48 Hours Later: Has Malik Willis Actually Improved?

Zach Lyons is a NFL Senior Contributor for Broadway Sports. He is also Co-Host of the wildly popular, award winning, and world renowned podcast, “A Football & Other F Words”, new episodes released every Wednesday wherever you get your podcasts.. He’s also a co-host for Nashville’s first ever football only show with a global reach, “A Football Show”. “A Football Show” airs LIVE every Monday and Thursday at 1p CST. Subscribe and turn on notifications here.

The biggest talk coming out of the latest loss in the Titans losing streak has been centered mainly around Malik Willis. Right fully so as Willis was drafted by Jon Robinson in the third round with the hopes of developing into, what one would hope, a franchise quarterback. So now with three starts under his belt, all with different surrounding circumstances, has Willis shown signs of improvement?

The Initial Eye Test

From watching the games live with my own eyes, I have seen areas of improvement in the parts of his game that he had been lacking. He’s reading the field better, and making quicker decisions. They also clearly started working in more RPOs and the offense looked much better when they used the RPOs.

In fact, the Titans ran 11 RPO plays and averaged 10.1 yards per play, and those 11 RPOs accounted 40.8% of the Titans total yardage. That’s 11 plays out of 54 plays total that accounted for 40.8% of the Titans offensive yardage. Not sure why Downing didn’t stick with this formula, oh wait, I do know why. Cause he stinks! Over at PaulKuharsky.com they have even more info on Willis’s third game and I recommend you check it out.

The one thing Willis didn’t improve in and actually regressed in, is his quickness with getting out of the pocket behind a bad offensive line. My opinion? The staff has gotten in his head about bailing on pass plays too early, so now he’s swapped his hesitation in the pocket, with hesitation about bailing on the play.

When I went and watched the rookie quarterback class from 2021 I wrote an article about The QB Conundrum facing the Titans and how each rookie fit with this team. I called Willis The Philosophy Changer. Here’s what I wrote about Willis’s mechanics, and the dangers of making him fit this offense:

Above, I laid out all the negatives in Mahomes’s scouting reports leading up to the draft, and Willis has a lot of the same issues come up on film. Elite arm talent, with scattershot mechanics. So when a team drafts him, they need to work with that.

If the Titans were that team, I would be heartbroken if they muted his talents and forced him into a scheme that doesn’t let him make amazing plays routinely with both his arms and his legs, and we all know that the Titans prefer to play a safer style of offense than the Chiefs or Bills tend to do.

If you take the approach that the Chiefs did, where they fixed some issues, but not too much it waters down his strengths, then you got a guy who is going to be able to be absolutely electric for a team.

Me, cause I am amazing.

It seems the Titans are making the massive mistake and not letting Willis be Willis. Hell, they only took 1 deep shot of 20+ yards down the field all game (the Hail Mary), and even further only had one additional pass of 10-19 yards down the field. With Burks, McMath, and Okonkwo on the field its inexcusable!

Maybe because they lack personnel, lack creativity, and/or lack both, but this is what I worried about the most when I drafted him, they’d break him.

Has Malik Willis’s passing improved based on the “Initital Eye Test”: Yes

The Efficiency Metrics

I love looking at efficiency metrics of a quarterback. I think it tells you a lot about their individual play and is a good measure of where they stand among their contemporaries in certain stats. Excluding the Monday Night Football game tonight, here’s how Willis has looked in each of his three starts:

Statsvs Texans**vs Chiefs***Saturday****
QB Plays*172835
EPA+CPOE0.052 (18th)-0.094 (25th)0.007 (26th)
EPA/Play-0.553 (30th)-0.221 (23rd)-0.373 (29th)
Success Rate35.3% (28th)28.6% (24th)34.3% (26th)
Air Yards5.9 (24th)12.2 (2nd)6.2 (25th)
Team Rushing EPA/play3rd9th7th
Team Rushing Success Rate52.4% (7th)16th (33.3%)53.1% (2nd)
*using the https://rbsdm.com/stats/stats/ metric
**Out of 30 Quarterbacks
**Out of 25 QBs
****Out of 30 QBs

What this stats don’t take into account is the quality of weapons and the offensive line that a player has. That is the downfall to looking strictly at this as the sole deciding factor on if Malik Willis has improved or not.

These metrics look at down and distant, play call, then compare that to historical data of the league to determine the EPA, Completion Percentage Above Expected, and Success Rate if your team’s play call and its result.

So it doesn’t care if you have an offensive line made up of Dennis Daley, Aaron Brewer, Corey Levin, Jordan Roos, and NPF. It doesn’t care if in other games you were without Treylon Burks. Is that fair? Sort of, but that’s why context is important.

Has Malik Willis improved based on Efficiency Metrics?: No, not looking strictly at the numbers.

The Advanced Stats

I am not a massive proponent of PFF grades, and sometimes I find their charting a little iffy, but until someone else comes along these are the numbers and data we have to go on. I am going to break down a few of the stats I have found interesting on Willis’s start Sunday, and compare it to his other starts.

Something to keep in mind if I use a PFF grade is that a grade of 60 is considered an average grade.

Statsvs Texansvs ChiefsSaturday
Kept Clean Pass Grade64.56464.9
Under Pressure Pass Grade2843.728
Kept Clean %42.9%59.1%50%
Under Presssure %57.1%40.9%50%

Nothing to really glean from this other than, he has been a slightly above average passer in terms of PFF grades than probably people would think, when he’s kept clean. However it gets odd when you look at when defenses send extra rushers at him in a blitz.

Statsvs Texansvs ChiefsSaturday
Not Blitzed Pass Grade50.333.533
When Blitzed Pass Grade29.47768.6
Not Blitzed %71.4%59.1%82.1%
When Blitzed %28.6%40.9%17.9%

I think coverage sacks is the huge reason for a decline in the passing grade. For instance, when you look at Saturday’s PFF charting, they attributed one of Willis’s 4 sacks to himself, which I agree with, but attributed 0 to any of the pass blockers, including tight ends and running backs.

You’d have to ask someone inside the building, but I assume the Chig/Daley statue play must count as a blown up play, where yeah its their fault but I guess since they were statues it doesn’t count? But back to the point: the Texans were able to generate a lot of pressure with just 4 or less rushers. All four sacks came when they didn’t blitz.

So if one sack is Willis’s fault, and one i chalked up to a blown play, it’s safe to say the other two are coverage sacks. Not sure if I agree with that or not, but it is what it is. The Titans pass blocking group allowed 12 total pressures (remember no sacks). This is the most pressures allowed in a start by Willis. They allowed seven versus the Texans in week 8, and eight versus the Chiefs.

Dennis Daley (27.5) and Jordan Roos (21.7) accounted for 8 of the 12 themselves. For what it’s worth, NPF allowed 0 pressures according to PFF, but he went out with injury, and Clark comes in and allows 2 pressures.

Statsvs Texansvs ChiefsSaturday
Play Action %50%27.3%25%
PA Pass Grade28.657.767.1
No PA Pass Grade59.654.231.2

Willis has obviously improved on pass plays coming off play action. 12 of the 14 pressures on Sunday came on the No Play Action pass plays, so the Play Action was working despite the fact that offensive line was terrible. It’s because the Texans run defense is horrendous and they were scared of Henry who normally puts up 200 on them.

Statsvs Texansvs ChiefsSaturday
Deep (20+ yds) Attempts031*
Deep Attempt %0%18.8%4.3%
Medium (10-19 yds) Attempts261
Medium Attempt %20%37.5%4.3%
Short (0-9 yds) Attempts6116
Short Attempt %60%6.3%69.6%
Behind LOS Attempts132
Behind LOS %10%18.8%8.7%
*Hail Mary

This is what I mean when I am talking about him being hamstrung by this offensive coordinator. Even at Liberty, they knew they had a horrendous offensive line. So what did they do? Use Willis’s athletic ability and arm strength to roll out the pocket and make plays either with his leg or his cannon of an arm.

Now he didn’t have Burks, McMath the first two games, while Okonkwo wasn’t being used as much as he is now, so I can excuse those games somewhat. However, this game the offensive coordinator did a piss poor job putting him in situations where he could succeed.

For example, Burks was only targeted three times. That is utterly ridiculous for your number one wide receiver in a game like this where he should be used constantly. On top of that, they decided to move away from Okonkwo who only got two targets this week. A catch for 10 yards, and a drop. McMath a deep threat we’ve seen used in the preseason with Willis under center wasn’t ever on the field. Good call, guys!

This is bad play calling not to find ways to get those guys the ball more. The play calling could help Willis by calling more plays with hot reads, spreading the wide receivers and their routes out more, and stop using long developing plays, and letting Chig and Burks gain some yards after the catch.

Has Malik Willis improved using Advanced Stats by PFF: Mixed bag.


Willis has improved in other areas, and areas he was good in he’s regressed. However, that’s okay. He’s a third round rookie with terrible surroundings in every game he’s played. He was drafted in the third round because he was so very, very raw. Why can no one see that?

I think that’s what’s lost in all of this, a lot of people came out after the game and said he played terrible, and while he didn’t play great, he played better than what people want to give him credit for, because of their preconceived notions.

Their preconceived notions may come from their thoughts about him after the draft. May come from their inability to understand just how raw of a prospect he was, and they forget he was a third round quarterback. For a few their preconceived notions may come from their own personal stuff.

In the end, people gave Tannehill a lot of leeway this season, blaming various other surrounding aspects around him. Rightfully so. I think Tannehill has been the least of their problems on a weekly basis.

However, Ryan Tannehill is an 11 year vet, who was drafted in the first round. Malik Willis is a rookie quarterback, drafted in the third round, that is a raw, still developing player, that has 3 games under his belt.

If Tannehill came in on Saturday, and he only threw for 165 yards, you’d be blaming the OL, and OC. Think about that when you’re bashing Willis without recognizing he has improved, just not at the rate you ridiculously expected.

Author: Zach LyonsWith over 17 years experience of losing Fantasy Football games, Zach has been a Titans fan since moving to Nashville in 2002. A die-hard Alabama fan, but he doesn't let that cloud his judgement of the Elite Players they have put in the NFL. Players like Derrick Henry, Julio Jones, and AJ McCarron. You've heard him on Football & Other F Words giving his Unfiltered Opinions as facts and that won't change. He's always 100% right even if he has to revise earlier statements. Lawyered.

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