With the Atlanta Falcons officially moving on from longtime franchise quarterback Matt Ryan, the team has joined the hunt for a new starter—along with approximately half the league. Veteran addition Marcus Mariota is a solid option, and is at least mildly intriguing as a stopgap with a slight chance to turn into something more, but he’s more than likely a 1-2 year rental at best.
All eyes now turn to the best place to find a new franchise QB: the upcoming draft class. If you ask me, the Falcons were considering quarterback as a primary need heading into the 2022 NFL Draft long before the Ryan trade was official. The botched attempt to trade for Deshaun Watson all but confirms the team’s desire to find the future at the most important position in the sport. Now, Atlanta finds itself in the unenviable position of being without a franchise QB—and that’s a very dangerous spot to be in.
We received a possible clue into who the team might be targeting on Tuesday, as NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah reported that the Falcons were one of several teams with significant interest in Liberty QB Malik Willis—along with the Panthers and Seahawks. This interest seems to be further confirmed by the presence of general manager Terry Fontenot and VP of Player Personnel Kyle Smith at Liberty’s Pro Day on Tuesday.
Terry Fontenot and Kyle Smith at Liberty's pro day watching Malik Willis; Arthur Smith at UNC today. For more, check out our Pro Day Tracker: https://t.co/RQ7NNUfRAG— Scott Bair (@ScottBairNFL) March 22, 2022
Depending on who you ask, this is either an OK quarterback class or a bad one. That’s obviously quite different from 2021, where three QBs went ahead of the Falcons at #4 overall and another two went in the first round. In this class, we might not see any taken off the board before Atlanta’s 8th overall pick—and perhaps only one or two in the first round.
Part of the reason is that this class seems to lack a “slam-dunk” top prospect. Each of the players has question marks which complicate their fit and projection to the NFL. Pitt’s Kenny Pickett is the most pro-ready of the bunch and had a terrific final season, but doesn’t have a high ceiling and there are concerns about his hand size for outdoor teams. Willis, on the other hand, has the sky-high ceiling, but didn’t demonstrate it on a consistent basis in college.
If you’ve followed me at all this offseason, you know I’ve been a fan of Malik Willis to the Falcons at 8 since even before the Senior Bowl. He had a terrific week in Mobile that really ignited his stock and sent him firmly to the top of the QB rankings for many analysts. Willis impressed coaches with his ability to quickly pick up a new offense, reportedly crushed the interviews, and put on a show on the field with his natural ability as a passer and athlete.
Here’s how I described Willis’ skillset in my Senior Bowl preview:
At 6’1, 215, Willis has a good build for the position and has one of the biggest arms in this class. He can absolutely rip it to any area of the field, which is even more impressive considering how undeveloped his mechanics are. Despite his incredible tools and ability as a runner, Willis was a very inconsistent quarterback in terms of his accuracy and decision-making. I also think he’s a year away from being able to start an NFL game. Still, this is the prospect with the best chance of becoming the next special NFL quarterback.
There are two big questions to answer about the Falcons drafting Malik Willis. The first is: will he even make it to 8, after reportedly wowing teams at his Pro Day, including the Lions at 2nd overall? I’d say the chances of him falling are still solid, but far from a guarantee.
That naturally leads to the second, which is: how highly do the Falcons grade Willis, and how high are they willing to go to get him? We won’t ever know the first one—at least, not until after the first round of the draft. But reason would lead us to believe that if they truly did view Willis as a future franchise QB, they’d be willing to be aggressive in obtaining him. In that case, a trade-up could be on the table, particularly to get ahead of the division rival Panthers at pick 6. I don’t think there’s any way they could get ahead of the Lions at 2, if Detroit seriously wants Willis.
It’s also possible the Falcons love Willis’ upside and would be willing to take him at 8, but they don’t view him as a slam-dunk franchise prospect—and thus aren’t willing to spend additional draft capital in a trade-up. I think this might be the most likely scenario: sit and wait patiently at 8, and if he’s there you pounce. If not, you take BPA or trade down, then evaluate the other options.
We’ve obviously got a long way to go until the draft officially happens, and a lot can change between now and then. It also seems like the Falcons are doing their due diligence on most—if not all—of the top QB prospects in this class. Smith and Fontenot were at Pitt’s Pro Day earlier this week (Kenny Pickett), Smith was at UNC’s Pro Day yesterday (Sam Howell), and they’re reportedly going to Ole Miss (Matt Corral) and Cincinnati (Desmond Ridder) over the rest of the week. We’ll see who, if anyone, winds up in Atlanta when the dust clears.
I’ll leave you with this interview between Steve Wyche and Willis, so you can get a feel for Willis as a person.