Titans need to turn Malik Willis into 2023 starter and a star

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Ryan Tannehill and his big contract need to be on a ticking clock after the Titans' third-round trade up to draft Malik Willis of Liberty 86th overall.

The veteran starting quarterback is sure to be manning the huddle on opening day and, barring the unforeseen, through this season.

Malik Willis

Courtesy Liberty athletics

But Tannehill’s unwieldy contract and shaky playoff performances clearly prompted the franchise to grab a player they regarded as a value. Teams don’t choose quarterbacks with premium draft picks envisioning them as non-starters, and successful signal-callers on rookie contracts are giant commodities.

Jon Robinson and Mike Vrabel emphasized Willis was the best player on their board when they took him, not that their sites were set on a signal-caller.

There is a boom or bust element to the pick. The third round is still a premium. The Titans really need boom.  

However he landed on their roster, Willis should be the team’s starter in a year, with a revamped offense shaped around his skillset and Tannehill dealt in order to save $17.8 million while the team swallows $18.8 in dead money against its salary cap.Screen Shot 2022 04 29 at 11.05.58 PM

Layering the second year of the contract of the 86th pick in the draft on top of that, the Titans will be paying way less at quarterback, even if with a veteran backup. That will give them financial freedom for extensions and additions to improve around Willis.

“Good arm, athletic, moves around well,” Jon Robinson said of Willis. “A really good skill set. Throws a good ball. He’s tough to tackle. He’s got a lot of work to do obviously like all these rookies do. But we’re excited to add him to the team and let him compete.”

“I think that’s up to the player and how quickly they come in here and learn the system, gain the respect of their teammates. They’ll determine how quickly they compete for whatever role it would be.”

Said Mike Vrabel: “We want them all to compete for starting roles. That would be the idea. I think that everybody wants the corner office. I think that everybody wants to live on the top floor. And so that’s what you are trying to do in professional sports.”

Willis talked with the Titans during the scouting process, but he was not one of the 30 players they had in for visits.

So once they got in comfortable range, they moved up four spots, dealing a fifth-rounder, 169th overall, to the Raiders, to get in position for Willis. He was just the third quarterback selected after Kenny Pickett in the first round (20th to Pittsburgh) and Desmond Ridder earlier in the third (74th to Atlanta).

As a rookie, Willis could see the field in special packages that take advantage of his special run skills that could stress defenses. But prevailing wisdom is that he will need time to learn to read more of the field and make the jump from Liberty to the NFL.

Willis stayed in Las Vegas after not being selected in the first round, but was with his friends and family at a bowling alley rather than at the draft, in part because he did not have a second suit.

He does not see any limits on his game.

“All it takes is somebody being able to teach me,” he said. “I’m going to have to go learn the playbook, just like anybody else. There is no way I don’t feel comfortable learning it.

"I mean, from what they taught me during the pre-draft process, I feel like I retained that information pretty well and I had an understanding of it. So it’s just me going and putting in the work every day.”

He said he will seek to learn as much as he can from Tannehill and wants to be the best teammate possible.

“Tannehill is a great player and a great leader for this organization,” he said. “Whenever that time comes for me to get on the field, then that time will come.”

Elite quarterback play is the best route to the Super Bowl.

Kuharsky megaphoneVeteran Matthew Stafford was excellent in the Rams’ run as was Joe Burrow in helping the Bengals get to the game against Los Angeles in just his second season.

The AFC is stacked with top-flight young quarterbacks. The Titans have to contend with Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Burrow, Justin Herbert, Lamar Jackson and Deshaun Watson as well as Russell Wilson.

Can Willis get his name on that list?

The Titans decided it’s worth a crack.

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