MOBILE, Ala. — Former Liberty quarterback Malik Wills loved the Falcons growing up.
An Atlanta native, he remembers many Sundays driving to the Georgia Dome – where the Falcons played for 24 seasons – and making memories at the pregame tailgates with his uncles and grandfather.
He has since left his Falcons fandom in the past, but Matt Ryan, who he watched then as a fan following those memorable tailgates, is still one of his favorite quarterbacks to follow. Ryan, Russell Wilson, and Aaron Rodgers are the NFL quarterbacks he studies the most.
Willis studies Wilson's deep ball accuracy and touch, Rogers' ability to extend plays without scrambling downfield and still getting the football in the hands of playmakers, and Ryan's anticipation.
Willis was always impressed by Ryan's timing on film, but when training with former Falcons receiver Mohamed Sanu in Atlanta, Sanu confirmed what Willis saw.
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Sanu explained that Ryan's understanding of defensive coverages helped him throw receivers open. Ryan understands where defensive backs and linebackers would be and where they would not – giving him the confidence to make throws in extremely tight windows.
Because of that, Willis no longer watches football games like he did when he was younger.
He is watching to study defenses – their tendencies and adjustments, so he can have the timing that Ryan and most talented NFL quarterbacks have. Willis feels that watching offensive schemes is useless because he is unsure which scheme he will end up in, but by studying defenses, he can be ahead of the curve.
"[Looking at defensive] fronts and just responsibilities, just how certain teams play, oh this team is a pass it on and go team, this is a carry team, blitz, and focusing on how different teams in the league play their coverages," Willis said on Wednesday. "At the end of the day, this could be a cover 3 team, and this team could be a cover 3 team, and they could play it totally different."
A 6-foot 215-pound dual-threat, Willis is among the top quarterbacks in this year's NFL draft. He and five of the top six prospects on most NFL mock drafts (Kenny Pickett, Carson Strong, Desmond Ridder, and Sam Howell are the other four highly rated quarterbacks. Bailey Zappe is also playing) are all playing at the Senior Bowl, which holds open practice attended by scouts, coaches, and general managers from all 32 teams across the league from Feb 1-3 before the game on Feb. 5.
Willis's draft projection has been as high as the first quarterback taken off the board to as late as the third round.
ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper has called Willis "the most talented quarterback in the draft," comparing him to players he has scouted like Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen and Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert. Both were not the first quarterbacks taken off the board in their respective drafts but have quickly become among the best quarterbacks in the NFL.
Some, like Kiper, believe Willis can do the same.
He shot up draft boards last year after an impressive 2020 campaign in which he completed 64 percent of his passes, threw for 2,260 yards, 20 touchdowns, six interceptions, and rushed for 944 yards and 14 touchdowns through ten games.
Willis picked up where he left off in 2021 through his first five games, throwing for 1,105 yards and 11 touchdowns, no interceptions, and rushing for 418 yards and six touchdowns.
But the rest of the season, his play fluctuated. Willis threw for 12 interceptions over his final eight games, including three three-interception games.
Willis's play in 2021 is a big reason why he is not the sure-fire No.1 quarterback in this class, and his draft projection has varied. He has room to evolve in his anticipation, as he admits, along with throwing on the run and making throws outside the numbers.
The Falcons have their entire scouting brass in Mobile this week, including coaches Arthur Smith, Dave Ragone, and General Manager Terry Fontenot to evaluate Willis and the many other prospects at the Senior Bowl.
The Falcons have Ryan under contract for two more years, and all signs point to him being the quarterback in 2022. Still, the Falcons could choose Ryan's successor in this year's draft.
Willis said on Wednesday that he met with the Falcons earlier in the week, as Terry Fontenot said the Falcons had with all prospects at the Senior Bowl.
Fontenot and Smith have been consistent in that they will not reach for a need, and currently, a quarterback is not one for them, but if there is a quarterback they fall in love with at the Senior Bowl, they could make a move to select one based on further evaluation. That selection could be Willis or one of the other quarterbacks at the Senior Bowl.
Here's what some of the other top quarterbacks had to say:
Kenny Pickett (Pittsburgh, 6'3", 220 pounds):
Pickett's draft stock skyrocketed in 2021 after his Heisman-finalist campaign, where he threw for 4,319 yards, 42 touchdowns, and seven interceptions. He says he gets recognized on the street because of his fake-slide against Wake Forest in the ACC Championship, which forced the NCAA to make a rule change in the days following the game.
Pickett is the first or second quarterback off the board in most mock drafts. He has started most drills for the National team, which feature him, Carson Strong, and Desmond Ridder, and moved through them with relative ease. The biggest question surrounding Pickett is whether or not he is a one-year wonder and his hand-size. Pickett declined to have his hand measured because he is double-jointed and his thumb points inward; he is doing exercises to have an accurate measurement at the combine.
Pickett is looking to put the concern about his final season to rest with consistency at the Senior Bowl.
"Everyone wants to say that the last season was kind of a flash in the pan deal," Pickett said on Wednesday," but I think if you play at a high level for 13 games – I don't think that's by luck. So I just wanna come down here and show how consistent I am to play at a high level."
Desmond Ridder (Cincinnati 6'4", 216 pounds):
Ridder's first Senior Bowl practice was shaky on Tuesday. He fumbled two snaps while splitting reps with Pickett and Strong and was inaccurate throughout the day. Ridder did have an impressive throw to tight end, Trey McBride, where he went through his progressions and fit the ball in a tight window that caused a reaction from those in the stands.
Like Willis, Ridder has been projected in multiple rounds because of questions about his accuracy. He threw for 3,334 yards, 30 touchdowns and rushed for 355 yards and six touchdowns through 13 games in 2021. But as he showed at moments during practice, Ridder misses or is late on many throws.
As for the players he models his game after; Ridder said former Falcons Julio Jones was his favorite non-quarterback player growing up. And that Ryan made watching the Falcons easy, but he models his game after two AFC South quarterbacks.
"Deshaun Watson, just from his decision making, his athletic ability," Ridder said. "Then just Ryan Tannehill. One, because of his longevity. Two, for his game management, and he's also a great player.
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