From a scouting and media perspective, past seasons—and for this exercise, past draft cycles—have allowed us to further understand the optics that go into evaluating and projecting soon-to-be NFL quarterbacks. From the “easy” evals of Andrew Luck and Trevor Lawrence to the head-scratchers of Dwayne Haskins, Daniel Jones, and Sam Darnold in recent memory, parallels can be made to Liberty’s Malik Willis and his current stance within league-wide draft boards.
Willis’ skill set, by far, explodes off the screen more than any other signal-caller in the entire class. But, how does that project to the NFL game? And at what level of consistency and immediate impact as a potential face of the franchise? A look back to the collegiate career of now Buffalo Bills’ gun-slinger Josh Allen at Wyoming could provide a similar trajectory for how the evaluation process will untangle itself around Willis as his dynamic traits are set to enter the scrutiny of the postseason all-star draft circuit.
The story of college football coming out of school in 2018, Allen tantalized scouts with his high-powered arm and stout, 6-foot-5 frame. Allen’s ability to masthead an offense lacking in next-level talent is eerily similar to that of Willis’ role as the captain to Hugh Freeze’s unit vacant of draftable impact players outside of his versatile quarterback. While it makes nailing down a true floor for a prospect like Willis—whose inconsistencies trump his successes due to his strength of opponent—it forces the viewer to photoshop out Willis’ cast of weapons and microscope his ability with ideals of higher levels of talent around him.
This brings us to the next time we’ll see Willis under center: February’s Senior Bowl. A week that will remain paramount to where he ultimately lands when round one of the 2022 NFL Draft kicks off in April, his impact throughout the week next to Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett, Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder, and Nevada’s Carson Strong—each looking to hear their names called on day one—will drastically boost or shoot down Willis’ ranking within a jumbled room of eligible QBs. Like Allen, who flashed throughout his individual throwing sessions and during the game portion of the showcase in Mobile, Willis’ fresh group of wideouts will provide a glimpse into just how impactful his skill set could be on Sunday when surrounded with similar talent on the perimeter. And, to the contrary, how he maneuvers away from pressure against top-tier defensive talent, reads coverages against ball-hawking corners from Power 5 programs, and leads an offense with 10 other prospects who are equally used to being the alpha within the huddle, will reveal to NFL scouts the kind of moxie Willis would provide as a leader for their organization.
Furthermore, the quarterback position is one that is dependent on the fundamental talent around it. If there’s no offensive line, there’s no time to throw. If there’s a lack of space created on the outside, there’s nowhere for the ball to go. It’s congruent, and, for Willis, it’s been an obvious case on film this fall. While his impact over the last month of the season is worrisome with lackluster performances against Ole Miss and Louisiana-Lafayette—two programs that have each have been nationally ranked this season—the lack of punch from a talent standpoint around Willis was evident. It’s unfair to grade Willis negatively running an offense extremely outmanned.
Like we saw with Allen, who’s gone on to enjoy a litany of success as the Bills’ leader and MVP candidate in the NFL, hold the reins on an opinion of Willis if you focus solely on a box score. The country’s most electric quarterback talent who touts all the necessary traits to compete and thrive on Sundays, the book on Willis requires much deeper context than a one-chapter story on individual achievement.