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2/5 (1 TD)
0/4 (1 INT)
0/2 (1 INT)
6/8 (1 TD)
8/19 (2 TD, 2 INT)
1/4 (1 TD)
10/16 (1 TD)
5/7 (1 INT)
2/3 (1 TD)
19/25 (1 TD, 1 INT)
5/8 (1 TD)
14/19 (1 TD)
18/30 (3 TD, 1 INT)
12/22 ( 1 INT)
8/12 (1 TD, 1 INT)
25/31 (1 TD)
63/95 5 TD, 3 INT)
Games Charted: Western Kentucky, Syracuse, Virginia Tech, North Carolina State
Blatant Drops: 5 (5.10%)
Forced Adjustments: 7 (7.14%)
Contested Drops: 4 (4.08%)
Passes Defended: 13 (13.27%)
Explosive (25+ yards or touchdown): 9 (9.18%)
Liberty QB Malik Willis is not who I was expecting him to be. After cursory looks throughout the season, in addition to charting his bowl game against Coastal Carolina, Willis looked like a quarterback who was a year away, but had such phenomenal tools that teams would be willing to buy in early. It generally holds true that Willis does have tools that may fool teams into buying heavily into his stock, but he is more than a year away. Willis is a massive project right now.
Some of that can be gleaned from a look at his passing charts. Keep in mind, this four-game summer sample is much smaller than the 15-or-so game sample that quarterbacks get by the end of their draft cycle, but they still give us a decent baseline to start with.
Willis’s 73.68% accuracy rate to the 1-5 yard area would have been the worst among last year’s quarterbacks. The only two QBs in last year’s class even below 80% were Jamie Newman and Kyle Trask. The data here tracks pretty easily with the film. Willis’ work in the quick game is mostly disastrous aside from half-rolls in which he throws a simple flat route in front of his face. His work on the few traditional drop back quick game concepts that Liberty called was questionable at best and alarming at worst. It’s not much of a surprise that Liberty carried and called so few of these concepts after watching Willis try to execute on them.
One of the weirder splits in Willis’ passing chart is where his accurate deep balls happened. Overall, Willis’ deep ball accuracy was subpar, but not disastrous. He only really connected to one quadrant, though: the right sideline. It makes perfect sense that a right-handed quarterback would be more comfortable throwing deep down the right sideline, especially with as practiced as some of Liberty’s simple vertical concepts are, but it’s concerning that Willis seemingly can not find the mark anywhere else down the field. Willis was just 2-of-11 when targeting the other three quadrants. Perhaps that is all a matter of Willis not yet being fully comfortable with the rhythm of Liberty’s deep passing game and may be fixed next year.
Environment and Accuracy
Overall Adjusted Accuracy: 68.48%
Attempts Outside the Pocket: 28.57%
Adjusted Accuracy Outside the Pocket: 59.64%
Attempts Under Pressure: 21.43%
Adjusted Accuracy Under Pressure: 51.90%
None of the figures here paint Willis in an encouraging light. Right off the top, Willis’ 68.48% overall adjusted accuracy would have been the worst in the 2021 class, just barely falling behind the undrafted (and now cut) Jamie Newman. Willis did actually show decent figures in the 6-10 and 11-15 yard ranges, which can typically go a long way on bolstering an accuracy score, but his work in the 1-5 yard range (“gimmies”) and down the field (most valuable passes) really sink him for now.
Willis does not miraculously have quality numbers outside the pocket or under pressure, either. It’s not uncommon for a quarterback to have subpar overall accuracy, but still manage decent figures in one of these two areas. Davis Mills, for example, had a bottom-three overall accuracy score last year, yet finished with the second-best accuracy under pressure. Trey Lance showed a similar phenomenon with respect to his excellent work outside the pocket. Willis does not have any of that going for him.
The caveat with Willis’ work under pressure is there may be a selection bias problem. Willis is such a phenomenal athlete that it’s fair to assume he is just taking off under pressure whenever possible, leaving him to only throw under pressure when absolutely, positively forced to do so. Willis was also under pressure a ton, especially in the North Carolina State game, thanks to a Liberty offensive line that constantly allowed free rushers.
Willis’ struggles outside the pocket feel more clearly like a legitimate issue. Aside from the simple slide/flat routes or hitch routes off of half-rolls, Willis was largely ineffective while operating outside the pocket. His sense of timing and decision making was often suspect on designed plays, while his accuracy was hit-or-miss on both designed and scramble plays. His accuracy outside the pocket would have been the worst in last year’s class, which is deeply concerning for someone whose game is supposed to be built around making plays.
That said, for all of Willis’ inconsistencies, the flashes are there. Willis has impressive arm talent and may be the most elusive quarterback in the country. Those tools combined make for some mesmerizing throws that leave the viewer (and NFL teams) salivating at the idea that these plays could become the norm for him. At this stage in his career, Willis has not yet found his footing to consistently create and execute on these flash plays, but it’s easy to see how one believes Patrick Mahomes or Josh Allen-level playmaking could be harnessed from his talent.
3rd/4th Down Adjusted Accuracy: 65.23%
3rd/4th Down Conversion Rate: 47.83%
Red Zone Adjusted Accuracy: 78.79%
4th Quarter Adjusted Accuracy: 53.60%
Willis’ figures in the section are a mixed bag. His third/fourth down numbers would not have been the worst in last year’s class, but would have been below the class-average by a few percentage points for both areas. Seeing as how often Willis was able to take off and pick up third-down conversions with his legs, I’m willing to live with some middling passing numbers to this section and hope for improvement next season.
Willis’ red zone numbers, however, are downright impressive. Willis’ 78.79% accuracy in the red zone would have been the best in last year’s class by just a hair. The caveat is that Willis only threw nine passes in the red zone through this four-game sample, so it’s likely he will come back to earth over a larger sample, but this is still a wonderful start for him and a much-needed bright spot in an otherwise disappointing passing profile.
The Malik Willis I saw through four games is not the one I was expecting going into his charting process. The arm talent, athleticism, and occasional flash plays are as exciting as any, but there is hardly any substance to speak of. It’s not just that Willis is an “unfinished” quarterback prospect like, say, Spencer Rattler, either. Rattler plays like a legitimate quarterback right now, he just needs to iron out some things and perhaps speed up his process a tick. Willis, on the other hand, needs to be rebuilt from the ground-up with respect to in-structure play and down-to-down processing.
While Willis’ ceiling is tantalizing, the floor is terrifying, even more so than many of the other “project” quarterbacks to go in the first round the last few years. Granted, I was burned by Josh Allen for believing the same thing about him, but far more of those Allen-level projects fail than work out. I’m willing to continue betting on projects of that level not working out because there is just so much work to be done and the NFL is seldom that patient or forgiving. Willis is still worth keeping a close eye on for next season because his raw talent is unmatched by anyone except for Rattler, but it will take some stark improvements for me to be all in on him as a first-round pick by the time this is all said and done.