Malik Willis is my No. 1 quarterback in the 2022 NFL Draft, and Josh Allen can help to explain why.
The Bills passer, once again, silenced doubters — a group rapidly decreasing in size — on Saturday night with one of the most dominant quarterbacking performances in NFL playoff history. More touchdowns than incompletions, 374 total yards on 25 attempts and six rushes against the No. 2 defense in football in negative wind-chill weather.
Allen has become football’s most shining embodiment of a superstar derived from raw abilities, the template for how to cultivate development at the game’s most vital position.
And quarterback-needy teams should see plenty of Allen in Willis. No, he’s not as big. He doesn’t quite have Allen’s arm. But parallels between the two are there, critical ones.
Willis has game-altering arm talent, and he’s a dynamic, powerful runner with the football in his hands. His decision-making is questionable at times. He played at a smaller school. His auditions against Power 5 schools were duds. All very Allen-like.
As for his accuracy, I liken it to the perception regarding Allen’s ball placement during his pre-draft process in 2018. People watched the Wyoming contests against Iowa and Oregon, saw some turnovers, sacks, interceptions, and other misfires and pegged him as “woefully inaccurate.”
Four years ago, my first at CBS Sports, Allen as a draft prospect was polarizing at best and a laughing stock at worst.
I was assigned a reactionary piece to Allen’s pro day workout. I wrote this as a side note:
It does seem as though we’ve gotten to the point where Allen has become entirely too polarizing, and the criticism of his game has spiraled out of control.
Against Iowa and Oregon in 2017, Allen tried to do way too much too often to compensate for the large discrepancy in talent between both clubs. He looked undraftable in those contests. The rest of his film — in games other clubs from the Mountain West and other small-school opponents — isn’t downright brutal. The accuracy issues pop up on occasion, and he wasn’t a natural pocket drifter, and did make a few poor decisions. However, Allen did show he was capable of zipping throws with fine ball-placement at all levels of the field in 2017.
The fact was, in contests in which Wyoming had talent close to its opponent, Allen was mostly good and at times spectacular. That’s precisely how I felt watching Willis’ outings against Troy, Old Dominion, Syracuse, UAB, and Eastern Michigan.
From an analytics perspective, Allen is an outlier. In NFL history, quarterback prospects with a career 56.2% completion rate in college have not and typically do not become surgical with their accuracy once they’re professionals. And he has absolutely sharpened his ball placement. But Allen was not nearly as inaccurate as the draft echo chamber made everyone believe. The same is true for Willis.
Why Willis is similar to Allen
The Liberty quarterback has already been dubbed as the “athletic, strong-armed quarterback who can’t hit the broadside of the barn when throwing the football” in this draft class.
Forever, it’s been universally accepted that quarterbacks cannot get more accurate once they reach the NFL. Their decision-making and pocket presence are what they are once they’re drafted. I still mostly believe that. But in watching Allen’s maturation to becoming one of the NFL’s elite, I’ve come to a crucial realization related to this ideology.
Quarterbacks rarely fine-tune the intricacies of their game once they start facing NFL competition, but they damn sure aren’t going to get more athletic and strengthen their arm to heroic heights once they’re getting paid to play football. The physical attributes genuinely cannot be taught nor should they be expected to develop in the NFL.
And one needs special tools to hang with the game’s top dogs at the position. Can a team win without a supremely gifted, do-everything quarterback? Of course. But it’s going to be much more of a challenge. For nearly two decades now, many have been chasing the next Tom Brady, a stoic, laser-accurate passer with genius-level processing and lightning quick reactionary capabilities. Don’t forget, Brady’s an outlier too.
Just like Allen, Willis has the unteachable physical characteristics to hang today. In April 2018, Buffalo’s front office bet on itself by going rogue, picking the physical marvel with rough edges, then did everything imaginable to foster his growth.
Allen worked on his mechanics in the process. And Saturday night’s performance in Orchard Park was the culmination of the rewards that are possible when your quarterback can outrun linebackers and fire receiver-seeking missiles all over the field.
Willis can do those things. Assuming he’s willing to attempt to better his skills once he reaches the NFL, the majority of the onus will be on the team that drafts him to make the necessary moves to get the absolute most out of him, just like the Bills have done with Allen.