In our Scouting Reports, we will give you a quick debrief to get you the information you need to know. We’ll also take it a step further and provide an in-depth review showing off examples of what we like, and what we don’t. Included is a date from the initial scouting report; this is so new notes can be added as the year goes on. Those new notes will be dated as well. With that, welcome to the Malik Willis scouting report!
Willis had a rough initial go-around at Auburn, but turned things around after transferring to Liberty. How was he able to achieve so much success? Let’s take a look!
Details: Malik Willis | QB | Liberty #7
DOB: 05.25.1999 | 22 years old
H/W: 6’1” | 225 lbs
NFL Draft Projection:
1st-2nd round pick – Willis is beyond polarizing. In a class with other, stronger prospects, he likely wouldn’t be considered for the first round – unless someone really wanted that fifth-year option. However, with the class as it is, some think he could be taken in the Top 5. From what I’ve seen, I wouldn’t touch him on Day 1. Though where there’s smoke, there’s often fire… and there’s lots of smoke around Willis being a(n early) Day 1 pick.
Dynasty Rookie Draft Projection – 1QB:
Mid-late 2nd round pick – In fantasy, Willis has the potential to make the NFL look like Madden. With his huge arm and rushing potential, he’s assuredly going to be one of the top quarterbacks taken regardless of landing spot.
Dynasty Rookie Draft Projection – Superflex/2QB:
Top 6 pick – Willis’ electricity is off the charts, so in a SF or 2QB league – where Jalen Hurts is a valuable asset to a contender – you can expect he’ll be one of the first off the board.
Willis is the most polarizing prospect in the 2022 draft class. He has electric athleticism and an extremely strong arm. For some, he’s the type of prospect that NFL GM’s dream of.
To others, Willis is an athlete playing quarterback. A skillset full of holes, inconsistent (at best) mechanics being one of those holes, isn’t where they want to hang their hat. For this crowd, the benefits must be weighed against the risks to determine if the rigors of an NFL defense will turn him into another failed project.
What part of his skillset causes concern?
To start, Willis consistently plays with poor footwork in the pocket, and throws with flawed mechanics. When moving in the pocket, Willis rarely plays with his base under him, making it hard to plant and throw at a moment’s notice. Within his throwing motion, we often see him overstep, which causes a number of issues.
Additionally, Willis’ accuracy is inconsistent. Without a doubt, some of this is due to his poor mechanics. I prefer to say he’s inconsistent though, not inaccurate. He regularly shows he can drop a dime from the opposite hash 40 yards deep on one play, then wildly misplace a goalline fade on the next.
He plays in an extremely limited offensive structure with simple half-field route combinations, typically no more than two, maybe three reads. He’s incredibly slow to process the field even in this simplified offense. This is, arguably, the biggest issue and Willis’ most damning trait.
Despite these flaws, he has multiple innate traits that can’t be taught and are near impossible to build. Even with poor mechanics, Willis’ arm puts serious velocity on his throws which allows him to make throws that others simply cannot.
More than that, the fun starts when he turns into a runner. Willis has speed to burn most defenders, with excellent lateral agility to avoid would-be tacklers. He’s built well and able to grind out extra yards with strength when needed, though a quarterback shouldn’t be outmuscling tacklers on the regular.
He even shows some skills that many refined prospects don’t showcase in college: good touch on intermediate throws, eye manipulation to pin a defender, and quality pump-fakes to make the most out of double-moves. Willis is also calm in the pocket and comfortable throwing it anywhere on the field.
If you want a project, Willis may be the best in the class due to his inherent athletic gifts. The question then becomes, “…is a project worth a first round pick, or potentially even the first quarterback off the board?”
Willis is an exciting dual-threat prospect, with a big arm, powerful frame, and speed to burn. Aside from having great speed, he also has excellent vision as a runner, more than his share of quick-twitch, and a surprising amount of power.
His greatest ability as a runner may be his immediate acceleration. It takes no more than two or three steps for Willis to get up to top speed, which helps him to get free from defenders who can’t get an angle on him and often can’t keep up.
Our first video is a play against Old Dominion early in the ’21-’22 season. Willis hits the top of his drop looking right and sees that the route he wanted was swallowed up against tight coverage. Immediately he books it through a gap in the center of the line.
There’s a number of things which should rightfully be criticized here; his footwork at the top of his drop and his one route half-field read being the most obvious. However, this video isn’t intended to criticize.
Instead, note how quickly Willis hits top gear, and how he’s clearly one of the fastest players on the field. This ability to eat up grass and pick up 55 yards in a flash isn’t something that can be taught, and separates Willis from the most of the rest of the ’22 pack of quarterbacks.
His acceleration and speed are immediately apparent when watching any Liberty games. He also shows great vision and superb reaction time as a runner.
On our next play, we take a look at Liberty at Ole Miss. The Rebels draw up a backside blitz, a perfect defensive playcall against the concept Liberty was running…or it would have been were they not playing against Willis.
Just inches before the blitz gets home and wrecks Willis in the backfield, he head-fakes outside, stops on a dime, and with a quick-juke back inside he simply lets the blitzing DB run by him.
Anyone else hearing classic Chris Berman, “Whoop!”?
With the second level vacated, Willis picks up a good chunk of yards before falling over and giving himself up. Improvised plays like this look too easy with Willis at the helm.
That single quick-juke above is sweet, but doesn’t do justice to Willis’ insane lateral agility and ability to redirect himself with a snap of the hips. Again, this kind of athletic ability can’t be taught. Either you’ve got it or you don’t.
After pulling down the throw to the running back, Willis looks left for an opening to run. There are a number of defenders in his face immediately, forcing Willis to pivot and wiggle through narrow lanes between defenders and his offensive line.
It’s pretty incredible how he’s able to pivot and burst with such precision. Showing balance and strength, Willis runs around or through multiple tackle attempts. Runs like this show just how special of an athlete Willis is. This could be the premier play of a scat backs highlight reel.
However, Willis isn’t a running back, he’s a quarterback, and here’s where we start digging into a few of his flaws. This play left me speechless, and continues to do so. I really don’t understand what was going through his head when he made the decision to pull the throw and take off running.
We can clearly see the running back has loads of space around him, and three blockers to three defenders, all of whom have tons of depth. For any quarterback, this is a simple decision…but not for Willis.
He still picks up the first down, just one yard away from a touchdown, but he doesn’t make it easy.
Making easy plays look difficult is one of Willis’ repeated flaws. Always looking for a big play, we will see Willis forego the easy yards time and again.
On its own, this isn’t necessarily a detriment. Liberty runs a highly simplified offense for Willis, commonly using route combinations involving only two players, and typically attacking in a high-low pattern. Faking the flat to hit the deeper route is good, but Willis stares down the route rather than taking advantage of what the defense does.
On this next play, Willis pumps to the flat, hoping to hold the corner low and create space down the sideline. When the corner runs with the deep route, Willis never looks back to the flat which, by this point, has nearly ten yards of space.
Instead, not trusting his seven blockers to hold-off the four Campbell rushers, Willis’ internal clock causes him to panic at imagined pressure and he takes off to his right. Instead of throwing the flat and letting him rack up YAC, he signals to the (still wide open) receiver to gain depth.
He makes an okay throw on the run, although a bit inaccurate and made more difficult than needed. As a general rule, the quarterback has an easier and more accurate throw if they run in the direction of the intended target. Willis doesn’t. He keeps running to the sideline, seemingly falling deeper in the backfield while getting the throw off.
Willis isn’t able to get his hips involved in this throw, in part because of his direction of travel. This results in a difficult and strenuous all-arm throw up the sideline. With all of that considered, the placement was surprisingly decent, and they still end up getting the first down.
Partly due to his natural gifts, and partly because of his penchant to avoid the easy or mundane plays, Willis’ highlight reels are an amalgamation of exciting runs like all of the videos we saw above. They also showcase some outstanding deep throws and his cannon of an arm.
Our next play is just one example – there are many to choose from.
Liberty liked to take advantage of Willis’ arm on double-moves and vertical routes down the sideline. They ran deep often, and did so using a few different concepts.
Here, we see a cover 1 shell. The slot receiver at the bottom of the window is going to stem inside to create space, and then beat the DB back outside. From there, it’s pure speed.
Willis hits the top of his drop, loads up a ton of energy, then fires a phenomenal ball to the opposite sideline, traveling ~54 yards through the air. The throw is inches away from being perfectly dropped into the receiver’s bucket.
The receiver does has to dive for it, which prevents the touchdown. This is in part because the ball isn’t lofted with much air under it. Instead there’s a bit too much zip on it.
Some analysts have Willis as the first quarterback off the board, while others have him falling into the second round. So, why the disparity?
It’s no secret that Willis has issues with his mechanics. The cut-up below shows a number of these issues. His lower half is highly inconsistent and often the source of his mechanical flaws.
Starting from his back/drive foot, he loads well but, instead of driving his weight forward, Willis pushes that loaded energy upward. This is especially prevalent on deep throws where we see him pop-up instead of step into the throw.
His front/plant foot often gets too far out in front of him. He tends to open his shoulders and hips early and his leg swings open, planting too far outside his frame.
When Willis has these issues, he can’t fully bring his right hip through, stalling out ~80% of the way. The only reason he can even engage his hips that far is because he leans his upper body to his left. He regularly ends throws off balance, with his entire upper half leaning hard.
All together, this puts added strain on his arm, leaks power and velocity, and inevitably leads to inconsistencies with ball placement. It’s worth noting that we see these issues happening less as the season went on, suggesting that he’s working on fixing these flaws.
Even with his improvement, we see these problems far too often while watching Willis’ games. His lower body from start to finish will differ, sometimes drastically, from throw to throw.
In our next throw, Willis has a fairly long 3rd down starting from inside Liberty’s own 20 yard line. We see cover 1 pre-snap, with off-man coverage at the top of the screen.
Willis starts his dropback staring down the middle-field safety, then looks left to the far sideline at the top of his drop. The receiver is running an out route and beats the corner. Willis fires the ball as the receiver is coming out of his break.
This throw ends up going too far left – a common symptom when quarterbacks overstride and open their front foot too much. However, it is still a catchable ball. The receiver dives and initially grabs it, but can’t secure the catch after hitting the ground.
From the depth of Willis’ drop (10 yards) to the depth of the receivers route (9 yards), plus the distance from the right hash to the far sideline, this is a ~38 yard throw.
Nearly 40 yards with decent accuracy and tons of zip…throws like these, despite mechanical inconsistencies, make Willis a high value prospect. Coaches see the raw athleticism and arm talent and, believing they can fix the issues, salivate over the possibilities.
In addition to a big arm, Willis displays some quarterbacking traits not often seen at the college level. His eye manipulation, for example, is solid and can be seen throughout nearly every game he plays.
Take this next clip for example. With the clock running down and the game essentially in-hand for the Rebels, their goal is to prevent big plays and limit damage done, hence the spread out 3-deep shell.
As with any 3-deep shell, the weakness is up the seams, with the middle-field safety only reasonably able to protect one. Knowing this, Willis looks left off the snap, moving the middle-field safety in that direction.
By the time he hits the top of his drop, Willis shoots his eyes back to the right-side seam route, gunning it past the nearby hook defender. Willis’ eye manipulation is able to open the seam route nicely for a big gain at a critical time.
A couple other things are worth noting here. First, Willis shows better mechanics with this throw. He still slightly overstrides his front/plant foot, but you can see him pivot and drive off his back foot. This allows him to clear his right hip, getting both ground and rotational force, and helps to get some extra “oomph” on this throw.
Second, the ball placement isn’t perfect by any means. In fact, as far as catchable balls go, the ball placement is bad. With the middle-field defender pulled away, a better throw – leading the receiver deeper up the seam – could have resulted in a massive, momentum swinging play.
Having said that, it’s hard to be unhappy about a 20 yard gain.
Some strong-arm quarterbacks, and even some not-so-strong-arm quarterbacks, throw in only one speed: fastball. That doesn’t apply to Willis. That’s another one of the nice quarterbacking traits that Willis shows – the ability to throw with touch and layer the ball when needed.
This next throw is the most relaxed touchdown throw I saw from Willis, which is nuts considering the defense is in cover 0 with six rushers against five blockers. In fact, one defender has a wide open lane to square him up and knock him down.
In fact, we can add “poise in the pocket” as another plus to Willis’ quarterbacking trait list. I can’t say I saw it often, as Liberty’s simplified scheme didn’t require Willis to stay in a collapsing pocket for long. I did see it often enough to note it a few times.
Back to the throw. Looking down the barrel at a free rusher, Willis hits the top of his drop, hitches and sets his feet, then makes a perfect touch throw to a wide open Demario Douglas (WR #3) for a big early touchdown week one.
Side note: keep an eye on Demario Douglas. Despite his small stature, he could be NFL bound in a couple years.
Willis even showed anticipatory qualities at times. While I didn’t see any anticipation throws, where he would have explicitly thrown the route before the receiver’s break, I did see a couple points where it was clear he could have.
Multiple times I’d see Willis identify where he wanted to go, load up, and simply wait the extra tick for the receiver to get clear from his break. This suggests to me that he has the tools needed, but doesn’t have the confidence to actually pull the trigger.
This next throw we see him gear up to gun it to an open hitch off of play action. The hitch is still running the route, so he pulls it down. This example was the most egregious I could find because he actually starts to sling it, but pulls it down until his receiver was clear from the break.
Despite having the instinct for it, I don’t think we can add anticipatory throws to Willis’ running list of traits…not yet anyway.
The biggest issue I saw and definitely most impactful, was his processing speed. I see processing speed being made up of three distinct factors: knowledge, recognition, and confidence.
Knowledge includes understanding and identifying alignments, remembering coverage shells, knowing the line call, and understanding the play design…the basics. Add to that opponent playcall tendencies, individual player strengths and weaknesses, and knowing how to successfully attack. This improves with study and film.
Recognition is being able to see and quickly understand what’s happening everywhere on the field and being able to adapt to changes in real time, instinctively. This improves with reps and film (to an extent).
Confidence means trusting your knowledge and recognition enough to actually pull the trigger, even if things aren’t perfect. The only way to build on this is to start pulling the trigger.
Which of the above is Willis shaky with?
In the next clip, I see issues with both recognition and confidence. This play has three receivers going out into routes, but Willis really only looks at two, honing in on one route in particular.
We’re going to see a few things here. We’ll see really poor footwork and a wildly inconsistent base, including heel-clicking crowhops. His posture fluctuates, at one point getting tall – practically standing straight up – with very little knee bend, due to his feet being much too close together.
However, hidden in there, we see great directional ability as Willis’ feet stay perpendicular to his reads as he (eventually) progresses through them.
We won’t be able to see the route Willis stares down, the over route from the slot, as it goes offscreen. However, based on the playcall and the alignment, I think we can reasonably assume that a tight window throw was likely available right at the top of his drop. Willis ignores it.
We’re also going to see the comeback route that he (eventually) sees and hits. It’s not until Willis has a receiver coming back to him, showing him the numbers, that he seems confident enough to zip the ball in there.
Asking the question again, where is Willis most shaky with regards to his processing?
Nothing stands out to me suggesting it’s a knowledge issue. With how long he stares down routes, and only being asked to see half the field, I think recognition is almost certainly part of it. And we see above, confidence is definitely an issue.
I’ve thought about this a lot, and I don’t say this lightly: Willis’ processing issues scare me.
We see this all the time with rookies once they’ve entered the NFL; “the speed of the game is faster.” New defensive schemes, disguises, rotations, etc. So what is it that scares me when it comes to Willis?
Well, for starters, his issues aren’t against an NFL defense. For Willis, his issues show up when playing G5 defenses, and much more so against P5 defenses. If he can’t process and pull the trigger on simple cover 3 beaters against cover 3, I can’t imagine how he’ll show up against NFL defenses.
Further, he runs a highly simplified offense, and he’s not even asked to do much within that offensive structure – two reads then run. Not having to go up against strong college defenses is an absolute gift.
Oh, and by the way, it’s not like this is Willis’ first or second foray into the fray of college football. The ’21-’22 season was his fifth year in college. The coverages aren’t exotic anymore; they’re the norm. He shouldn’t need time to adapt to the speed of the game; he’s been living in it for years.
All of that is why the compilation below is so concerning to me. I had to stop cutting clips shortly after the Ole Miss game, because my video editor was crashing with so many clips saved…I even had to cut a few out.
All this isn’t to say he’s automatically doomed to fail. Mechanics can be fixed. Recognition can improve. Confidence can be built. However, all of that takes time and a ton of work.
When considering how many years Willis has had to fix the above issues, I personally struggle to believe that this can be done in just a year or two…even with NFL coaches. In my eyes, he may need the Aaron Rodgers treatment; let him sit and learn for three full years before really giving him the reins.
Unfortunately, in today’s day and age of immediacy, I doubt he will be afforded that luxury. So, if we do see him starting right away, production like Jalen Hurts’ is the best case scenario. And if that is the best case, imagine how bad the worst case could be…
Is Malik Willis the first QB taken? If not, who you got? Drop a comment in the comment box below to let us know your thoughts!
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That guy who wraps up the #1 seed by week 13, dominates the points scored column, and gets blown out by the #8 seed in the first round of playoffs…annually. That’s Ben.
He’s also the guy who constructs a trade calculator for fun, and builds a fantasy football website when he wants to share his thoughts with the world.
As a Vikings fan and a poor golfer, Ben lives in a perpetual state of frustration. In his fun-time he’s a husband and proud father of two.