NASHVILLE — Three rounds into the 2022 NFL Draft, the Tennessee Titans made a move that could signal the start of one era and the end of another.
By selecting multi-talented Liberty University quarterback Malik Willis with the 86th overall pick on Friday, the Titans laid out a potential succession plan for the most important job on the court.
It seems all but certain that Ryan Tannehill will remain the team’s starter for the 2022 season, despite a disappointing 2021 that saw the 10-year veteran throw for 21 touchdowns and 14 interceptions.
Tannehill’s contract makes him nearly inviolable this year, as the Titans would be stuck with $57.4 million in dead money, while saving just $18.8 million from the cap.
But 2023 is another story. The team can save $27 million off the cap if they cut Tannehill (after June 1) and only take $9.6 million in dead money.
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That scenario would seem to be falling into place for Willis, who is seen as a prospect with a big upside – a cannon arm, massive running ability – but who may have to sit and learn for a year before that. he is ready to compete for a starting position.
“We’re really excited to be able to develop young players and see what happens,” coach Mike Vrabel said. “I don’t think anyone can talk about anyone’s future tonight.”
Managing Director Jon Robinson added: “I can’t predict the future. But I know right now we’re thrilled to have him.
A number of draft analysts believed Willis would be chosen in the first or second round. But as the middle of the third round approached, Willis was surprisingly still on the board. You could almost feel the Titans’ eyes growing wider and wider, to the point that Robinson opted to send the 90th and 169th overall selections in the draft to Las Vegas, allowing Tennessee to move to 86 and snatch Willis.
“As it started to go on, I had my doubts (whether he would still be there),” Robinson said. “I thought some teams might look at him like us and be like, ‘Here’s a good football player who has a lot of good things to work with and grow with’ and then as it got closer and closer it became even more obvious that we had a chance here.
“He was the best player on our board. We were a choice couple. You watch the teams in front of you, but you also watch and are aware of the teams behind you and the possibility of someone showing up or a team in the fourth comes back in the third.
A well-balanced game
So what do the Titans have in the 6-foot, 219-pound Willis, who spent his first two seasons at Auburn before moving to Liberty?
He’s an electric playmaker who throws an exceptional deep ball, a passer who totaled 5,117 yards in two years at Liberty, averaging 13.6 yards per completion and producing 47 touchdowns against 18 interceptions.
Willis’ skills as a runner were unmatched the past two seasons. He carried 338 times for 1,878 yards (5.6 yards per carry) and 27 touchdowns. According to Pro Football Focus, Willis had 89 tackles last season, more than any other player, including running backs.
“(He has) a good arm, athletic, moves well, has really good skills,” Robinson said. “Throw a good ball. It is difficult to approach. He has a lot of work to do, like all these rookies. But (we’re) excited to add him to the team and let him compete.
How does Willis need to improve his game to excel in the NFL?
Athletic’s Dane Brugler wrote that Willis’ pitch vision and decision-making are still “in the development phase”. Pro Football Focus noted that Willis’ eyes “regularly telegraph his shots. Will stare daggers through its targets. Willis also becomes hesitant when under pressure in the pocket, as he was sacked 51 times last season, more than any other FBS player.
That means Willis has a lot of work ahead of him in the offseason and throughout his rookie year.
“You learn a new offense,” Robinson said. “You come in, all these guys, whatever position they play. They learn new terminology, they learn new things. So how quickly he acclimatizes to this will likely determine how quickly he progresses.
Says Willis: “I mean, I learned a college playbook before I got to college, well, when I got to college. So I feel like I can learn an NFL playbook every time I come to the NFL. It’s just that I put in the time and effort more than anything. »
Ready to watch, listen
The fact that Willis is a third-round pick — as opposed to a first- or even second-round pick — will take the pressure off of becoming an immediate starter. Indeed, the 22-year-old looked more than ready to learn as he sat behind Tannehill during the 2022 season.
“Ryan Tannehill is a great player and a great leader for this organization,” Willis said. “I just want to come in and do whatever I can to get better at my craft. Whenever that time comes for me to go on the pitch, then that time will come. But until then, I’m just going to try to learn and be the best teammate I can be.
In the meantime, it would be hard to imagine Vrabel and offensive coordinator Todd Downing not finding creative ways for Willis to contribute as a rookie, even though he’s not supposed to be a starter.
“I think there are a lot of things we can do with different talented players,” Vrabel said. “Looking at his tape, it’s a tough tackle. Obviously, there are a lot of things that we are going to have to work with and develop. Our coaches are thrilled and I know Malik is ready to get here and get to work.
It remains to be seen what will happen after 2022.
Whether or not Willis becomes the starter depends, as Robinson said, on how well he learns the offense, improves his overall game and earns the respect of his teammates – just like any other player.
But in some ways, Willis is unlike any other player the Titans have adapted, which is why anticipation will quickly build if he appears to be progressing.
“All it takes is someone to be able to teach me, and I have to go learn the playbook like anybody else,” Willis said. “There’s no way I wouldn’t feel comfortable learning it from what they taught me during the pre-draft process, and I feel like I’m holding back the information quite well. I had an understanding. It’s just that I go there and work every day.