is once again in the shotgun.
Willis is throwing it almost from the far right hash all the way to the opposite sideline. This throw has to travel a good distance to get to his receiver, and it gives the defender more time to cut in front of the receiver and make a play on the ball. Willis has to realize that to make this throw, you really want the defender to be a good five yards deeper than the receiver. The ball has to travel too far laterally, Willis throws it a little too far to the inside, and North Carolina State comes away with the interception.
If highlights are more your thing, here are Willis’ best plays from the 2020 season.
NFL Comparison: Kyler Murray
This is a very difficult prospect to compare simply because it is a rare breed. There is no quarterback that matches his height, weight, playing style, positives, negatives, and potential to a tee. Willis may be not be a 2.0 version of any other quarterback but rather the 1.0 version of himself, which may even be better. However, I do see some similarities between Willis and Murray, especially as runners. They both have very quick feet, excellent escapability in the pocket, and elusiveness in the open field. Willis is taller than Murray, and he may have an even higher ceiling as a prospect than Kyler, but this is the closest you can get to Willis in terms of playing styles.
How would he fit with the Steelers?
As mentioned in previous breakdowns, we have seen that the Steelers have preferred taller quarterbacks in the past, but at some point, both the team and the fans will have to come to the realization that the game has changed. Taking a player like Willis may not be in line with the Steelers’ philosophies of the past, but I believe he would be an excellent fit in Matt Canada’s offense. I would like him to become more comfortable under center, but he is more than capable of running an offense out of the shotgun or pistol already. Canada’s offense would help let Willis make plays from both inside and outside the pocket as a passer. And as the offensive line continues to be rebuilt, having a mobile quarterback that can escape pressure is a plus.
Kendrick Green is not quite 6’2”, but that could actually be an advantage for a shorter quarterback. Having shorter linemen makes it easier for a short quarterback to be able to see past the line of scrimmage and read the defense. The Steelers will also have the opportunity to replace one of their taller linemen, David DeCastro, in the upcoming draft. If they choose to go that route, it will be interesting to see if they begin to find shorter linemen. I believe that the Steelers are simply trying to find guys who fit the new zone blocking scheme, but getting shorter interior linemen makes me think that the Steelers may be more willing to take a quarterback that some would consider “undersized.” It is nothing more than a hunch, but it is something to think about.
Having said all that, I believe that the talent of Malik Willis far outweighs his deficiencies as a prospect, and if he continues to progress as a passer, I would love to see the Steelers grab him if he is within striking distance. But what do you think of Willis as a potential fit for the Steelers? Be sure to share your thoughts on this and all things Pittsburgh Steelers in the comment section below!