Malik Willis was a member of the Auburn Tigers back in the summer of 2019 and he found himself locked in a heated camp battle with Bo Nix for the starting quarterback job. Despite ultimately losing that battle, Willis might’ve won the war — after transferring to Liberty, he earned the starting job immediately and fit into an offensive system under Hugh Freeze that better maximized his unique skill set. Of course, as you’ll see by watching his 2021 game film vs. his 2020 game film, he downgraded his supporting cast, but Willis made sure that it didn’t always matter.
Willis led Liberty to a 9-1 record in 2020 as the Flames emerged as one of the most surprising teams in college football. Willis racked up 2,250 passing yards, 20 passing touchdowns, 944 rushing yards, 14 rushing touchdowns and a 64.2% completion rate. The script flipped in 2021 as his supporting cast collapsed around him — including some of the worst offensive line play I’ve watched of any quarterback prospect in the past five classes — we’re not just talking blown blocks; we’re talking about completely missing assignments — multiple players on a single play. So while some evaluators knock Willis for the drop-off, a thorough evaluation of his film provides the context you need. We’ll get to that below.
Willis is the most exciting quarterback prospect I’ve evaluated from a Fantasy Football standpoint since Lamar Jackson in the 2018 NFL Draft class. He’s not just a capable runner — he’s a dynamic playmaker who was used in a variety of ways as a rusher. We’re not just talking zone read and broken plays that he breaks off for big runs — Liberty used him on the power read in the run game. Willis broke 89 tackles in the open field during the 2021 season, the most of any player in college football including running backs, according to Pro Football Focus.
We’re breaking down everything you need to know about Willis from a Fantasy manager perspective, including best fits, Dynasty outlook, measurables, scouting report, key stats and an NFL comparison.
There has been some buzz building about the Lions potentially drafting Willis at No. 2 overall, and while I ultimately think they roll with hometown(ish) hero Aidan Hutchinson, Detroit would be a much better Fantasy fit than most give it credit for. What I love about this fit is that Detroit already has a plus offensive line in place, with arguably the NFL’s best center and an emerging star at offensive tackle in Penei Sewell. If Willis is to have early success at the NFL level, he’ll need to join a creative offense that is willing to curtail the system to fit his skill set, similar to how the Ravens did it with Lamar Jackson. That means a lot of zone-read and play-action vertical and intermediate shots based off the run game. New offensive coordinator Ben Johnson is the man to do it, and D’Andre Swift would be a perfect fit as his running mate in that backfield. New vertical addition D.J. Chark would also mesh nicely with Willis.
The Falcons are also rumored to be in the mix for Willis and I’d love to see him join Arthur Smith’s team — it would even give me flashbacks to the Michael Vick days. No, Willis and Vick are not all that similar as prospects, but a similar run-based offensive system can be tailored to fit Willis’ strengths and make him an immediate contributor. Smith, designer of the dominant Titans run game of the 2019-2020 seasons, would certainly have some fun working with Willis. The Falcons already have an (emerging) elite intermediate and vertical option available to him in Kyle Pitts and a mentor in Marcus Mariota.
There are a few other options I considered, including the Panthers and Commanders, but I love the fit with Pete Carroll in Seattle for a multitude of reasons. For starters, Seattle will develop a capable run game led by Rashaad Penny, and that will mesh well early with Willis being an extension of the run game. The best part of this Fantasy fit are the weapons Willis would inherit. D.K. Metcalf, Tyler Lockett and the chance to revive uber-talented TE Noah Fant, with Will Disly helping out as an inline blocker on designed runs for Willis. I can almost taste the upside!
In one-QB Dynasty formats, Willis typically goes off the board in the middle to end of Round 1, but I’ll be more bullish in my drafts. Willis’ tantalizing combination of throwing velocity, his track record of chunk-yardage throws (measured by his collegiate-leading big-time throw percentage) and his playmaking ability as a runner in the open field provide a path to QB1 status early on. That’s if he finds the right fit. See: Lamar Jackson. In 2QB and Superflex formats, Willis should be the 1.1. There is not a single player more valuable in that format, and that’s taking into account his potential bust factor.
- The ball absolutely jumps out of Willis’ hand — the velocity is real. This is most noticeable when Willis is able to throw in rhythm, without taking a hitch, and with his two cleats planted in the ground. Willis does a good job of throwing from that base often.
- Willis can generate velocity on his passes while throwing from any platform — his film is littered with examples of Willis throwing while on the move and making big-time throws.
- Willis is a truly incredible athlete as a runner in the open field. He’ll be an immediate weapon on broken plays, but also designed quarterback runs. Liberty used him in a variety of ways as a runner, but at the NFL level that will mostly look like the zone-read run game we’ve seen become popular across the NFL. He also has experience and success as a red-zone rusher.
- Willis has a thick lower half and frame and he is a strong athlete — his broken tackle rate speaks volumes and he is a willing runner almost at times looking for contact.
- Willis has creativity and agility as a runner in the open field — there are plenty of examples on his film of him cutting on a dime and putting defenders in a blender.
- Although not always consistent, Willis demonstrates the combination of velocity and ball placement that can rival the top quarterbacks you see on NFL Sundays — this allows him to throw into tight windows that some NFL quarterbacks won’t even attempt.
- Willis can operate the RPO game at a high level and there are countless examples of him doing something we don’t often see from even some NFL QBs when it comes to the RPO game — throwing hole shots into tight coverage windows off the RPO play action.
- Willis can make the “NFL throws” as they call them — the outside the hash throws to the field side and wide side throws — this requires next-level arm talent and velocity. It’s often what is needed to beat NFL-level cornerbacks.
- Willis shows great timing and ball placement (the ability to change the trajectory on his throws) on vertical route concepts — specifically out and ups.
- Willis can throw with anticipation, but this remains a work in progress.
- Willis excels as a deep passer, utilizing his combination of plus ball placement and velocity.
- Willis’ has two major concerns that rightfully place him in the project category and the first that stands out to me is his inconsistent ball placement. This was an issue for Josh Allen when he entered the draft and I believe it can be coached up. Often, when he is missing with his ball placement, the issues seem to be more footwork-based than with his upper-body mechanics. His pass protection was so porous that he was often anticipating the rush.
- Willis’ second major concern is his mental processing from pre to post snap. There are too many examples on film of Willis missing simple things that will get him in trouble at the next level — like where to go with the ball on hot reads with free blitzers coming his way. He also tends to stare down his anticipated read regardless of how the defense might adjust post snap.
- Willis needs to get better with his eyes — while there are some examples of him using his eyes to hold safeties — there are more examples of him locking on to reads. As someone who co-runs a New York Giants podcast that breaks down the All-22 coaches film every week, I can tell you that this was a major issue in Daniel Jones‘ game at Duke and has only minimally improved — there is no science to it, but some believe quarterbacks either have it or don’t when it comes to post-snap processing (think Tom Brady, Drew Brees and their ability to manipulate safeties post snap).
- Willis often bails too early from the pocket, and while this may be a bad thing for his NFL transition, it can actually help your Fantasy team as he looks to run often.
Advanced stats to know
- Willis led all players (running backs included) in 2021 with 89 broken tackles, per PFF. He totaled 146 broken tackles as an open field runner in his collegiate career.
- Led all of college football in PFF’s “big-time throw percentage” with 11.0% — the third-highest big-time throw percentage they’ve charted in a single season. Willis excels in the deep passing game.
When I watch Willis on tape, it’s hard to come up with a great example for him — he reminds me in a lot of ways of a combination of Michael Vick and Lamar Jackson. But he’s so different than both those quarterbacks when it comes to how he throws the ball that ultimately neither feels right. The comparison I am going with is a smaller version of Daunte Culpepper. He is most similar to Culpepper as a thrower, but a more dynamic runner in the open field.