Matt Ryan isn’t going anywhere in 2022, but the Atlanta Falcons still know the time is rapidly approaching when they’ll need to replace their franchise quarterback.
The Falcons can recruit Ryan’s replacement ahead of schedule by using the eighth-overall pick in the 2022 NFL draft. It can land them a quarterback graded as a second-round talent, but with the upside to mature into something much more after a season sat behind Ryan.
That’s the scenario put forward by one writer in his mock draft hot on the heels of the NFL Scouting Combine. He sends the Falcons a dual-threat signal-caller who impressed many people in Indianapolis.
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Falcons Advised to Reach for QB
Malik Willis has enjoyed an excellent audition process this offseason. The Liberty star has emerged as one of the few quarterbacks in this draft class who could merit a top-10 pick.
That’s where CBS Sports’ Ryan Wilson sees Willis coming off the board, specifically when the Falcons make their first-round choice: “We’ve been upfront about Wills: we have a second-round grade on him based on his body of work in college, but that doesn’t mean teams looking for a quarterback won’t take one a round or so before they should. Willis had a great week at the Senior Bowl and reports are that he interviewed well in Indy. In Atlanta, it’s best-case scenario for Willis because he’ll spend the year sitting behind Matt Ryan, and in 2023, Arthur Smith will have his next franchise QB, one who does just about everything you want in a modern-day signal caller.”
The idea of over-drafting a player graded outside the first round will likely not appeal to many. Not when the Falcons are firmly in rebuilding mode and have pressing needs at wide receiver, pass-rusher and along the offensive line.
Even so, there’s still some merit to Wilson’s argument. Not least because Ryan isn’t going anywhere when Spotrac.com puts his cap hit for 2022 at worth $48,662,500.
The Falcons likely finding it easier to shift Ryan a year from now is a good thing on two levels. First, it means the team should enter this season with the best quarterback in the NFC South, following Tom Brady’s retirement from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and NFL.
Second, Willis is an obvious talent, but he’s also raw and unlikely to be ready to take the pro game by storm in his first year. A year on the bench watching a veteran like Ryan operate could be invaluable for his development.
That year would also give Falcons’ head coach Arthur Smith time to redefine an offense more suited to Willis’ particular skills. Those skills include a rocket of an arm that was fully on display during the Combine and even wowed Baltimore Ravens’ starter Lamar Jackson:
The Falcons are already admirers of Willis’ talent, having sat down and interviewed him in Indy and at the Senior Bowl. There’s a mutual appreciation between player and team.
Willis Admires Falcons’ Quarterbacks Past and Present
Willis met with the Falcons at the Combine, per Falcons.com beat reporter Tori McElhaney. She noted how Willis answered “Michael Vick” when asked about quarterbacks he watched as a youngster.
This isn’t the first time Willis has expressed his admiration for a signal-caller who suited up for the Falcons. He also sat down with the team at the Reese’s Senior Bowl, according to D. Orlando Ledbetter of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. During his time in Mobile, Alabama, Willis told reporters how he admires Ryan, per Heavy.com’s Jonathan Adams.
It sounds as if Willis, a Georgia native, is open to playing his pro ‘ball in Atlanta. The Falcons can offer a good fit because Smith knows how to coach dual-threat quarterbacks from his time as offensive coordinator of the Tennessee Titans. Smith called plays for both Marcus Mariota and Ryan Tannehill during his stint in Nashville.
Willis would offer a new threat level to Smith’s offense in Atlanta thanks to his flair as a runner. He rushed for 944 yards at Liberty in 2020, before adding 878 more on the ground in 2021. Willis also ran for 27 touchdowns during those two seasons, according to Sports Reference.
Bringing Willis down whenever he took off to run was a challenge few defenders mastered at the collegiate level, per Pro Football Focus:
Drafting Willis would bring some long-overdue excitement to football’s most important position for the Falcons. As long as Smith and general manager Terry Fontenot made good use of two second-round picks, the Falcons could justify reaching for a developing talent with a high ceiling in the first round.