The NFL Draft is behind us, rookie drafts are taking place, and as dynasty owners, we are looking ahead to the upcoming season. In the Dynasty Fantasy Football Rookie Update series, we break down all the incoming fantasy-relevant rookies, looking at their profiles and where they fit.
Name: Malik Willis
Pro Team: Tennessee Titans
College Team: Liberty
Draft Status: Round three, pick 86
The DLF film room actually has five games from Willis’s college career. I think the best game to evaluate is his 2021 contest against Syracuse. In that game, he played against a higher level of competition in an ACC school, but Syracuse is far from a powerhouse. It seems like the best opportunity to see how Willis stacks up.
Willis started the video with an impressive carry, breaking tackles and gaining extra yards. Unfortunately, his first throw looked absolutely horrible, as he floated the pass to the outside and almost threw a pick-six. Interestingly, he also caught a 13-yard pass on a trick play, although I doubt that matters much at the NFL level. Overall, though, I definitely found him more impressive as a rusher than as a passer. I can’t imagine that he’s ready to run a typical NFL passing offense.
Willis chose not to run the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine. Therefore, we only have his physical measurements and throwing drills to judge him.
As you can see, he’s a shorter player, coming in at a sixth percentile height. But luckily, he’s heavy enough to take some hits both in and out of the pocket, and his arm and hand measurements don’t represent any concerns.
Interestingly, I thought Willis had a good throwing performance at the NFL Combine. After that, I expected him to be picked in the top half of the first round and potentially even as high as the Panthers with the sixth overall pick. However, none of that matters now, as the NFL told us that they don’t value Willis anywhere near the dynasty community. The NFL Combine is most important for determining projected draft capital, so outside of Willis’s measurements, it means little at this point.
Willis’s main strengths come with his legs.
He’s not a run-first quarterback like Lamar Jackson, but he has a similar rushing upside to Trey Lance. Willis actually had more rushing attempts and yards per game than Lance in college, and he did so at a higher competition level. He also displayed an ability to get into the end zone, as he scored 27 rushing touchdowns across 23 games in 2020 and 2021. If Willis ever takes the field in the NFL as a starter, he will immediately become a borderline fantasy QB1 for that week, similar to runners like Taysom Hill and Lance himself.
As I mentioned above, Willis is not ready to pass the ball at an NFL level.
He couldn’t beat out future NFL bust Jarrett Stidham at Auburn, and he didn’t become an accurate passer at Liberty either. Even though he didn’t play at a Power 5 school, he failed to complete 65% of his passes in either college season. He also went from six to 12 interceptions from 2020 to 2021, which isn’t ideal.
While Willis may provide excellent mobility, he is not ready to run an NFL offense. The Titans or any other team that starts him would need to create an entirely different offense for him, as the 49ers did with Jimmy Garoppolo and Lance. Ryan Tannehill may be somewhat mobile, but there’s no way Willis could run the same offense as he does unless that offense consists of solely handing the ball off to Derrick Henry.
Right now, Willis has minimal opportunities. This situation does not resemble the 49ers’ from last year, as I believe they still want Tannehill to be their franchise quarterback. However, it somewhat parallels the Eagles in 2020 with Carson Wentz and Jalen Hurts. After recently signing Wentz to a long-term extension, the Eagles drafted Hurts in the second round. Even though Hurts was purely a backup and not a successor, he eventually received a chance to start when Wentz faltered.
The Titans can escape Tannehill’s contract after 2022, saving $18 million, and he’s a free agent after 2023. However, there’s no way that Willis can win this job, at least in 2022. He will only see the field if Tannehill suffers an injury or plays as badly as Wentz did in 2020. If Willis gets a chance to play, though, he can make his case to compete for the starting job in 2023 or 2024.
Tannehill represents the most significant threat to Willis. If he comes out and leads the Titans to the playoffs for the fourth straight season, he will continue to be the Titans’ starter in 2023 and beyond.
Tannehill boasts a 30-13 record as a starter, alongside impressive passing statistics. He’s completed 67.3% of his passes with 76 touchdowns and 27 interceptions. Even though he doesn’t have massive volume, there’s no question that he’s been a wild success in his career relaunch in Tennessee.
Tannehill turns 34 in July, so he will be 36 going into the 2024 season. If he plays well this year, I fully expect the Titans to extend his contract through at least 2024 to avoid a franchise tag or free agency and reduce his $36.6 million cap hit in 2023. Unfortunately, Willis likely needs Tannehill to fail or suffer an injury even to get a chance.
As I just covered, there are essentially zero short-term expectations for Willis. He will only see the field in 2022 if Tannehill gets hurt or plays horribly. If the Titans get eliminated from the playoffs with a few weeks to spare, I could see them handing Willis a couple of starts, but I expect them to be a contender.
It’s difficult to bet on a third-round pick becoming an NFL starter. Here is the list of third-round quarterbacks from the previous five draft classes: Kellen Mond, Davis Mills, Will Grier, Mason Rudolph, Davis Webb, and CJ Beathard. Of those players, only Mills became a team’s intended starting quarterback at any point. Grier and Webb completely washed out of the NFL without seeing any real playing time, while Rudolph and Beathard only saw the field due to injuries in front of them. Interestingly, Mond reminds me the most of Willis, as a long-term project backup who won’t ever overtake Kirk Cousins.
But even if Willis does eventually become the Titans’ starter, he will face questions about his low draft capital for years. Most dynasty managers don’t trust Mills to hold the Texans’ job for more than the 2022 season. When NFL teams find a late-round quarterback, they often look for excuses to move on, as the Jaguars did with Gardner Minshew. Russell Wilson and Dak Prescott are the only two quarterbacks in recent memory with third-round or later draft capital to have genuinely successful NFL careers.
NFL Player Comparison
Most of Willis’s comparables have already been mentioned in this article. Lance and Hurts are the two most realistic comparisons, though, although both players were far more polished passers entering the NFL. Hurts also was a superior runner, at least in his final college season at Oklahoma.
I guess Willis reminds me a bit of Jackson as a passer, as Jackson was even more inaccurate in college and as a rookie. But there’s no comparison between Willis and Jackson as runners, as Jackson is generational in that department, while Willis is just another excellent rusher. Looking at Willis’s profile in more detail, I can see why NFL teams passed on him in the first and second rounds. It’s challenging to name a comparable quarterback who succeeded anytime recently.
Projected Rookie Draft Range
I have zero interest in drafting Willis at 31st overall in 1QB rookie drafts, as that price is multiple rounds too high for a project quarterback in that format. However, his superflex cost is more intriguing. In that data set, he’s the 16th overall player with an ADP of 18 overall.
I drafted Willis myself in a Trade Addicts league, but he was the 26th player off the board in that particular draft. At that price, I’m willing to take the risk on him, as he’s at least a fantasy-relevant quarterback handcuff. Also, if he starts even one game, you’ll be able to flip him for a 2023 second-round pick. But taking him between 16 and 18th overall requires passing on John Metchie, Dameon Pierce, and Trey McBride, which I don’t want to do.
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