With the first round of the 2022 NFL draft just over 24 hours away, this article is surely going to ruffle some feathers. And it doesn’t matter which side of the discussion you fall on, Malik Willis is very talented, and we all understand the Detroit Lions do not have their quarterback of the future on the current roster. Both of those statements are true, regardless if you believe that the Lions should resist the urge to draft a quarterback this year or not.
Many analysts have said this class has a lot of depth at several positions, such as edge rusher, receiver, and cornerback. With those strengths, the class also has its warts. Without a clear-cut top prospect, the quarterback class, as a whole, has not generated the buzz that others before them have created. However, out of the signal callers, almost anyone you ask within the draft community is going to tell you that Willis possesses the highest ceiling of the group, and it isn’t really close.
Before we get into how Willis fits in with the Lions and their rebuilding timeline, let’s take a look at his journey that eventually landed him at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia.
From the SEC to Conference USA
Originally from Atlanta, Georgia, Willis chose to stay relatively close to home when he committed to Auburn out of high school. But after two years spent largely on the bench, Willis opted to transfer to Liberty in 2019.
From there, Willis’ stock started to takeoff.
In 2020, he threw for 2,250 yards, completed over 64% of his passes, and posted a 20/6 touchdown to interception ratio. Not bad for his first full season as a college quarterback. The 2021 season yielded a similar stat line through 13 games — 2,857 yards, 61% completion percentage, and a 27/12 touchdown/interception ratio. But, as always, box scores and stat lines only tell part of the tale. Tape is where players can display traits that will transfer well to the NFL. And Willis has no shortage of traits that make him very desirable.
NFL arm capable of making all of the throws? Check.
Malik Willis' arm is insane. The dude's got a cannon.— Nick Farabaugh (@FarabaughFB) April 24, 2022
Throws like this are why you see Tomlin + Company enthralled in him. This is money stuff. pic.twitter.com/yluAhfR3l0
I know it’s early but here is my QB1 for the 2022 #NFLDraft. Liberty’s Malik Willis (former Auburn transfer) has an absolute cannon of an arm, and can also escape, scramble and run over potential tacklers. He is listed at 6’1” 200+, but he certainly plays bigger than that. pic.twitter.com/iYNx62yS3Q— Nolan Kangas (@NolanRyanKangas) May 3, 2021
Ability to extend plays in order to make throws down the field? Check.
Malik Willis throw on the run pic.twitter.com/TOFSAlJtkU— Erik Schlitt (@erikschlitt) November 6, 2021
Deep ball touch and dropping a throw into the “bucket”? Check.
hello here's Malik Willis making the best throw I've seen from any QB prospect in this year's class pic.twitter.com/8LZlOECFaQ— Mike Renner (@PFF_Mike) March 2, 2022
The Lions have made it no secret that they are interested in Willis. They spent a ton of time with him down at the Senior Bowl in Mobile. They also recently hosted him on a top-30 pre-draft visit. At this point, I would say the staff is comfortable with what they know of WIllis, both as a prospect, and as a person.
Recently we were lucky enough to have Brett Whitefield, a former data analyst for PFF and noted film crunching enthusiast, on the Pride of Detroit podcast. He touched on several draft-related topics, but was adamant with his support of Willis being the top thrower in this year’s class. Other prospects, like Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett, or Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder, may be more suited to playing right away, but they don’t have the lofty ceiling that Willis offers.
“What can’t Malik Willis do?” Whitefield asked the PoD crew. “I haven’t heard anyone answer that question yet. There’s some things he needs coaching for, but there’s not a single football thing he cannot do right now, and there isn’t a player in this draft that can turn around this franchise quicker than Malik Willis if he hits his potential.”
An interesting piece of the discourse surrounding drafting Willis is the coaching aspect. Many, myself included, are optimistic about the leadership this regime currently has in place. From coach Dan Campbell to general manager Brad Holmes, things seem to be miles away from where they were just a few years ago, under the previous regime.
So wouldn’t Detroit be a great place for Willis to land? Yes, he has his mechanical flaws, and adjusting to the speed at which NFL defenses move is going to take some time, especially considering he is coming from Conference USA. But the traits Willis has are not teachable, and if you believe in your coaching staff, believing they would be able to coach Willis up to his full potential shouldn’t be a second thought.
One thing the Lions currently have plenty of is time. Nobody is expecting them to be contending for a Super Bowl this year. There is obviously room for improvement, and another three-win season would be a disappointment on just about every front. For now, the clock is ticking slowly for this regime. Unless something crazy happens (like Urban Meyer in Jacksonville crazy), 2023 is when Holmes and Campbell need to start producing in a meaningful way. 2022, similar to last year, is a year for them to stack talent and build out their program.
Willis would have the time to sit behind quarterback Jared Goff. He would have a full offseason program in Allen Park with quarterback’s coach Mark Brunell and offensive coordinator Ben Johnson. It would essentially be a redshirt season for the rookie, barring injury or some other circumstance.
Then, after a year of learning and waiting, you could theoretically unleash Willis on the league in 2023. The offensive line the Lions have in place is easily their best unit on the team, and a system that is predicated on highlighting Willis’ gifts—both as a runner and as a thrower—would be really fun.
Are there “safer” options? Players with perceived higher floors? Sure. Still, as we have seen in recent years, you can literally do everything else right (look at the Indianapolis Colts), but if you don’t have the quarterback position in order, nothing else really matters. Bottom line: In today’s NFL, having the guy at quarterback is almost always a necessity in order to compete for championships.