Will Malik Willis start for Titans over Ryan Tannehill? Assessing rookie’s chances to play in 2022

Malik Willis was one of the most exciting quarterbacks in the 2022 NFL Draft, and losing to the Titans in the third round was widely regarded as one of the greatest steals of the draft.

His preseason debut only got Titans fans excited. While not perfect, Willis rushed for a touchdown, completed a 48-yard pass to Racey McMath, hit a sidearm toss, and finished with 107 passing yards and 38 rushing yards.

It’s easy for Titans fans to daydream about the advantages Willis could bring on offense, especially when the lasting memory of starter Ryan Tannehill coming into the year is that of his three interception performances, which he to Home in the division against the Bengals lost round of the playoffs a season ago.

But Tanehill has been a key reason for Tennessee’s rebound in recent seasons, and there aren’t many quarterbacks who get a chance to start immediately for teams after the second round.

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Should fans expect Willis to start in Week 1 or at any point during the season? The Sporting News takes a look at his chances.

Will Malik Willis start for the Titans?

Before delving specifically into Willis’ case, let’s take a look at the history of the quarterbacks picked after the second round, which began in the first week of the season.

According to Stathead, only seven second-round draft quarterbacks have ever started the first week of the season in the same year that they were drafted. Only four have made it since 1982: Chris Weinke (2001), Kyle Orton (2005), Russell Wilson (2012) and Dak Prescott (2016).

player team Year design selection
Joe Ferguson bills 1973 3rd lap, 57th overall
Randy Hedberg privateer 1977 8th round, 196th overall
Mike Pagel foal 1982 4th lap, 84th overall
Chris Weinke Panthers 2001 4th round, 106th overall
Kyle Orton bears 2005 4th round, 106th overall
Russell Wilson Seahawks 2012 3rd lap, 75th overall
Dak Prescott cowboys 2016 4th round, 135th overall

Two of them – Orton and Prescott – were pushed into the starting role due to preseason injuries.

According to Stathead, only 20 quarterbacks have been taken after the second round since the merger, which started at least seven games in its first season in the NFL.

player team season Games started
Dak Prescott cowboys 2016 16
Russell Wilson Seahawks 2012 16
Kyle Orton bears 2005 fifteen
Chris Weinke Panthers 2001 fifteen
Jeff Komlo lions 1979 14
Joe Ferguson bills 1973 14
Mike Glennon privateer 2013 13
Chris Chandler foal 1988 13
Gardner Minshew II jaguars 2019 12
Davis Mills texan 2021 11
Bruce Gradkowski privateer 2006 11
David Woodley dolphins 1980 11
Scott Jaeger packer 1971 10
Trent Edwards bills 2007 9
Mike Pagel foal 1982 9
Cody Kessler Brown 2016 8th
Colt McCoy Brown 2010 8th
Rodney Peete lions 1989 8th
Steve Grogan patriots 1975 7
tom owen 49ers 1974 7

That certainly doesn’t mean Willis won’t be starting his rookie season. There is precedent for rookies in the third round or lower to see a meaningful start time. It’s just unusual.

MORE: Highlights from Willis’ preseason debut against Ravens

Now let’s delve a little more into Willis’s case for and against.

The argument for this is simple: The upside potential is higher for Willis. The Titans know what they’re going to get at Tannehill. He put together the best season of his career in 2020, throwing for 3,819 yards with 33 touchdowns and seven picks. But the 2021 campaign looked more like his Dolphins’ tenure as he had 3,734 yards with 21 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. PFF rated him the 19th best start in the low pass but best in the short pass.

Willis is a little less known. In his final season with Liberty, he completed 61.1 percent of his passes for 2,857 yards, 27 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He also led the team 197 times for 878 yards and 13 other points.

He had one of the best deep balls in college football when PFF gave him a 96.4 rating, third best among qualified quarterbacks. With his deep ball ability and speed, he offers a certain explosiveness that a team hoping to keep up with an ever-improving AFC should need.

MORE: Grade NFL rookie preseason debuts

The counter-argument is also simple: with Willis, the risk is higher. Of that list of quarterbacks who started at least seven games in their rookie season, only Prescott, Wilson, Orton, Chandler, and Ferguson led their teams to record wins. While QB wins depend on the quarterback’s team, rookies generally don’t find immediate success. Since the merger, Stathead lists just 12 rookie quarterbacks — regardless of which round were drafted — who led their team to at least nine wins that first season.

There’s often a learning curve for rookie quarterbacks, and the Titans are in win-now mode. While Willis may offer more upside potential over the long term, the Titans would rather not go through a growth streak if Tannehill offers a higher floor.

Oddsmakers clearly don’t see his chances of making a big impact on the field this season as high. FanDuel Sportsbook gives Willis odds of +4000 to win NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, finishing 20th. Steelers rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett has the best odds at +900, and Falcons rookie QB Desmond Ridder is 16th at +2500.

And at least at the start of the season, the conversation about the starter is not up for debate. While Willis competes for the backup quarterback position in preseason games, Tannehill will be absent from preseason competitions as he prepares for the start of the season.

If the Titans are in a close fight for the AFC South crown with the Colts and Tannehill doesn’t make it, Tennessee could turn to Willis. But it would probably take a big downturn for Tannehill to be deposed by Willis this season.

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