To gamble or to play it safe? That’s the question that surrounds either the Carolina Panthers or the Detroit Lions – whichever team ultimately decides to take a quarterback first in the 2022 NFL Draft. And you can bet it will almost certainly be one of those teams.
There’s no consensus top quarterback in this draft class, though most analysts have named either former Pittsburgh Panthers quarterback Kenny Pickett or former Liberty Flames signal-caller Malik Willis the best available for the taking at the position in April.
Pickett and Willis couldn’t be more different. Pickett has the highest floor in this class, above average in every aspect of quarterbacking with a Joe Burrow-like type of play in terms of mobility and processing ability, but lacks a major “it” factor. He should at least be a high-end backup in the long-term with the ability to develop into something more depending on a number of factors.
Pickett experienced a meteoric rise at Pitt in his fifth year after putting up four seasons of play that didn’t jump out at anyone. This past season saw him break multiple records and record eight games throwing for 300 yards or more. And those numbers were reflective of the jump he individually made. He wasn’t a beneficiary of receivers putting up off-the-charts receiving yards after the catch or from the system within Pitt’s pro-style offense.
Now, fair or not, Pickett has picked up somewhat of a “game manager” label after some analysts anticipated he would far and away distance himself as the best quarterback in the class between the Senior Bowl and the 2022 NFL Scouting Combine. Instead, he ended up doing nothing to separate himself and nothing to hurt himself, displaying a high level of consistency throughout the process.
Willis, on the other side of the spectrum, has perhaps the highest ceiling and the lowest floor in this class. If he hits, he’s going to be something phenomenal. His athleticism, ability to extend and make plays in seemingly impossible situations and offseason growth as a passer with incredible arm strength could give a team the best of both worlds and be a major difference-maker.
But there’s just one thing about that last part – while he did have some good moments, Willis showed a lot of red flags in his tape as a passer. Willis had three games with three interceptions against subpar secondaries and put up a dismal stat line of 16-of-25 passing for 173 yards with zero touchdowns and three interceptions against Ole Miss, which was the biggest competition Liberty faced all season.
Willis also struggled with putting the right amount of touch on certain throws, forcing his receivers to do a lot of the work. If the offseason improvement he’s shown throwing the ball that was on display at the Senior Bowl and the Combine is for real, then all is well, but it’s hard to take a combined two weeks or so of pre-draft performance and put all of your stock into that as opposed to a full season of questionable tape.
What happens at picks No. 2 and No. 6 will be something to watch and will tell us a lot about the mindset of the Panthers and the Lions ahead of the upcoming NFL season.