Malik Willis gives the Broncos the best chance to return to glory
Mar 3, 2022, 6:32 AM | Updated: 8:13 am
(Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)
By the time you read this, it’s likely that quarterback Malik Willis has already dazzled at his combine workout and is rocketing up draft boards after a scintillating, made-for-TV performance — against no defenders whatsoever.
Such is the odd nature of the NFL Scouting Combine; a once routine data-collecting convention that was far more about networking with fellow scouts and team personnel than ooh-ing and ahh-ing over workouts that only barely represent what the prospects will ever see on a football field. Then, the NFL Network came along, and shortly after its debut, realized that it desperately needed post-Super Bowl programming. The Combine quickly became the fledgling network’s biggest offseason draw, because among football fans, hope springs eternal, even if you’re grasping at straws by nitpicking a 290-pound guard’s standing broad jump.
Weeks prior, at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., Willis impressed by picking up plays quickly and running them in the game — with the proper progressions, as well — despite the limited practice available. His raw ability jumps off the screen, as do a few other, less-exciting things.
The solidly-built junior had a middling season at Liberty thanks to to a campaign that provided dazzling highs and surprising lows. The former Auburn transfer struggled with accuracy and interceptions, and tended to scramble too early at times. But he also showed off a propensity for the deep ball, an aggressive mindset and superior running ability.
In other words, he’s a project, one that Broncos fans may not want to wait for.
It’s unlikely they’ll find better alternatives, however. Denver’s almost certainly not going to be able to trade for Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson or Kyler Murray, and Kirk Cousins and Jimmy Garoppolo aren’t long-term solutions, either. It’s best not to look at the list of free-agent quarterbacks unless it’s through your fingers.
That leaves the draft. And Willis.
Compared to last April, the quarterback crop is underwhelming; without high-profile throwers like Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields or Mac Jones. However, Zach Wilson and Trey Lance went second and third overall, respectively, and both were considered projects themselves. None of the quarterbacks in this year’s draft would likely be ranked ahead of any of last year’s top five. That’s a bad break for the Broncos, who passed on both Fields and Jones, in part due to the belief that they could land a superstar via trade in this offseason.
Willis, however, has as much physical ability as the toolsy Lance, and early reports coming out of his first meetings with teams at the Combine have been met with surprise regarding his intelligence and football IQ. If your first instinct upon hearing that is to smack your forehead, knowing that even after everything the NFL’s seen and experienced, too many team personnel still assume far too little of black quarterbacks’ wherewithal, you’re on the right track. The league still isn’t — Willis was an honor roll student at Roswell High School in Georgia while taking his football team to the state championship; his obvious intellect shouldn’t surprise anyone.
“I feel real good about explaining (plays), and I feel real good about my understanding of the game,” Willis explained on Wednesday. “When you’re prepared, it’s not really stressful. It’s not a situation where you feel like you’re under pressure. I just feel like I was doing what I was supposed to do.”
Regarding his accuracy, Willis knows it’s lacking, he knows why — and he’s ready to work on it.
“That’s where some of the flaws in my game come from, maybe some inaccuracies,” he explained. “It’s just from footwork. It’s not from just being inaccurate.”
He paused and shrugged.
“They can just say I can’t throw,” Willis added. “Whatever.”
Though Willis clearly cares about his game, he’s less concerned of what people think of him; a handy attitude to have for a quarterback that — fairly or not — would be expected to immediately alter the Broncos’ future, both now and for the rest of the decade.
“Somebody’s always going to think you’re trash. Everybody’s going to have an opinion of you, so if you focus so hard on whatever everybody’s opinion is of you, you’re never going to be happy,” Willis said. “I want to be happy, so I’m not going think about it. You can say what you want to. I’m going to let the opinion of people I trust and can respect affect me.”
When the Broncos speak to Willis, new coach Nathaniel Hackett will have an opportunity to present himself as a man Willis can trust and respect — and if his reception in Denver thus far is any indication, he may do just that. Hackett won’t have to explain the gravity of the situation to Willis; he’s already well-aware of what he’s signing up for.
“(NFL teams) always are going to let you know how big your position is,” Willis said. “I mean, you’re the face of the franchise, literally. You’re the face of the city. So, you’ve got to understand everything that comes with that, and making sure you’re doing all the right things, and making sure you’re doing your job.”
One could all but take Willis’ quote and be forgiven if they mistakenly thought it came from the Broncos’ ebullient, first-time head coach.
For the Broncos, who are both equally accustomed to greatness at the quarterback position, and desperate for it now, Willis represents the team’s best chance to solve both. There are risks, of course; if Willis doesn’t pan out, the team will find itself here next spring once again. However, given the skyrocketing contracts given to quarterbacks today — even serviceable backups — the financial impact of missing on a first-round quarterback isn’t as impactful as it was when the Broncos picked would-be franchise savior Paxton Lynch, especially if Willis can at least be a reliable No. 2 for the next four seasons under a rookie deal. That’s not what Denver’s hungry fan base expects, however. Fortunately, neither does Willis.
After hiring Hackett — who has a 24-person coaching staff, and a coach to teach the coaches — the Broncos bet big on development; both by coaches and by players. Hackett is by nature, and his own admission, a teacher. Quarterback coach Klint Kubiak builds upon generations of signal-caller knowledge, both from his Broncos-legend father Gary, and from the fellow Broncos-legend Mike Shanahan tree from which Gary sprung. General manager George Paton bravely went out on a ledge with a youthful, inexperienced staff, anticipating that enthusiasm, creativity, effort and time would yield the kind of results that Denver fans have come to expect. Given that, it’s time to jump into the water with both feet; Paton hired teachers, and now he needs trust them to do their jobs and bring along the Broncos best chance at competing, year after year, with Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert, neither of whom will be leaving the AFC West anytime soon, if ever.
After this week ends, the Combine’s set to leave Indianapolis, a highly walkable city that’s effectively served as host for more than three decades, because for the NFL, big is never big enough — the league is expected to squeeze more dollars out of Jerry Jones’ cavernous circus stadium in Dallas or Stan Kroenke’s spaceship-shaped architectural marvel in the greater Los Angeles area to make the show and its trove of occasionally-helpful data points into a true spectacle.
The spectacle, however, is where the agile and rocket-armed Willis will shine; certainly in Indianapolis now, and potentially — hopefully — in Denver this fall.