If the Pittsburgh Steelers see Liberty’s Malik Willis as the team’s next starting quarterback, the organization isn’t doing a very good job of masking its interest. On Tuesday February 8, two NFL analysts—one from Pro Football Focus (PFF) and one from NFL.com—predicted that the Steelers are going to trade up in the 2022 Draft to select Willis, who is listed at 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds and has drawn comparisons to former Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart.
“It’s no secret” that Pittsburgh really likes Willis, writes Anthony Treash of PFF, noting that “after Willis produced the highest (PFF) grade among quarterbacks at the 2022 Senior Bowl practices, his stock is firmly on the rise.”
On Episode 289 of PFF’s Tailgate podcast (Full 2022 Senior Bowl Recap), the co-hosts discuss how “(Willis’) arm stood out…. Any throw he was making was a tick noticeably faster than guys with strong arms,” referring to the five other quarterbacks who attended the Senior Bowl.
“Willis wins when playing schoolyard ball,” notes PFF’s 2022 Draft Guide, adding context. “His creativity on the move as both a thrower and runner is special. He can provide instant offense at any level of football.”
That would be invaluable for the Steelers, considering that the team needs to find a quarterback who has the tools and upside to help it compete with the likes of Joe Burrow (Bengals) and Lamar Jackson (Ravens), not to mention Patrick Mahomes (Chiefs) and Josh Allen (Bills).
At the same time, Willis still needs a lot of development, with PFF’s Draft Guide raising questions about everything from his footwork to his pocket presence to his ability to remain on schedule. Also, playing at Liberty, “level of competition was poor (and he) had some ugly outings against Power-5 defenses,” like Ole Miss and North Carolina State.
“Willis isn’t a Day-1 starter,” concludes PFF, and advises giving him significant time to work on his mechanics and get acclimated to the NFL game. That’s something the Steelers could do, as former third-round pick Mason Rudolph could serve as a stopgap starter for up to a year. Alternatively, the Steelers could also try former Washington first-round pick Dwayne Haskins, a restricted free agent who is expected to be retained for another season.
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Projected Trade With the Chargers
It’s worth noting, too, that PFF isn’t the only media outlet that believes the Steelers are going to make a move to try to acquire Malik Willis. NFL Media Draft Analyst Lance Zierlein predicts that the Steelers will trade up to No. 17 overall (Los Angeles Chargers) to grab him, making him the second quarterback picked after Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett.
“Willis might not have played for a traditional college football power, but he is hard to bring down, can extend plays and has the arm to attack all areas of the field,” writes Zierlien.
It’s not hard to envision the Steelers taking a chance on Malik Willis. After all, the Steelers are in the market for a new starting quarterback thanks to the retirement of future Hall of Famer Ben Roethlisberger. And as noted by Treash, “from ownership to head coach Mike Tomlin, several members within the Steelers organization have harped on the importance of mobility at the quarterback position, and Willis checks that box,” having demonstrated record speed (for a QB) at the Senior Bowl, with the following scramble indicative of his capabilities.
But it seems less likely that the Steelers would sacrifice significant draft capital to move up in the first round, especially with only six picks in hand this year (and only three in the first four rounds), pending the addition of one—or at most two—compensatory picks.
For what it’s worth, the Steelers used a first-round pick on a Liberty athlete once before. In fact, they are the only team in NFL history to have selected a Flames player in the round one, taking tight end Eric Green No. 21 overall in 1990. Green scored five touchdowns on his first seven touches as a rookie—five of the 24 touchdowns he scored during his five seasons in Pittsburgh, which included two Pro Bowl appearances.
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What you talkin’ bout, Willis?