The NFL draft is quickly approaching. To add to the intrigue, none of the top teams are clearly linked to any top players. Few prospects seem guaranteed to be outside of Atlanta’s reach at the 8th overall pick, with every player from Travon Walker to Evan Neal realistically falling in one scenario or another.
Another wildcard is the quarterbacks. There is a chance passers go as early as 2. There is a chance Atlanta has its pick of any and all quarterbacks in this draft class. Football Morning in America’s Peter King, one of the most consistently plugged-in reporters in the NFL, has Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett as the first quarterback off the board, heading to the Carolina Panthers at 6th overall.
The next quarterback is Malik Willis to the Atlanta Falcons at 8th overall.
Lots to be concerned about here, because Willis needs a redshirt year under a smart QB coach like Arthur Smith, and he needs to be schooled in working his progressions most importantly. But Smith is a patient teacher, and he won’t need to play this year with Marcus Mariota in the saddle for at least 2022. There’s something about Willis’ fit. He’s a local kid from Roswell High (23 minutes from downtown Atlanta), teammates love him, very positive, and he has a big arm.
King, who obviously has never dealt with Atlanta traffic, really likes the fit. Willis, for his part, is an exceedingly interesting prospect for any team.
Willis fits in the same bucket as Trey Lance, last year’s third overall pick who the Falcons were rumored to have targeted at 4th overall. Willis, like Lance, is a supremely gifted athlete who made some eye-popping plays against subpar talent, and is expected to need to sit for one (or two) years before he’s ready to be a high-end starting quarterback. You have to project his success in mastering the finer points of playing quarterback at the highest level, but his ceiling will cause a team to take that risk.
For the Falcons, the analysis on Willis differs from other teams. Atlanta’s roster is arguably the poorest in the league. It also lacks the cap space to provide anything more than sub-par stop-gaps. A team like the Pittsburgh Steelers or the New Orleans Saints, both likely open to adding a quarterback, have enough talent that those teams can win while developing Willis. The Falcons aren’t winning much in 2022 and should end up with a top pick next year. So the Falcons aren’t comparing Willis strictly to the other quarterbacks in the 2022 draft, but to potential quarterbacks in 2023. Top quarterbacks like CJ Stroud and Bryce Young will likely be within reach for the Falcons.
Atlanta certainly has at least some level of interest in Willis. Terry Fontenot and Arthur Smith are scheduled to meet with Willis, per Adam Schefter. The Falcons will certainly be doing due diligence on a wide number of quarterback prospects this year. Whether the Falcons actually pull the trigger on a rookie quarterback likely won’t be known until draft night.