Editor's Note: The "Eight at No. 8" series is an installment of eight separate stories evaluating eight different prospects the Falcons could take with the No. 8 overall pick in this year's NFL Draft. With holes to fill, there are a number of directions Atlanta could go with its first-round pick. Over the course of the next few weeks, we'll take a look at eight players who could fit in the 2022 Falcons roster and beyond.
Alabama football coach Bear Bryant has been credited with creating the famous proverb: defense wins championships. It is a clichè still used today, and while it may have been true for a some time, with the way offenses have evolved in football, the old adage isn't as true as it once was. Speedy receivers, dynamic tight ends, and quarterbacks with rocket arms who can run and juke like receivers and running backs make playing defense and limiting scoring as challenging as it's ever been.
So NFL franchises are going all-in on securing superstar quarterbacks, and after trading Matt Ryan, the Falcons are looking to find their next signal-caller of the future. And in this draft, one quarterback has been linked to the Falcons more than others: Malik Willis.
Not only did Willis have an impressive senior season passing for 2857 yards and 27 touchdowns and rushing for 878 yards and 13 touchdowns, but he is an Atlanta native who went to Roswell High School and grew up tailgating Falcons games.
It almost sounds like a perfect match, but it isn't that simple.
Here's the case for Willis at No. 8.
Why the Falcons should take Willis
From Arthur Blank to Terry Fontenot to Arthur Smith, the Falcons have all but said that Marcus Mariota is the bridge to the team's next long-term answer at quarterback. With Blank even saying the Falcons are still looking to “add another version of Matt Ryan.”
The league is dominated by superstar quarterbacks, with teams giving up significant draft capital and unprecedented guaranteed money for quarterbacks they believe can turn their franchise around. Joe Burrow just helped lead the Bengals to their first playoff win in 31 years and a super bowl appearance in just his second season.
The Falcons should take Willis because he has the talent to become a guy who could turn a franchise around like superstar quarterbacks are doing across the league. And he has the charisma to capture the hearts of a fan base that loves players with big personalities.
Quincy Avery, the quarterback coach who trains Deshaun Watson, Trey Lance, Justin Fields, and many other NFL quarterbacks, called Willis' arm the strongest he’d ever seen. Combine that big arm with Willis' running ability, and he has the physical traits to become a superstar.
Counter punch: Why the Falcons should pass on Willis
While Willis possesses the physical traits that one could hope for in a quarterback, there are concerns about his consistency and accuracy.
After a dominant first five games for Liberty University in 2021, throwing for 1,105 yards and 11 touchdowns, no interceptions, and rushing for 418 yards and six touchdowns, Willis struggled. Over the next eight games, he threw for 12 interceptions, including three three-interception games. Many interceptions came from forced throws, and Willis's big arm sometimes caused him to overthrow receivers, resulting in him completing just 57 percent of his passes over that stretch.
Because of those concerns, he is considered a project who will need a year or so in the NFL before adjusting. Also, Liberty had the 106th most challenging schedule in the country in 2021, with their only power five opponent being Ole Miss, where Willis threw three interceptions.
Justin Herbert and Josh Allen (Allen, who played at Wyoming, faced only three power five opponents in college) were also seen as projects, and they have become superstars, but it does not always pan out that way. Drafting on potential is not only a risk but also means passing on players who could help turn the franchise around in their rookie season.
What are the odds he'd be available?
The hunt for superstar quarterbacks is arguably unlike it has been at any point in NFL history. The player that Willis is today is likely not worthy of a top-seven selection, but it would not be surprising if he is gone before the Falcons pick at eight because of his massive potential. Willis has met with the Falcons, but he has also had visits with the Panthers, Lions, and the Giants, who could all snag Willis before Atlanta has the chance.