There was a lot of attention on Kenny Pickett during his first preseason performance for the Pittsburgh Steelers. They selected him with the 20th overall pick, meaning they hope that he will be the successor to Ben Roethlisberger. That succession plan may have to start soon considering Mitchell Trubisky is currently the Steelers’ QB1.
Pickett played well, and led the Steelers down the field for a game-winning drive, but that means Pickett was on the field at the end of the game, playing against a fourth-quarter preseason week 1 defense. The quarterback that many thought that the Steelers would take in the first round, Malik Willis, started for the Tennessee Titans against the Baltimore Ravens last Thursday.
As long as Tannehill is healthy, he will be the starter when the regular season begins. He replaced Marcus Mariotta in 2019, and since that change was made, the Titans have played their best football since the late Steve McNair was behind center. Last season, the Titans were the No. 1 overall seed in the AFC for the first time since the Kerry Collins 2008 season and lost to the Cincinnati Bengals in the Divisional Round. In a game that was tied 16-all late in the fourth quarter, Tannehill threw his third interception of the game, and the Titans lost by a field goal.
Tannehill was spectacular in his 10 starts in 2019, but his performance has regressed since. Last season he threw 14 interceptions and had fewer total passing yards than Roethlisberger. He’s now 33 years old, and if the Titans ever want to make that last yard of improvement to win a Super Bowl, it’s going to have to be with someone else behind center.
Willis got his first chance to be that guy during preseason Week 1 with the veteran Tannehill not playing, and he proved that his athleticism is special. He stepped up in the pocket and threw a beautiful 48-yard pass to second-year wide receiver Racey McMath. In the first quarter, Willis showed off those feet that ran for 878 yards at Liberty, scampering into the end zone for a seven-yard score.
Yet, with all of that first-half success, Vrabel still pulled Willis out of the game in the second half earlier than he had planned to.
“I wanted Malik to throw the ball and he wasn’t,” Vrabel told the media after the game. “So I put Logan [Woodside] in.”
Vrabel also mentioned that. when pass catchers were open, Willis needed to be more decisive and get them the football. Willis failed to throw the ball to Titans’ first-round pick Treylon Burks on a play that could have been a 50-plus yard touchdown. Willis was holding on to the ball for an average of 3.98 seconds per play. According to Next Gen Stats, last season Jalen Hurts took the longest time to throw at 3.12 seconds.
For all that talent that Willis has, he still has much to learn about playing quarterback in the NFL. He won’t be carrying the ball 197 times as he did at Liberty in 2021. Not even Lamar Jackson totes ball that much for the Ravens. Willis also has to get used to calling plays from the huddle. Per ESPN’s Turron Davenport, Liberty signaled in plays from the sideline.
It has been an up and down training camp for Willis as the Titans get him used to working from the pocket as much as possible. He also exclusively operated out of the shotgun in college — that’s not going to work for a team with Derrick Henry in the backfield.
For all the work that Willis still needs to put in to competently run an NFL offense, it’s pretty clear that he is not only the most talented quarterback in his rookie class, but also on his own team. When he lets the football go with confidence, it’s a pretty sight.
A rookie quarterback having to adjust to the speed at which decisions need to be made in the NFL is nothing new. During Tom Brady’s rookie season with the Patriots, one of his quarterback coach’s notes on him was that “everything he does, he needs to do quicker.” The assistant was talking about both his movements and his decision-making.
Willis doesn’t have to turn into Brady for the Titans to get that last yard. He just needs to process information fast enough so that those 50-yard rainbows become more commonplace, and mix in those scrambles at the right time. He and Derrick Henry sharing a backfield could be special if Willis can earn that QB1 job quickly.