Drafting Willis is an exercise in projecting athletic traits versus an actual game movie. There’s no QB with a higher upside in this draft class, and his ceiling is so much above any other. Nor is there a QB that will be drafted who has such tough performances on the field.
Willis is dripping with athleticism. Shorter than ideal at 6-foot-1 but not short, Willis has elite-level arm strength. His acceleration and straight-line speed are both exceptional for the position. He runs like a fast RB and has good vision as a runner. The mix is perfect for RPOs with fast WRs on the outside. There is no more dangerous QB outside the pocket in this class; between his instantaneous acceleration and the strength of his arms moving from awkward platforms, he’s very good at making something out of nothing. Willis also has a natural charisma and comfortable leadership that shone through Senior Bowl and Combine week.
Alas, these are not the only results of the last two years at Liberty. Willis struggled with the placement of the ball but especially touching it on his throws. He is often very late to pull the trigger and therefore has to throw at maximum speed. Much better at attacking out-of-area and out-of-area coverage, doesn’t have the placement or touch against the press or man you want. Holds the ball too long, a trait made much more problematic playing behind a bad OL (especially in 2021). Lacks far too many easy reads and throws, lacking both foresight and precision. Does not throw the ball well on timed and anticipated routes; has to see it before throwing it, leading to poor interceptions and missed chances. Holds the ball too long even when there is no pressure, and can also be late to get in and run when nothing is open.
Willis faced very little future competition in the NFL and struggled a lot as a passer against better defenses. In matchups against Ole Miss, MTSU, Louisiana – the top 3 teams he’s faced – Willis went 47 of 89 averaging 6.2 YPA, 4 TDs and 8 INTs. I watched those three games, Army, Louisiana-Monroe, UAB, and Syracuse from 2021 and NC State and Coastal Carolina from 2020. Other than as a fantastic runner and phenomenal arm strength, I wouldn’t have didn’t know I was looking at a top-100 prospect, let alone a guy in consideration for the top-10.
And that’s the rub with Willis. It’s a complete projection based on the hope that he will eventually significantly improve the things the NFL typically doesn’t develop well. It is easy to root and its potential is undeniable. The challenge is not too big for him. But he has so far to go. It reminds me a bit of Jake Locker, who won the No. 8 overall pick in 2011 on much the same terms – a terrific athlete, a terrific person – but who could never overcome his serious shortcomings as a than ferryman.
Worth a Day 2 lottery ticket for a team that doesn’t need a short-term QB, but Willis will be long gone before the end of the first round. Extreme boom/bust perspective.
5. Sam Howell, North Carolina