I don’t know if the Detroit Lions are bluffing hoping to elevate quarterback Malik Willis‘ stock ahead of the NFL Draft, but general manager Brad Holmes and head coach Dan Campbell are raving about the Liberty product.
Willis, by all accounts, has been the most compelling quarterback at the Senior Bowl and suddenly seems to be working his way up NFL Draft boards.
The Liberty product is a dual-threat quarterback who falls into the category most modern NFL offensive guru’s desire from their signal-caller. Teams now prefer a quarterback that can not only make all of the throws but also someone who can, at the very least, turn nothing into something with their legs.
This has been the most significant change across the league over the past decade. For years and years, teams were seeking a drop-back passer such as Tom Brady and Peyton Manning rather than a quarterback like Lamar Jackson. Michael Vick wasn’t the first mobile quarterback who also possessed elite arm strength, there was Fran Tarkenton, Steve Young, and Steve McNair, but shortly after joining the Atlanta Falcons, Vick became the best to do it. Vick still holds the record for most rushing yards for a quarterback in NFL history with 6,109 over 143 games.
Throughout his career, Vick struggled with his accuracy, and that’s what also seems to be preventing Jackson from taking the next step. NFL teams are looking for the next Russell Wilson or Patrick Mahomes. These signal-callers are elite passers but can also do significant damage with their legs. Last year, the San Francisco 49ers mortgaged their future to trade up and draft Trey Lance out of North Dakota State. It seems as though Malik Willis will be 2022’s Trey Lance.
Do the Detroit Lions have their sights set on Malik Willis?
After trading Matthew Stafford to the Los Angeles Rams for a pair of first-round picks, a third-round pick, and Jared Goff, the Detroit Lions committed to a full-fledged rebuild. The most essential part of a rebuild is finding a young franchise quarterback.
The 6-foot-1, 215-pound Willis ran for nearly 900 yards and 13 touchdowns last season in addition to throwing for 2,857 yards and 27 touchdowns in 13 games. The bad news is that Willis also threw 12 interceptions. After not seeing the field in his first two seasons at Auburn, Willis took advantage of the transfer portal transferring to Liberty, where he’d be able to display his elite arm. With the Tigers, nearly every time Willis came onto the field, it was to run the read-option.
Liberty’s offensive coordinator Kent Austin had this to say about Willis’ ability to adapt in the pocket.
"“He’s so athletic, when he moved in the pocket, he covered more ground than other quarterbacks. A jump-cut up for Malik would cover half a yard to a yard more ground than you want, and then the (interior) pressure would be in his face,” Austin said. “We did a lot of rhythm slide stuff so he could be a little more efficient with those movements, and take those steps with less exaggeration.”"
Willis, like many strong-arm quarterbacks, often struggled with touch passes, but Austin mentioned they worked extensively on putting arc on the mid-range throws dropping passes over linebackers and in front of safeties.
Detroit Lions head coach Dan Campbell has been very impressed with Malik Willis during the Senior Bowl practices.
"“Listen, yesterday was our first day of practice with him, and I think he throws a nice ball. I think he’s pretty athletic, he’s built better than — from afar you don’t know. That’s why, to see these guys up close, he’s a good-looking player,” Campbell said. “He’s built right, looks like he’s built to last. Shoot, he handled our playbook pretty dang good yesterday. We had a couple run checks in there. Defensively, we had a couple of pressure looks that I thought he handled. Look, Day 1, did a good job.”"
Lions quarterback coach Mark Brunell was also impressed with Willis’ ability to go through all of his progressions, eventually just dumping the football off in the flat to his running back this past week. Brunell said for a young quarterback to work his way through all of his progressions rather than trying to force a football into a dangerous situation is quite impressive.
Willis is suddenly expected to be a first-round selection, and likely a mid-round pick meaning the Detroit Lions will likely be forced to trade-up from either no. 31 or 32 overall if they hope to secure him. I’m not a fan of trading up unless Holmes feels like Willis is a generational-like talent.
If Holmes feels like Willis is someone the Lions can build the franchise around, I’m all for it. If Holmes happened to trade up to take a flier on Willis, I’m not for it. In my eyes, the perfect trade partner would be the Philadelphia Eagles, who currently sit with three first-round picks, which include back-to-back picks at no. 15 and 16 in addition to 19.