Statistical rankings below courtesy of PFF and ESPN, and are based out of 39 qualified draft-eligible quarterbacks. FCS quarterbacks not included in rushing QBR (19 qualifiers).
1. Malik Willis | Liberty | 6’1/220
PFF grade rank: 4
PFF adjusted accuracy % rank: 31
PFF big-time throw % rank: 1
PFF turnover-worthy throw % rank: 26
BTT/TWT rank: 5
PFF clean pocket rank: 14
PFF under pressure rank: 5
ESPN rushing QBR rank: 1
2021 dropbacks: 455
In the spring of 2019 at Auburn, Malik Willis took on two more heralded recruits -- Joey Gatewood and Bo Nix -- in a three-man competition to replace Jarrett Stidham. Willis had been on campus for two years after signing as a three-star athlete, redshirting in 2017 and running for 309 yards in sparse duty in 2018 as Stidham’s backup (only attempting 11 passes).
Willis went 9-for-10 in that year’s spring game with some splash plays, but was listed QB3 on the depth chart behind Nix and Gatewood when he announced in May 2019 that he intended to transfer. This evaluation mistake ultimately cost HC Gus Malzahn his job. Malzahn is now the coach at UCF.
Willis applied for an immediate eligibility waiver after transferring to Liberty in 2019, but was denied by the NCAA (this was the last year the NCAA took such, *coughs*, liberties). After a redshirt year, Willis won the starting job in 2020. He was a revelation, leading the Flames to a 10-1 season with wins over Virginia Tech, Syracuse, and previously-undefeated top-10 Coastal Carolina in the bowl game.
Willis threw for 2,250 yards and a 20/6 TD/INT ratio on 64.2% completions and 8.5 YPA with 1,059 rushing yards and 14 TD on 8.7 YPC (sacks omitted) over 10 games that year. He returned, in 2021, to throw for 2,857 yards with a 27/12 TD/INT ratio with 1,227 rushing yards (sacks omitted) on 8.4 YPC with 13 TD over 13 games.
Willis is a lethal weapon in the run game. His combination of acceleration, agility, power, and straight-line speed is top-5 all-time special for the position – the only comparable quarterback rushing threat in college football over the past decade is Lamar Jackson. Nobody else is remotely close.
Lamar Jackson may be slightly faster, and he may have a little more wiggle, but Willis is just as dangerous a scrambler because he’s a broken-tackle machine who runs with Jalen Hurts-esque muscle. When he decides to bail, Willis explodes out of the pocket. Stupid upfield acceleration from a stand-still and out of cuts. He will be knifing through bodies in the second level before defenders in man-coverage realize he’s escaped.
So very dangerous in those situations, with back-end defenders forced to peel off their assignments, chase a guy with confirmed 4.37 speed (2018 at Auburn) from angles, and corral him in space. Always makes the first man miss and returns to top-speed in short order. Willis has tremendous vision in the open field and can decelerate as quickly as he accelerates, allowing him to set up and evade defenders, and cut back against the grain.
Willis declined to test during the pre-draft process, missing the scorching-fast turf at this year's NFL Combine that by some metrics cut five-hundredths of a second off prospects' 40 times. Let's just say Willis ran, didn't enjoy the time-cut others did, but instead held serve at 4.37. That time would have ranked No. 7 among receivers testing, between Christian Watson's 4.36 and Garrett Wilson's 4.38.
Willis makes defenders in the open field look silly. He breaks ankles, runs through arm tackles, and runs over defensive backs who don’t bring their lunch pails. It’s so difficult to get a clean shot on him. Last season, Willis led the FBS in broken tackles forced, per PFF, with 90. Willis did so in only 86 rushing attempts. Michigan State RB Kenneth Walker, No. 2 with 89, had 262 rushing attempts. If tomorrow Malik Willis suffered an injury that prevented him from throwing a football ever again, he'd still be at minimum an early-Day 3 pick as a juiced-up developmental running back prospect with immediate return utility.
In 2020, Willis had an unfortunate quirk of scrambling with the ball clutched in one hand off to the side like a loaf of bread. He fumbled 15 times in 10 games that year -- four of which were lost -- three more fumbles than any other FBS quarterback. Liberty HC Hugh Freeze spoke in the offseason about Willis' need to work on ball-security.
Through Willis’ 2021 improvement in this area, you can see how quick a study he is: Willis slashed his fumbles from 17 to just three in 2021! His PFF fumbling grade went from a rancid 20.2 in 2020 to a solidly above-average 73.9 in 2021. Willis made better snap-judgements when confronted with pressure – which happened often behind Liberty’s abysmal offensive line – and he labored to tuck the ball tightly when hitting the jets upfield.
Willis became my QB1 for his improvements under pressure. In 2020, his first full year as a starter, Willis was horrible under pressure, finishing third-worst among qualifying FBS QBs with a dreadful 34.1 PFF passing grade on 109 dropbacks. In 2021, we saw enormous improvement in this area, with a 68.3 PFF grade under pressure that topped every FBS quarterback in this class.
Willis took the second-most sacks of any FBS quarterback last year. A part of that was due to Liberty’s stinky OL -- Sam Howell and Kenny Pickett were responsible for a higher percentage of sacks, per PFF -- but Willis’ game invites some of this, the willingness to wait out routes, the belief that his feet can get him out of the stickiest of situations. Willis’ game tends to thrive in chaos, when he’s driving the Ferrari at high speeds, and play down in structure.
This is when you tend to see him forcing the ball -- ever the aggressor -- into coverage, hurrying reads and/or sailing balls. Willis can get sloppy with his mechanics and footwork, particularly when heat is in his face and he’s looking to unload. You’ll see false steps, crossing of the feet, and heel clicks. When he doesn’t throw with a base, his accuracy plummets. Though he’s improving in this area, his 2021 tape still featured a smattering of all-arm throws, with extra elbow action that bit him when it dipped.
Willis has a legitimately world-class right arm. He has the strongest arm in this class. And one of the strongest to enter the NFL since… well, Vick. This bears out in the data. Per PFF, the highest rate of big-time throws in a season since 2015 are 2021 Malik Willis (11.0%) and 2016 Josh Allen (10.6%). Allen's arm strength was always apparent, but his overall arm talent didn't always shine through playing around inferior collegiate talent.
As it did with Allen, the ball denotes out of Willis’ hand. Defenses must respect Willis' vertical game 60-plus yards beyond the line of scrimmage at all times. Quincy Avery, a private quarterback instructor who has worked with Deshaun Watson, Josh Dobbs, Justin Fields and Trey Lance, told The Athletic that Willis has “the livest arm out of anybody. He has the strongest arm of anybody I have ever seen.”
Below remains the singular most-impressive collegiate play I saw from any 2022 quarterback prospect, a one-rep encapsulation of Willis’ athleticism, arm strength, and creativity. A full-spin, off-balance dime 50 yards downfield on the road against Virginia Tech. A crucial play, a 4th-and-3 surrounded by zero NFL talent as 17-point underdogs in Blacksburg. Two plays later, touchdown. Liberty went on to stun Virginia Tech 38-35 and improve to 7-0.
Willis throws outs and back shoulders with high-end velocity and NFL timing. Steals collegiate corners lunch money with quick back-shoulder sideline throws in particular, drilling it to the outside shoulder before his receiver has turned or cut. Last year, per ESPN, Willis was No. 1 amongst the top-7 QBs in this class with a 55.6% completion percentage on throws 11-20 yards downfield outside the numbers.
Willis was off-target on only 11.1% of these throws. The next-closest to him was WKU's Bailey Zappe, at 18.6%. The FBS average was 22.7%, Pitt's Kenny Pickett finished 23.7%, UNC's Sam Howell 28.6%. These are NFL throws, folks. And nobody in the NCAA spun them like Malik Willis last year. He's not as raw as you've been led to believe as a thrower.
Willis attempts throws that others wouldn’t, forcing defenders to cover every inch of the field at all times. Fearless testing tight windows. Believes he can fit the ball anywhere and is usually right. Willis has enough juice in his arm to throw across his body on the run and get the ball to his target quick enough to not put the ball in harm’s way. Very quick release, in general.
Liberty’s offense is gimmicky, an up-tempo scheme designed to put specific defenders into no-win situations. It’s full of simple-reads, but the throws it asks of its quarterback are anything but. The past two seasons, Willis finished tied-No. 3 and No. 11 in the FBS, respectively, in aDOT. Last year, Willis threw deep (20+) on 20.9% of his passes, almost as much as he threw in the intermediate area (10-19), 21.2%. Willis plays the game like a touchdown is possible every play.
More creator than facilitator, Willis can make a jaw-dropping play out of structure and then the very next play throw a simple crosser behind his man while standing stationary in the pocket. When Willis’ legs aren’t facilitating throwing opportunities by opening up space, he’s forced to beat coverage with his eyes and accuracy, and those areas of his game to this point lag far behind his athleticism and arm strength.
Willis’ placement needs to improve. There are completed Willis throws on tape where he made it harder for his receiver than was necessary and killed YAC opportunities. Willis finished No. 31 out of 39 in this QB class in adjusted accuracy percentage last year. But improved mechanics led to an adjusted completion improvement from 70.1% in 2020 to 73.6% in 2021, and I believe more improvement is coming working with NFL coaches.
While his overall accuracy needs improvement, Willis is by any measure one of the most accurate deep snipers in this class, ranking No. 23 out of 140 qualifying FBS quarterbacks last year with a 50.7% adjusted completion percentage on throws 20-plus yards downfield. Playing with pro receivers capable of making plays downfield is going to be a boon for Willis. His receivers at Liberty struggled to separate.
At the Senior Bowl, Willis got to play behind a competent offensive line surrounded by NFL talent. He dominated. Willis then went to the NFL Combine and managed to star despite not testing, charming the media, earning raves from NFL teams for his interviews, and going viral for being a good human being -- giving NFL Combine clothing he'd received to a pregnant homeless woman.
Willis isn't as risky as some have depicted due to his ridiculous rushing ability in the NFL. It reminds me of Lamar Jackson's process. But Willis’ combination of arm strength and athleticism evoke a different player. That player happened to be starring in the Georgia Dome when Willis was a kid, living blocks away, dreaming of playing for the Falcons. Michael Vick.
Willis' upside is generational. His downside is a top-5 scrambler of all-time with top-5 NFL arm strength and accuracy issues... with a modified Ravens-esque system that suits him (with more downfield throwing), that's still at minimum a top-16 NFL starter, isn't it? If Jalen Hurts made it, how does Malik Willis miss? In my opinion, Willis should be Detroit’s pick at No. 2 overall. It’s a risk, sure. Passing on a quarterback with tools this shiny is the bigger one.
Comp: Right-handed Michael Vick
2. Matt Corral | Ole Miss | 6’2/212
Comp: Rich Gannon
PFF grade rank: 15
PFF adjusted accuracy % rank: 9
PFF big-time throw % rank: 32
PFF turnover-worthy throw % rank: 7
BTT/TWT rank: 10
PFF clean pocket rank: 9
PFF under pressure rank: 29
ESPN rushing QBR rank: 4
2021 dropbacks: 472
3. Desmond Ridder | Cincinnati | 6’4/211
Comp: Marcus Mariota
PFF grade rank: 8
PFF adjusted accuracy % rank: 15
PFF big-time throw % rank: 3
PFF turnover-worthy throw % rank: 4
BTT/TWT rank: 3
PFF clean pocket rank: 10
PFF under pressure rank: 7
ESPN rushing QBR rank: 6
2021 dropbacks: 435
4. Kenny Pickett | Pittsburgh | 6'3/217
Comp: Andy Dalton
PFF grade rank: 1
PFF adjusted accuracy % rank: 4
PFF big-time throw % rank: 20
PFF turnover-worthy throw % rank: 14
BTT/TWT rank: 14
PFF clean pocket rank: 1
PFF under pressure rank: 16
ESPN rushing QBR rank: 9
2021 dropbacks: 581
5. Carson Strong | Nevada | 6’3/226
Comp: Jared Goff
PFF grade rank: 9
PFF adjusted accuracy % rank: 6
PFF big-time throw % rank: 11
PFF turnover-worthy throw % rank: 6
BTT/TWT rank: 6
PFF clean pocket rank: 4
PFF under pressure rank: 31
ESPN rushing QBR rank: 19
2021 dropbacks: 580
6. Sam Howell | UNC | 6’1/218
Comp: C.J. Beathard
PFF grade rank: 7
PFF adjusted accuracy % rank: 26
PFF big-time throw % rank: 12
PFF turnover-worthy throw % rank: 8
BTT/TWT rank: 8
PFF clean pocket rank: 11
PFF under pressure rank: 15
ESPN rushing QBR rank: 2
2021 dropbacks: 462
7. Bailey Zappe | Western Kentucky | 6’0/215
Comp: Chase Daniel
PFF grade rank: 12
PFF adjusted accuracy % rank: 7
PFF big-time throw % rank: 4
PFF turnover-worthy throw % rank: 19
BTT/TWT rank: 12
PFF clean pocket rank: 12
PFF under pressure rank: 24
ESPN rushing QBR rank: 15
2021 dropbacks: 730
8. Dustin Crum | Kent State | 6’1/210
Comp: Nathan Peterman
PFF grade rank: 6
PFF adjusted accuracy % rank: 20
PFF big-time throw % rank: 2
PFF turnover-worthy throw % rank: 1
BTT/TWT rank: 1
PFF clean pocket rank: 8
PFF under pressure rank: 25
ESPN rushing QBR rank: 3
2021 dropbacks: 462
9. Jack Coan | Notre Dame | 6’3/218
Comp: Greg McElroy
PFF grade rank: 16
PFF adjusted accuracy % rank: 10
PFF big-time throw % rank: 8
PFF turnover-worthy throw % rank: 5
BTT/TWT rank: 4
PFF clean pocket rank: 15
PFF under pressure rank: 19
ESPN rushing QBR rank: 16
2021 dropbacks: 436
10. Cole Kelley | SE Louisiana | 6’7/249
Comp: Paxton Lynch
PFF grade rank: 2
PFF adjusted accuracy % rank: 1
PFF big-time throw % rank: 26
PFF turnover-worthy throw % rank: 9
BTT/TWT rank: 11
PFF clean pocket rank: 3
PFF under pressure rank: 11
ESPN rushing QBR rank: N/A
2021 dropbacks: 630
11. E.J. Perry | Brown | 6’2/211
Comp: Taylor Heinecke
PFF grade rank: 26
PFF adjusted accuracy % rank: 18
PFF big-time throw % rank: 37
PFF turnover-worthy throw % rank: 29
BTT/TWT rank: 37
PFF clean pocket rank: 13
PFF under pressure rank: 36
ESPN rushing QBR rank: N/A
2021 dropbacks: 512
12. Kaleb Eleby | Western Michigan | 6’1/208
Comp: David Fales
PFF grade rank: 29
PFF adjusted accuracy % rank: 17
PFF big-time throw % rank: 21
PFF turnover-worthy throw % rank: 30
BTT/TWT rank: 23
PFF clean pocket rank: 18
PFF under pressure rank: 38
ESPN rushing QBR rank: 14
2021 dropbacks: 434
13. D'Eriq King | Miami | 5’9/196
Comp: Quinton Flowers
PFF grade rank: 20
PFF adjusted accuracy % rank: 2
PFF big-time throw % rank: 28
PFF turnover-worthy throw % rank: 20
BTT/TWT rank: 20
PFF clean pocket rank: 24
PFF under pressure rank: 13
ESPN rushing QBR rank: N/A
2021 dropbacks: 151
14. Brock Purdy | Iowa State | 6’1/212
Comp: Jake Browning
PFF grade rank: 23
PFF adjusted accuracy % rank: 5
PFF big-time throw % rank: 39
PFF turnover-worthy throw % rank: 12
BTT/TWT rank: 36
PFF clean pocket rank: 16
PFF under pressure rank: 21
ESPN rushing QBR rank: 12
2021 dropbacks: 467
15. Chase Garbers | California | 6’2/218
Comp: Brian Lewerke
PFF grade rank: 18
PFF adjusted accuracy % rank: 16
PFF big-time throw % rank: 25
PFF turnover-worthy throw % rank: 2
BTT/TWT rank: 7
PFF clean pocket rank: 25
PFF under pressure rank: 10
ESPN rushing QBR rank: 8
2021 dropbacks: 417
16. Skylar Thompson | Kansas State | 6’2/217
Comp: Sam Ehlinger
PFF grade rank: 17
PFF adjusted accuracy % rank: 8
PFF big-time throw % rank: 24
PFF turnover-worthy throw % rank: 32
BTT/TWT rank: 29
PFF clean pocket rank: 19
PFF under pressure rank: 9
ESPN rushing QBR rank: 11
2021 dropbacks: 266