Is Malik Willis ready to play NFL quarterback?
Malik Willis is 23 and 50 years old.
He’s a mature soul, this rookie quarterback for the Tennessee Titans. If usually cool, unfussy and unshakeable, it can come across as disinterested. It’s not just me saying that. Willis’ Liberty varsity coach, Hugh Freeze, once said that it would sometimes be crazy for Willis to be so “nonchalant,” but that’s not it. That’s not the word.
Months later, I understand what Freeze was trying to say. Willis’ mentality is so striking and singular that it is difficult to explain.
So I asked Willis to do it.
“I’m just buzzing,” he said with a smile after Wednesday’s joint practice with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“I mean, so many things in this world that you can’t control. You can control your attitude. You can control your efforts. And you can control how you react to things. I choose not to respond negatively to things. I choose to go out and do my best, and I choose to enjoy what I do.
That’s not a good mentality for an NFL quarterback.
It’s a great mentality for an NFL quarterback.
And that’s why I’m starting to see Willis as the future of the Titans, if not more of their present than is acknowledged.
Room to grow
The talent? This is obvious. Has always been. Willis’ high ceiling is not an issue. Right now it’s more of a low floor.
In other words, could the Titans put Willis in a 2022 regular season game at any time and be sure it wouldn’t be disastrous? Would he allow the Titans to execute the offensive plan? Would he operate effectively out of pocket? Would he resort to improvisation or would he be comfortable and confident enough with what he sees to release the ball in time?
These are relevant questions for any rookie, and they have yet to be answered for Willis. Not in the first pre-season game. Not in boot camp practices. Not Wednesday either, with the Buccaneers on the other side.
“At the start of your career, things go fast, don’t they?” quarterback Ryan Tannehill said of Willis. “…You have to be able to make quick decisions and see what happens, and for a young player that’s tough. But obviously, he has made a lot of progress in this camp.
As in other practices, Willis had some great moments Wednesday against Tampa Bay defenders. He also knocked down some early passes – perhaps a bit too amped up to start with – and sometimes continued to hold the ball too long, especially when things were moving fast in rushing possession.
“That’s why we wanted him there,” Titans coach Mike Vrabel said. “The look changes after the snap, and that’s what good defenses do. He will have to see this.
And yes, the Titans clearly wanted Willis there. Working behind Tannehill, Willis received plenty of shots on Wednesday, more than Logan Woodside, their presumed replacement again this season.
Woodside would be more of a low-ceiling, high-floor guy, and that’s usually what you expect from a No. 2 quarterback. You want to know what you’re getting.
The Titans can’t find out with Willis yet.
But they are really trying to find out this pre-season.
If they plan to just carve a spot on Willis’ roster in 2022 and shirt him as the third QB, they’re certainly dedicating a lot of the preseason to learning what he can and can’t do.
And he can do a lot.
“It’s just that I see more looks”
Before Wednesday, the last time the Titans offense was on the field, it hadn’t gone well. The defense dominated Monday’s practice, harassing quarterbacks and leaving virtually no windows of coverage. Too many passes ended up on the ground instead of being in the hands of receivers.
PRACTICE VS. BUC:Kristian Fulton vs. Julio Jones – Tennessee Titans takeaway from joint practice with Bucs
Although just a practice, it was concerning in a way that few missteps had in this camp. Because it hit the nail on the head for those planning a Titans downfall. It was a glimpse of a receiving group collectively unable to open up against physical cover. A band that AJ Brown missed, basically.
Again, just one day. But in training camp, you pile up the days, good or bad. One day can become a trend.
That’s why Wednesday’s joint practice seemed so important.
And maybe why the Titans offense came out against the Buccaneers. Robert Woods was effective early on. Treylon Burks found himself behind the secondary for a long TD. Racey McMath caught a long jump ball.
Once Tannehill’s possession was over, Willis came on.
Did it mean anything for who will be the replacement? Maybe not. I don’t want to stress too much about Willis getting extra reps. I have to be careful.
It’s just that I’ve had to be very careful lately, downplaying the quarterback’s developments to conform to a pre-existing assumption of Woodside as Tannehill’s certain number 2.
Things like Vrabel’s mumbling affirmative when asked if there was active competition for the backup role – not elaborating, but confirming.
Things like Willis starting the preseason game in Baltimore. Apart from a few parts, it was not a dynamite performance for him. But neither was it for Woodside, who threw two picks against the Ravens and another Wednesday against the Buccaneers.
Things like that.
In any other position, the more reps a player has, the more obviously optimistic you will be about his role in an upcoming season.
Should a quarterback be different?
I don’t know if Willis is still there. But the more I look at him and the more I am around him, the more I think he will be, sooner or later.
“I’m just seeing more stares,” Willis said.
And the Titans are giving him a lot right now.
Contact Tennessean sports columnist Gentry Estes at [email protected] and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes.