How the Tennessee Titans can get the most out of Malik Willis

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Despite his status as the consensus top quarterback in the 2022 NFL draft, Liberty passer Malik Willis waited until the middle of the third round to hear his name called last weekend.

Now can the Tennessee Titans take advantage of this unexpected fall?

The fact that the Titans added a quarterback this draft cycle should not be viewed as a surprise, given how their season came to an end following three interceptions from Ryan Tannehill in Tennessee’s divisional round loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, coupled with Tannehill’s contract affording the organization an out after this season. That Willis was the pick, given the view of his draft stock going into last weekend, was a surprise. Many, this author included, believed Willis would be gone before the Titans’ first pick at 26 overall.

Instead he was there for them in the third.

The question for the Titans now is how they can get the most out of Willis. The incoming quarterback was looked at as one of the passers in this class who needed more development, given the offense he ran at Liberty, and with Tannehill in place the organization can take their time with him. However, there are ways for the Titans to get him on the field early, without altering their offense and what they do with Tannehill at all.

Here’s how.

Vertical concepts

During his time in Tennessee, one of the aspects of playing quarterback that helped turn Tannehill’s career around was the vertical passing game. During the 2020 season, when he finished fourth in the league with an Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt of 7.90, Tannehill was extremely effective when attacking downfield. Pro Football Focus charted him with an Adjusted Completion Percentage of 51.3% on throws of 20 yards or more, seventh-best in the NFL.

Last season, that number cratered. Tannehill’s ACP of 36.0% last season on downfield throws ranked him 28th in the NFL, just ahead of Ben Roethlisberger. That might have been great company back in 2011, but not during the 2021 campaign.

Despite the trade of A.J. Brown, one can expect that the Titans will look to the downfield passing game in the season ahead. Treylon Burks, the Arkansas receiver Tennessee added in the first round to try and replace Brown, is at his best when attacking downfield.

Now pairing what Willis did conceptually in the downfield passing game with the Titans’ offense from the past two seasons might take a little bit of work. While downfield passing was a strength of Willis’ evaluation, the bulk of his throws came towards the boundaries, as you can tell from this heat map provided by Pro Football Focus:

A knock on Willis was that he rarely targeted the middle of the field, and will need time to build out that part of his game at the next level. The data supports that position. So if the Titans are to rely on him early in his career, finding ways to attack along the outside are going to be critical. Designs like this play from Tannehill in 2020 will be a method of doing just that:

This smash-fade concept works just like the design from the Titans, as it gets the slot receiver isolated on the vertical route for Willis. The Liberty passer drops in a perfect ball along the left side, leading to a touchdown for the Flames.

If the Titans are going to turn to Willis early, giving him some isolated vertical throws is a smart way to cater to one of his strengths as a quarterback.

Moving the pocket

(Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

Another argument in Willis’ favor as a prospect was his athleticism. This showed up on plays where he used his legs as a quarterback — whether designed or improvised — and will be the third prong of our analysis. But beyond those plays, moving him around in the pocket was a part of Liberty’s offense the past two seasons.

In Tennessee, he will step into an offense that has used Tannehill in a similar manner. Tannehill’s own athleticism has seen the Titans move him around in the pocket, whether on boot-action designs or straight sprint-out concepts.

A staple of many modern offenses is the boot-action design that sets up a multi-level flood concept. Early in the Divisional Round game against the Bengals, the Titans turned to that concept for an easy completion from Tannehill to Julio Jones:

Starting from under center, Willis takes the snap and after executing the run fake, boots out to the right. He picks up his tight end on the shallow route, working underneath the line and into the flat just as Jones did on the Titans’ example. While the offense, just like Tennessee, sets up a multi-level flood for Willis, if that first look is there — the route to the flat — that is the read the quarterback will take every time.

The beauty of these movement concepts are that they also give an athletic quarterback an easy out if he does not like the look of the concepts in the downfield passing game. On this play against the Colts from Week 3 last season, Tannehill gets to the edge and, seeing nothing open downfield, simply runs to grass for a decent gain:

Willis, after meeting his running back at the mesh point in the backfield, slides to the left edge and looks to his targets downfield. He has a pair of glance routes to choose from, and with his roll to the left he looks at the one working from the left side of the field. Seeing that covered, he simply outruns the defense to the goal line for the touchdown.

Here is that same concept against ULM, only with a bubble-screen on the backside:

Again, Willis comes out of the mesh with his running back and looks at the route to his side of the field, another glance route breaking to the inside. However, once he sees the cornerback run with that receiver, he attacks the grass, keeping the football around the right end for a 15-yard gain. If, however, the defense is in zone coverage and that cornerback stays home, Willis has a window between the corner and the safety to hit that route on the move.

Between boot-action concepts and some sprint designs, the Titans already have the means in their playbook to give Willis some similar situations early in his career.

Designed Runs

(AP Photo/Zach Bolinger)

Despite his struggles in the passing game last year, Tannehill was one of the more effective running quarterbacks during the 2021 campaign. He ran for 270 yards on 55 carries, scoring seven touchdowns and averaging 4.9 yards per attempt.

This, often coupled with the presence of Derrick Henry in the backfield, gave the Titans some opportunities to use Tannehill on designed running plays. Take this play against the Pittsburgh Steelers from Week 1, with Tannehill keeping the football around the left edge:

Willis follows a convoy of his own and nearly punches this in against Middle Tennessee State.

The Titans were able to take advantage of Willis’ slide into the third round, and perhaps added their quarterback of the future. However, if they need to play him sooner rather than later, they do not need to do much in the way of tweaking their offense to get him into familiar situations.

Pittsburgh Week 15 Q4 7:20
Indianapolis Week 8 Q2 13:51
Indianapolis Week 8 Q3 11:36

Liberty v. ULM Q2 1:44 – Zone Read

Liberty v. UMTN Q2 7:31 – Zone Read with Arc

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