Liberty’s Malik Willis is the overwhelming favorite to be the first quarterback drafted in 2022. At BetMGM, those odds are at -200 with the next quarterback (Kenny Pickett at +225). But that only tells us so much in a quarterback class that is widely viewed as underwhelming for top-tier prospects.

Willis has taken the top spot in the class mostly due to the raw tools that aren’t available in the other prospects — he has a rocket arm and would be one of the league’s best runners as soon as he stepped on the field.

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In 2021, Willis had 1,189 rushing yards with 12 touchdowns as an actual runner, excluding sneaks and lost sack yards that the NCAA counts as rushes. Per Sports Info Solutions, he broke 28 tackles and forced 52 missed tackles with 672 yards after contact. Among all college players with at least 100 rushing attempts in 2021, none had more missed and broken tackles per attempt than Willis.

Those two traits on their own are tantalizing and they’re what coaches and evaluators will hang on to as they project what Willis could be in the NFL.

Of course, there’s more involved than just big arm + speed = good quarterback. If it was that simple, Willis would easily be considered the top player in this draft, but that’s not the case. Those traits could potentially make Willis’s transition easier with a bigger margin for error, especially with the value of his legs, but there are obviously no guarantees.

The questions then become what are those traits worth and how early should a team bet on them. In the latest mock drafts on this site, Ryan McCrystal has Willis going 18th to the New Orleans Saints as QB1 and Brendan Donahue has him going 20th to the Pittsburgh Steelers as QB2, behind Pickett at 18. 

But there is a wide range of outcomes with Willis’s spot. Danny Kelly of The Ringer has Willis going second overall to the Detroit Lions in his latest mock.

According to data from Grinding The Mocks, which takes mock draft data around the internet, Willis is on average the ninth-best player in the draft, being selected between the 10th and 11th overall picks.

The most optimistic view of Willis would put him in the category of those big-armed toolsy players of the past free draft classes who weren’t the most productive college players but thrived with development in the NFL. Those players include Josh Allen, Justin Herbert, and even Lamar Jackson.

We can compare those players by their traits, but we can also look at how they performed as college quarterbacks. The below table shows those four quarterbacks in their final college season, highlighting the rates they threw to each level of the field, on-target percentage, and completion percentage.

Quarterback Accuracy in Final College Season
data provided by Sports Info Solutions

QB1-10 Att%11-19 Att%20+ Att%1-10 OT%11-19 OT%20+ OT%1-10 Comp%11-19 Comp%20+ Comp%
Malik Willis41.0%17.7%20.4%83.7%45.8%55.9%74.1%41.7%44.9%
Josh Allen43.3%23.7%17.8%84.8%71.7%54.3%63.2%53.1%31.3%
Justin Herbert34.0%23.4%15.0%80.7%67.0%48.4%69.0%57.0%40.6%
Lamar Jackson47.9%19.1%17.7%89.6%75.0%48.6%70.9%54.9%28.9%

There’s a glaring stat there, but we’ll get to that in a bit. By on-target rate, Willis is about in-line with the other quarterbacks on short throws from 1-10 yards past the line of scrimmage and he had the highest completion percentage to that area.

Then there are the deep passes. Willis had a higher on-target rate and completion percentage on throws that traveled at least 20 air yards than all three.

It’s always nice when the trait matches production. For Willis, it does with arm strength. It’s even more encouraging when the most important trait for deep passing success in the NFL is the ability to allow the offense to have those plays available at a high rate. Having the option to continuously go back to the deep pass gives so much more flexibility than when one specific shot play has to be drawn up for a limited quarterback.

That’s one of the biggest differences between the two versions of the Los Angeles Rams offenses. With Jared Goff, those plays had to be drawn up and executed perfectly and because of that, there were only one or two called per game. But with Matthew Stafford, the Rams could live vertically even if he wasn’t always the most accurate on those passes. On throws of 20 or more air yards, Stafford was only 17th in on-target rate among 34 quarterbacks with at least 20 such attempts in 2021, but he still finished third in EPA on those throws, per SIS.

It was similar with Allen and Herbert last season. Both can make insane throws down the field but the throw-to-throw consistency isn’t always there. Herbert had the 12th most deep throws, ranked 10th in on-target percentage, and fifth in EPA. Allen was second in deep attempts, 12th in on-target percentage, and eighth in EPA. We could take it another step to Patrick Mahomes, who had the seventh-most deep attempts, 15th in on-target rate, and second in EPA.

Willis can clear that arm strength/deep accuracy threshold that allows a passing offense to consistently have a vertical threat. It’s also clear that Willis has some of those flash plays that turn something out of nothing. The below play didn’t count because the receiver stepped out of bounds on his way down the field, but that doesn’t change anything from Willis’s point of view while making the play.



He also has the ability to throw some impressive balls with anticipation right after the snap.



That’s where quarterbacks like Joe Burrow and Tom Brady have to live, giving them that extra advantage to make up for not having the strongest arms at their current states. Having the arm on top of that anticipation is another layer on a useful tool. Deep throws within 2.5 seconds are much harder to complete (34.6% and 0.23 EPA per attempt) than those thrown over 2.5 seconds (39.8%, 0.46 EPA per attempt per TruMedia). Players like Burrow (1.08 EPA per attempt on 28 throws) and Patrick Mahomes (1.0 on 17) made the most of those quick deep throws in 2021.

But there are areas where consistent accuracy is necessary, such as the intermediate area of the field and that’s the biggest area of concern from Willis’s 2021 season. As shown in the table above, not only is Willis’s 45.8% on-target rate from 11-19 air yards the worst among that group of quarterbacks, it was among the worst in all of college football. Among 89 college quarterbacks with at least 50 intermediate attempts in 2021, Willis’s on-target rate ranked 88th.

It wasn’t always as if the throws were wildly inaccurate, but there were plenty of mistakes that piled up. Take the below throw from a really poor game against Ole Miss. Willis tried to pump to a screen in order to open up a hole down the sideline, but the deep safety didn’t need to have any type of reaction to the fake, and Willis never saw him as the safety came over for an easy interception. Willis’s 8.3% interception rate on intermediate throws was the sixth-highest in college football last season, per SIS.


It’s hard to sustain high-level quarterback play without winning at the intermediate level. On a per-attempt basis, intermediate throws are on par with deep passes by EPA. Being able to hit that area of the field is such a useful tool for a quarterback and it’s been a part of the growth and development from similar passers.

Before Josh Allen’s breakout 2020 season, he quietly became one of the most efficient intermediate passers (top-10 in EPA per attempt) on intermediate throws in 2019 and then built off of that the next season.

These struggles for Willis were fairly new in 2021. During the 2020 season, he had a 74.5% on-target rate on throws between 11-19 air yards. That ranked 11th among 42 qualified quarterbacks with at least 50 such passes in 2020 and would have been just behind Lamar Jackson in the original table above. 

It’s nice that Willis does have a history of accurately throwing to that part of the field, but it is concerning that there was such a dropoff in production in 2021. In fact, there was even regression on deep throws when compared to Willis’s 2020.

Malik Willis On-Target%, 2020-2021
data provided by Sports Info Solutions

Year1-10 OT%11-19 OT%20+ OT%

That’s really the story and the conundrum with Willis. The flashes are there. The high upside is apparent and well above what’s available with the other quarterbacks in this class. But it’s unclear how long it will take for all of that to click together or if it will. 

Teams in need of a quarterback are going to have to figure out that balance and how comfortable they feel with how those traits will develop. There are some favorable comparisons to the likes of Herbert, Allen, and Jackson, but thinking a top quarterback is the reasonable expectation is unfair to all involved.

There is enough there for Willis that he could turn into a young, dynamic, and effective quarterback. The NFL has seen some success in molding the raw toolsy prospects in good players at quarterback. Willis might take the most molding of the bunch, but the potential might be too much for a team to resist early in the draft.

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