Why Malik Willis Is the Future of the Tennessee Titans

June 6, 2022

The future of the Tennessee Titans is clearly not in the hands of Ryan Tannehill much longer. Instead, Tennessee should look to their rookie quarterback, Malik Willis, as the long-term answer at the quarterback position.

It was quite a surprise when the Tennessee Titans pulled out their checkbooks and handed a lucrative deal to their quarterback, Ryan Tannehill, closing on a four-year, $118M contract in 2020. After a long, mediocre stint with the Miami Dolphins, he had managed to revive his career with the Titans. The newfound home was perfect for Tannehill, who produced numbers that placed him among the top performers in the league in 2019 and 2020 as the Titans starting quarterback.

That being said, he’s been overly disappointing in the playoffs for the Titans, save the 2019 playoff run to the AFC Championship. Even with the playoff run, Tannehill has managed just over 150 passing yards per game and the Titans have exited the playoffs in the first game over both of the last two years.

The Titans took a flier pick late in the third round, selecting the media darling quarterback in Malik Willis, a strong-armed athlete from Liberty. Willis transferred to Liberty from Auburn, where he was buried on the depth chart behind Bo Nix and Joey Gatewood in a stiff, outdated Gus Malzahn scheme.

The question was created immediately after the pick – what are the Titans’ hopes for Willis?

Ryan Tannehill is at the age when teams start looking for a replacement

Much of the argument against Tannehill lies in the fact that the true talent and star on the team is the monstrous running back, Derrick Henry. The Titans’ offensive success has been predicated on the 6’3″ 250 lbs running back while he has been healthy and finding a replacement for him when he has been injured. They are a run-first team and prefer to throw the ball out of play-action, which utilizes Tannehill’s true athletic traits.

Ryan Tannehill is 34-years old, which hasn’t been “old” in the eyes of a star quarterback in recent memory. Tom Brady will be playing this year while turning 45, Aaron Rodgers is pushing 40, and Brett Favre played well into his early 40’s as well.

That being said, Tannehill is not the ideal star quarterback. He is a good quarterback, not great, one that you can make a run in the playoffs and win with the right team built around him. In this modern era of star quarterbacks and flashy offenses, that is a bit much to ask of a quarterback.

Tannehill is a $38.6M cap hit this year, per Spotrac. While letting him go this season would cost the Titans well over $57M, next season is a potential out for the team to let him go at $18M. This is a more workable number and could be dropped on some work done between the two sides.

Malik Willis has the tools to be a star in the NFL

Malik Willis working out in mini-camp with the Tennessee Titans

Now, let’s turn our focus to Malik Willis, who was projected as a first-round pick entering the 2022 NFL Draft. How did he fall to the third round?

Basically, it comes down to something NFL experts like to refer to as “refined mechanics.” The term was coined to describe inconsistencies in a player’s functions at their position. For example, in the case of Willis, some of his inconsistent accuracy in college comes from the fact that his footwork is inconsistent while going through the motions to make a throw. Doing things differently on every play affects timing and rhythm – important factors to a passing game.

Everyone that has been around him says that his football knowledge is impressive, including reports from the Senior Bowl where he showed out. However, his college coach, Hugh Freeze, told SiriusXM Radio hosts that Willis is still learning how to process defenses and coverages. In his opinion, Willis needs a year to sit.

What could the plan be for Malik Willis?

The tools are off the charts with Malik Willis – he has a cannon for an arm, and his athleticism is among some of the best we’ve seen coming out of college in recent memory at that position. He’s a first-class athlete with enormous potential if he can become more consistent as a passer and learn to process defenses better.

Personally, I’ve recently been a fan of quarterbacks who have shown progress as passers and are world-class athletes. I loved Dak Prescott coming out of Mississippi State, I love Jalen Hurts as a prospect, too. Willis is better than both of those players – he has a stronger arm and is a better athlete.

There were several headlines after the draft when Ryan Tannehill told the media that he was focused on his job. The team did not inform him of the selection before it happened, which also raised some eyebrows. Tannehill said;

“We’re competing against each other, we’re watching the same tape, we’re doing the same drills. I don’t think it’s my job to mentor him, but if he learns from me along the way, then that’s a great thing.”

Ryan Tannehill, May 3rd, 2022

NFL players were split on what Tannehill meant by his statement, but Tannehill appears prepared to remain the quarterback for the long term. With the skillset that Malik Willis offers, he may be headed for a rude awakening when the curtains roll for the 2023 NFL season.