Malik Willis rededicated himself to the game, now top QB prospect for NFL draft

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter/AJC

Combined ShapeCaption
Liberty QB Malik Willis, a native of metro Atlanta, downplays the opinions of his critics as he participates in NFL scouting combine.

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter/AJC

Here’s the fifth story of our position-by-position NFL draft series. Today, we’ll look at the top quarterbacks.

After he couldn’t get on the field at Auburn, Malik Willis rededicated himself to the game of football and went on to flourish at Liberty.

ExploreAJC coverage of the Falcons

Now the former Westlake and Roswell High standout is considered the top quarterback prospect in the coming NFL draft, which is set for April 28-30 in Las Vegas.

Willis, a dynamic dual-threat quarterback, could be selected as high as No. 6 in the draft by the Carolina Panthers. The Falcons, who traded Matt Ryan to the Colts for a third-round pick this offseason, hold the eighth overall pick.

Willis’ running and passing ability has been compared with former Falcons quarterback Michael Vick. If Willis gets past Carolina and the Falcons select him, he could help to ignite the dormant fan base.

“I just think it’s my willingness to learn,” Willis said about being the top prospect. “My willingness to try to be great, the physical tools I’ve been blessed with and my work ethic.”

The Falcons, who had the fourth overall pick in 2021, passed on quarterbacks Justin Fields and Mac Jones last season. This year’s class of quarterbacks is not considered as talented.

Jones was the fifth quarterback taken in 2021. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper said Jones would be the No. 1-ranked quarterback if he were in the 2022 class.

Willis has heard the talk about this quarterback class being weak.

“I would say everybody is entitled to their opinion, informed, not informed,” Willis said.

For the most part, Willis took on the draft process with a smile.

ExploreAJC breaks down the top 10 QB prospects

“This is a game,” Willis said. “You can’t be stressed. Life is stressful. You go through way worse stuff in life. I’m just grateful I get to come out here and play a game and (that fans) want to see this game.”

Some contend that Willis will need some time to learn to read NFL-styled defenses and that he was athletically superior to the competition that Liberty played.

Willis knows he has things to work on, including accuracy.

“Definitely my footwork and trying to be as consistent as I can with my base,” Willis said. “That’s where some of the flaws in my game come from, maybe some of the inaccuracies. It’s just the footwork. It’s not just being inaccurate.”

Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen, who played at Wyoming, came into the league with the reputation for being an inaccurate passer.

“Somebody always is going to think you’re trash,” Willis said. “That’s just the way the game goes. I’m just going to keep on going. I’m not playing for their approval. I’m playing for the only one whose approval I respect, God. I don’t really care too much about what he and she say.”

Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett is the only other quarterback projected to be selected in the first round.

Pickett, who has small hands, tossed 40 touchdown passes and seven interceptions last season. He completed 334 of 497 passes for 4,066 yards as he set several school records.

Pickett finished third in the voting for the Heisman Trophy.

Willis and Pickett are followed by Mississippi’s Matt Corral, Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder and North Carolina’s Sam Howell.

“He could be a first-rounder,” Kiper said of Corral. “I almost gave him to the Lions at the end of the first (in his latest mock draft). Once I didn’t do that, I had Desmond Ridder and Matt Corral. I gave Ridder to Seattle, and I could have given them Corral there. But I ended up giving Corral to New Orleans (in the second round).”

Willis and Pickett could land in the Falcons’ division, the NFC South. The Saints also are in the quarterback market.

“Pickett, to me, would be a good choice at that point (the Saints draft 16th and 19th),” Kiper said. “The domed stadium, obviously playing in that division, the NFC overall, I think he could be a Derek Carr-type. Some think Kirk Cousins, Colt McCoy or Andy Dalton. It’s like pick, A, B, C or D. Whoever you want him to be. I think the best-case scenario is Derek Carr or Kirk Cousins. That would be pretty good.”

Kiper is not too high on Howell.

“I’ve got Sam as more of a third- or fourth-rounder,” Kiper said.

Nevada’s Carson Strong, Western Kentucky’s Bailey Zappe and Brown’s E.J. Perry are in the second tier of quarterbacks.

“The depth at quarterback is not there,” Kiper said.

Strong has a strong arm and is recovering from a knee injury.

“Great touchdown-to-interception ratio,” Kiper said. “Really strong arm but limited mobility. He’s going to put a lot of pressure on the offensive line.”

Zappe passed for nearly 6,000 yards last season and 62 touchdowns.

“Zappe is that spunky overachieving quarterback,” Kiper said. “He doesn’t have the size, but the production, being able to complete passes in all areas, being accurate and precise, being able to read the field, see the field, he did that.”

Southeastern Louisiana’s Cole Kelley and Notre Dame’s Jack Coan also are pro prospects.

“He could be a guy who could be a solid backup type,” Kiper said of Coan. “I don’t see him as a starter unless he has to fill in for a game or two.”

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter/AJC

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Pitt QB Kenny Pickett looks ahead to the NFL and talks about the comparison to Cincinnati QB Joe Burrow. (D. Orlando Ledbetter/AJC)

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter/AJC

AJC’S 2022 POSITION-BY-POSITION SERIES

WIDE RECEIVERS – Falcons need to upgrade weapons | Top 10 WRs

RUNNING BACKS – Position has become devalued in draft | Top 10 RBs

TIGHT ENDS – Chigoziem Okonkwo survived heart condition | Top 10 TEs

OFFENSIVE LINE – Ex-UGA lineman Salyer points to wins in SEC trenches | Top 10 OL

QUARTERBACKS – Malik Willis now top QB prospect for NFL draft | Top 10 QBs

DEFENSIVE LINE – Georgia dominates D-line talk ahead of draft | Top 10 DL

LINEBACKERS – Ex-UGA star Dean the latest test of play vs. measurables | Top 10 LBs

CORNERBACKS – Cincinnati’s Sauce Gardner or LSU’s Derek Stingley Jr. | Top 10 CBs

SAFETIES – Georgia’ Lewis Cine will knock your block off | Top 10 Safeties

SPECIAL TEAMS – Special-teams players attracting draft interest | Top 10 Special-teamers

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