Is Malik Willis ready to play quarterback in NFL? Tennessee Titans trying hard to find out | Estes

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Malik Willis is 23 going on 50.

He’s a mature soul, this Tennessee Titans rookie quarterback. So habitually cool and unflustered and unrattled that it can come off as disinterest. It's not just me saying that. Willis’ college coach at Liberty, Hugh Freeze, once said it’d drive him crazy sometimes for Willis to be so “nonchalant – but it’s not that. That’s not the word.”

Months later, I understand what Freeze was trying to say. Willis’ mentality is so striking and singular that it is difficult to explain.

So I asked Willis to do it.

“I just be vibing,” he said with a smile after Wednesday’s joint practice with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

“I mean, so much in this world you can't control. You can control your attitude. You can control your effort. And you can control how you respond to things. I choose to not respond to things negatively. I choose to go out and do my best, and I choose to enjoy what I do.”

That’s not a good mentality for an NFL quarterback.

It’s a great mentality for an NFL quarterback.

And it’s why I’m beginning to view Willis as the Titans’ future, if not more of their present than is being acknowledged.

Room to grow

The talent? That's obvious. Has been all along. Willis’ high ceiling isn’t a question. At this moment, it’s more about a low floor.

In other words, could the Titans put Willis into a 2022 regular-season game on a moment’s notice and be sure it wouldn’t be disastrous? Would he allow the Titans to execute the offensive design? Would he operate efficiently from the pocket? Would he resort to improvisation or be comfortable and confident enough with what he’s seeing to cut the ball loose on time?

These are pertinent questions for any rookie, and they haven’t been answered yet for Willis. Not in the first preseason game. Not in training camp practices. Not on Wednesday, either, with the Buccaneers on the other side.

“Early in your career, things are moving fast, right?” quarterback Ryan Tannehill said of Willis. “… You've got to be able to make quick decisions and see what's going on, and for a young player that's tough. But obviously, he's made a lot of strides this camp.”

As in other practices, Willis had some nice moments Wednesday against Tampa Bay's defenders. He also overthrew some early passes – perhaps a little too amped up to start – and continued to hold on to the ball too long at times, especially when things were moving quickly in a hurry-up possession.

“It's why we wanted him out there,” Titans coach Mike Vrabel said. “The look changes post-snap, and that's what good defenses do. He'll have to see that.”

And yes, the Titans clearly wanted Willis out there. Working behind Tannehill, Willis received a lot of snaps Wednesday, more than Logan Woodside, their presumed backup again this season.

Woodside would be more of a low-ceiling, high-floor kind of guy, and that is typically what you'd want from a No. 2 quarterback. You want to know what you’re getting.

The Titans can’t know that yet with Willis.

But they sure are trying hard to find out this preseason.

If they are planning to just burn a roster spot on Willis in 2022 and redshirt him as the third QB, they sure are devoting a lot of the preseason toward learning what he can and can’t do.

And he can do a lot.

Tennessee Titans quarterback Malik Willis (7) throws a pass during a training camp practice at Ascension Saint Thomas Sports Park Monday, Aug. 15, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn.
Tennessee Titans quarterback Malik Willis (7) throws a pass during a training camp practice at Ascension Saint Thomas Sports Park Monday, Aug. 15, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn.

'It's just me seeing more looks'

Prior to Wednesday, the last time the Titans’ offense was on the field, it didn’t go well. The defense dominated Monday’s practice, harassing quarterbacks and leaving hardly any windows in coverage. Too many passes ended up on the ground instead of in receivers’ hands.

PRACTICE VS. BUCS: Kristian Fulton vs. Julio Jones — Tennessee Titans takeaways from joint practice with Bucs

While it was only one practice, it was concerning in a way that few stumbles had been in this camp. Because it hit close to the bulls-eye for those forecasting a Titans drop-off. It was a glimpse of a receiving group collectively unable to get open against physical coverage. A group that missed A.J. Brown, basically.

Again, only one day. But in training camp, you stack days, good or bad. One day can become a trend.

That’s why Wednesday’s joint practice felt so significant.

And perhaps why the Titans' offense came out slinging it against the Buccaneers. Robert Woods was effective early. Treylon Burks got behind the secondary for a long TD. Racey McMath caught a long jump ball.

Once Tannehill’s possession would finish, in came Willis.

Did that mean anything for who’ll be the backup? Maybe not. I don't want to make too much of Willis getting additional reps. I need to be cautious.

It’s just that I’ve had to be cautious a lot lately, downplaying quarterback developments to conform to a pre-existing assumption of Woodside as Tannehill’s certain No. 2.

Things like Vrabel’s mumbling in the affirmative when asked if there was an active competition for the backup role – not elaborating, but confirming.

Things like Willis starting the preseason game in Baltimore. Outside of a few plays, that wasn’t a dynamite performance for him. But it also wasn’t for Woodside, who threw two picks against the Ravens and another Wednesday against the Buccaneers.

Things like that.

At any other position, the more reps for a player, the more optimistic you’d obviously be about his role in an upcoming season.

Should a quarterback be any different?


I don't know if Willis is there just yet. But the more I watch him and the more I'm around him, the more I think he's going to be, sooner or later.

"It's just me seeing more looks," Willis said.

And the Titans are giving him plenty right now.

Reach Tennessean sports columnist Gentry Estes at and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes. 

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Tennessee Titans: Is Malik Willis ready to play NFL quarterback?