10 NFL draft prospects you need to know: Liberty QB Malik Willis

As an NFL fan, you might not be ready to shift into draft mode.

But we like the idea of introducing some of the bigger-name prospects for the 2022 NFL draft now, at least giving readers a big-picture familiarity of how things stand now.

Had we written this one a year ago, Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields and Trey Lance almost certainly would have made our top 10. All three went in the top 11 picks this spring.

A lot can change for even highly touted prospects over the course of a single season.

The 10 players we’re profiling here — five quarterbacks and five non-QBs — aren’t guaranteed to be first-rounders in 2022. But they’re prospects who enter the season with the opportunity to lock up that caliber of draft status — and perhaps also have the potential to tumble.

Let's take a look at perhaps the most fascinating QB prospect in the 2022 NFL draft class.

Liberty QB Malik Willis

6-foot, 218 pounds

Year: Senior

2020 stats: 170 of 265 passing (64.2%), 2,250 yards, 20 TDs, six INTs; 141 carries, 944 rush yards, 14 TDs

The skinny

A 3-star Rivals recruit as an “athlete” in the 2017 class, Willis first committed to Virginia Tech but then reneged and switched to Auburn, which gave him the chance to compete at quarterback. Playing for Cam Newton's 7-on-7 all-star team and building a relationship with Newton also helped push Willis toward the Tigers.

But after spending two years as Jarrett Stidham’s backup and competing for the starting job there in the spring of 2019, Willis couldn’t win the job and transferred to Liberty to tag team with coach Hugh Freeze. Willis’ final stats at Auburn: 11 of 14 passing (78.6%), 69 yards, one TD; 28 rushes, 309 yards, two TDs (including one vs. Liberty) in 12 games.

After sitting out 2019, Willis won the starting job for the Flames in 2020 and broke out in a big way. He finished last season with two 300-yard passing games (vs. Southern Miss and Western Carolina) and three 100-yard rushing games (Western Kentucky, Coastal Carolina and Virginia Tech). Liberty finished 10-1 with its only loss coming by one point at North Carolina State.

Now Willis enters this season with the fifth-best odds to be the No. 1 pick in the 2022 NFL draft at +1200, according to BetMGM. Three of the four players listed with lower odds, interestingly, are also quarterbacks.

Liberty quarterback Malik Willis' ability to scramble and throw on the move make him a fascinating prospect. (Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Liberty quarterback Malik Willis' ability to scramble and throw on the move make him a fascinating prospect. (Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Malik Willis’ strengths

Willis is a tremendous athlete with great running ability and arm talent. It’s easy to notice how dangerous he is with the ball in his hands, either as a designed runner, as a scrambler or as a thrower on the move. This is one of the most exciting elements of his game.

But Willis also has made strides as a passer, too, becoming less of a thrower and displaying more touch and feel to all parts of the field. He was especially effective on firing accurate slants and hitting passes outside the numbers and deep and appeared to improve his anticipation as the season went on.

Willis also possesses some creative genius in his game, able to extend the play and break down defenses in multiple ways. His off-script ability is downright exciting, and it makes Willis quite difficult to defend. He stung Virginia Tech and NC State with some great improvisational plays when his first read was taken away or the rush was on. That’s the kind of danger Willis presents a defense.

With the ability to fire quick RPO passes and run the zone-read to perfection, Willis could be a fun toy for a creative play caller. Getting Willis out on the move really stresses defenses, and it’s where he’s done his best work in college to this point.

Style-wise, there's some Lamar Jackson to Willis' game. Body-wise, he's perhaps closer to Russell Wilson's frame. All told, Willis is a singular talent in this class with exciting upside, even if he's not yet a finished product.

Malik Willis’ weaknesses

Willis remains a somewhat unrefined passer, even if his first season of starting offered some real potential. There are times when he locks onto his first read, throws back against his body or deliver off-balance, off-target throws.

You can’t truly call Willis inaccurate. But his ball placement and touch remain works in progress. Amid clean pockets, or when he’s rolled out, Willis often throws to good spots. But from the pocket, he has not been as accurate; his passes can lack proper touch, timing and placement.

Willis has not operated in an offense with advanced reads or protections, so there could be a learning curve for that phase of his game once he reaches the NFL. His pocket feel ranges from good to underwhelming on tape. His effectiveness against pressure could stand to improve markedly.

With only six career interceptions, Willis has taken care of the ball pretty well. But his 10 fumbles tied for the college football lead last year, and PFF charted him with 19 turnover-worthy plays last season (tied for fourth-most in FBS).

There are sacks he’s taken that he shouldn’t, and Willis often will bail a bit too quickly when his primary reads are covered up. He also hangs in the pocket way too long at times, not too different from Jalen Hurts as a prospect when he came out.

At 6-foot flat (verified by scouts this spring), Willis is considered shorter for the position. No, this isn’t quite the hangup issue it once was with NFL scouts, but a lack of height could limit his appeal for some clubs. He’s well built and can pinball off tackle/sack attempts, but Willis also can do a better job of protecting himself.

2021 outlook

Willis and the Flames face an interesting schedule as an independent program. On the one hand, it’s littered with lower-run FBS programs — UMass, Troy, Middle Tennessee, North Texas and so on — plus two FCS opponents early in the season.

But they also have games at Syracuse (whom Liberty beat by 17 last season) and top-25 Ole Miss, along with tough home games vs. Louisiana and Army to close out the season. The Willis vs. Matt Corral QB matchup in Oxford in particular will be one that’ll be heavily populated with NFL scouts.

The Flames should be ready to light up scoreboards again. They reached the 30-point mark in nine of 11 games a year ago and hit the 40-point barrier four times. The Flames return all five starters on the O-line, feature a great run game and have eight of their top nine receiving leaders from 2020 back.

In short, this offense could be lethal again. The thing NFL scouts want to see is Willis expanding his horizons as a passer. He offered tantalizing potential last season but has room to grow in this department.

Some NFL evaluators gave Willis Day 3 grades this spring and summer. Others believe he has first-round potential with another big year and more strides in the passing game. He won’t be for everyone, but Willis absolutely appears to be a wildcard in the 2022 NFL draft mix.