The Steelers have enjoyed a nearly 2-decade long run with QB Ben Roethlisberger, and despite the ups and downs that have come with it, they have been one of the most successful franchises during his tenure. Two Superbowl wins, 13 playoff wins and 0 losing seasons since he came in for an injured Tommy Maddox in his rookie 2004 season, Ben is one of the most successful QBs in league history. All this has made Ben one of Pittsburgh’s all-time greatest athletes, but nothing lasts forever. Whether it will be after this year or sometime shortly after, Ben’s time as the Steelers QB is nearly over. A question fans have not had to ask for what seems like forever is looming: who will be the Steelers next starting QB? That is what I will be attempting to answer (or at least speculate about) over the next 2 weeks.
I will be breaking down five 2022 QB prospects who I believe could be potential answers to the Steelers post-Ben questions. I will be discussing each player using three categories: The Arm, The Athlete and The Man. The Arm will focus on every aspect of their ability as a passer including arm strength, accuracy, release, and all mental aspects of playing the position as well. The Athlete will focus on all aspects of their athleticism including speed, quickness, pocket movement and other physical attributes. Lastly is The Man, where I will discuss any insight I can find on who they are as leaders, members of their community and overall who they are as people. Now that you know what to expect, let’s not waste any more time. First up, Malik Willis out of Liberty.
Malik Willis, QB Liberty: 2020 stats: 2,260 passing yards, 944 rushing yards and 34 total TDs
Simply put, Willis has a cannon. Whether it’s a 50-yard bomb, an 8-yard curl or a 10-yard out, he can get it there in a hurry. The problem is that he doesn’t have a good feel for when to take a little off his fastball, and while he has touch he doesn’t always use it at the right moments. He is similar in his weaknesses as a passer to Josh Allen coming out of college, although Willis isn’t as inaccurate overall. He completed 64.2% of his passes last season, which is respectable but a bit underwhelming considering his competition level. Some of that is due to the aggressive downfield approach of Liberty’s offense, but Willis has his own issues that need fixing. His footwork is very unrefined and inconsistent, causing some bad misses at times when he crosses himself up. He brings his legs far too close together at the top his drop occasionally, and he generally doesn’t seem 100% comfortable with longer drop backs. When everything clicks however, he shows great downfield accuracy as well as the ability to put the ball in the right place on routine throws. His ability to make plays out of the pocket help make up for some of his deficiencies as a pocket passer, and he does a good job keeping his eyes downfield once he escapes the pocket. Overall, he has all the tools needed to be an elite passer but needs refinement in key areas.
Willis is a phenomenal athlete by almost every metric. His straight line is elite for the QB position (my guess is a mid to low 4.5 in terms of expected 40 time) and more importantly is his quickness and burst when he decides to become a runner. He is lethal in the read option game, breaking of multiple long runs on his way to nearly 1,000 rush yards. He is dangerous as a scrambler as well, showing the ability to make several players miss in the pocket and the open field. Where he gets in trouble occasionally is his pocket presence. He has trouble navigating the pocket and will often bail from it when he didn’t need to. This is something plenty of QBs with his level of athleticism have struggled with, so it isn’t a huge red flag. He also passed up several easy checkdowns in favor of taking off, which is to be expected from a playmaker like Willis. If he can reign in some of his bad tendencies, he could be one of the hardest QBs to game plan for at the next level.
Those of you who are familiar with Malik know that his college career hasn’t been a cakewalk. After joining Auburn as a 3-star recruit, he struggled to find playing time in his two seasons. He made the decision to transfer to Liberty in 2019 and had to redshirt, so 2020 was his first season as a starting QB since his high school days. Add a sprinkle of global pandemic, and his explosive first season becomes even more impressive. His coaches and teammates at both Auburn and Liberty have praised him for his work ethic and leadership, which for me makes it easy to root for him. He seems to be an overall humble and well-liked person, which will serve him well at the next level. Leadership at the QB position can come in many forms, but the ability to lead is an important quality if you want to command respect amongst your peers. Willis seems to have that part of playing the position taken care of.
Willis will be one of the must-watch players for me this season to see if he can improve on his weaknesses. If he can improve his footwork and learn how to better use all of his tremendous physical tools, he could be one of the first QBs off the board. Even with minimal improvement, he would be worth a late 1st or early 2nd round pick based on upside and playmaking ability alone.
Now for the most important question: could he be the next franchise QB for the Steelers? It really depends on how much he improves during his senior campaign and where the Steelers find themselves picking in the draft. Because I have relatively high expectations for Pittsburgh in 2021, lets just assume they are picking in the low 20s or later. Unless Willis doesn’t improve much at all and just repeats his success from 2020, Pittsburgh would likely need to move up at least 10 spots to get him. Recently GM Kevin Colbert has been more willing to move around in the draft, most notably moving up for Devin Bush in 2019. The need at QB combined with a weakening offensive line could push them in the direction of a more athletic, playmaking style QB like Willis. Remember that Mike Tomlin seemed to really like another dual-threat passer in the 2021 class. I think when you factor in all of this, Willis should be on their radar going into this season.
Whether or not he will be in range for them come draft time will have to wait to be seen, but if he is I think the interest will certainly be there. It would be a huge change from the type of QB play we have had for so long, but I think it would be the right thing to do. The NFL is becoming more and more friendly for dual-threat QBs who are more playmakers than pocket passers, so making the move to a player like Willis makes a lot of sense.
Verdict: Very Possible