In the final days before the 2022 NFL Draft, Liberty quarterback Malik Willis was the consensus QB1 in internet mock drafts. Some, like CBS’ Ryan Wilson, had him going as high as the top 10. He wasn’t the easiest prospect to pin down – Derrick Klassen called him “the first overall pick and a Day 3 prospect wrapped into one”, as Willis clearly needed some developmental time to harness his undeniable physical talent into a complete package, but his upside was higher than anyone else in the (admittedly subpar) class.
One year and a slide down to the third round later, and not only has Willis not yet put it all together, but there’s rumors that his time with the Tennessee Titans may be over before it’s really begun. Tennessee drafted Will Levis in the second round and Ryan Tannehill remains on top of the depth chart for now. The Titans never carried three quarterbacks on their Week 1 roster in the Jon Robinson era (going back to 2016), and so beat writers like Fox’s Ben Arthur see Willis as the odd man out. Afterall, why draft a developmental quarterback in the second round if you still had hopes for last year’s third-round developmental passer?
There’s no denying that Willis’ first season was terrible. In his three starts, Willis looked overmatched and underprepared for NFL-quality defenses. Tennessee did as much as possible to hide Willis behind the running game early on, and when Willis was forced to make plays with his arm, bad things happened. He was mechanically shoddy, throwing off platform and from terrible arm angles. He was inaccurate; he would have ranked second-last ahead of only Zach Wilson in on-target percent had he qualified for the leaderboards. He dinked-and-dunked, with 77% of his attempts travelling less than 10 yards through the air. His basic stats were terrible – 31-for-61 for 276 yards, no touchdowns and three interceptions. His advanced stats were worse. A -67.6% passing DVOA, worst in the league among players with more than 50 dropbacks. A 39.8 passing grade from Pro Football Focus. And, of course, the Titans’ braintrust saw Willis every day in practice, so if they want to move on already that says something.
On the other hand, the Titans drafted Willis last season knowing he would take time to develop. Then-GM Robinson acknowledged that Willis “had a lot of work to do”, and was a “good football player who has a lot of good things to work with and develop.” Mike Vrabel talked about being excited to “develop young players and see what happens”. Abandoning the Willis experiment after one season to make room for a different developmental second-round pick – one with a higher floor, perhaps, but with serious questions about his ceiling – would be a massive indictment of both Willis and the scouting process that lead the Titans to drafting him in the first place. It may be a little easier to make that indictment considering Robinson is the ex-GM; Ran Carthon has no personal capital invested in Willis becoming a success. But teams shouldn’t be getting in the habit of cutting loose day-two draft picks after just one season, especially one with the upside of being a franchise-altering player if he reached his maximum potential.
As Cale Clinton noted, NFL standards are evolving, and teams are replacing passers far faster now than they used to. And certainly, there’s very little there in Willis’ rookie season to squeeze out even the tiniest bit of optimism. If you’re wearing your navy-colored glasses, you could point to some slightly faster processing and going through reads and a little more confidence in the pocket. But for the most part, any case for keeping Willis around has to be based on considering the rookie season a mulligan year and just sort of ignoring it.
Is that a thing, however? Is there a history of rookie quarterbacks looking as bad at throwing the football as Willis did and going on to a successful NFL career? Well, I’m glad you asked.
Willis was the 27th rookie quarterback since 1981 to have at least 50 pass attempts in his rookie season with a passing DVOA below -50%. That’s the class of passer Willis finds himself grouped with, and where we have to look to find any hope for Willis rebounding. It is, indeed, a motley crew.
How did the other 26 perform from there? Let’s dive in.
Five of the 26 never appeared in another NFL game after their terrible rookie seasons, though all at least continued their careers for a few years.
Randy Fasani bounced around on practice squads for a couple seasons before dropping out. Craig Krenzel was a third-string quarterback for Cincinnati before suffering an elbow injury that would require Tommy John surgery. Keith Null briefly saw active roster work in December of 2010 when Carolina had enough injuries to get desperate. Max Hall was cut by the Cardinals, stayed out of football for a year, and then went to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the CFL…where he went 1-8 as a starter and was cut again.
The fifth member of the group has a small asterisk – Will Grier is still active! After two terrible starts for Carolina in 2019, Grier remained on the Panthers roster for a season, and has spent the last two years as a Dallas Cowboy, occasionally making it to the gameday roster. He could, theoretically, see action again at some point, though he’s quite a ways behind Cooper Rush on the depth chart at this point.
Eight of the 26 never got another significant chance to start, though they did pick up a spot start or two along the way. That’s Ryan Finley, Josh Rosen, Nathan Peterman, Ryan Lindley, John Beck, Spergon Wynn, Jim Druckenmiller and Brad Goebel. After their rookie seasons, they combined for a 1-13 record as a starter, with Finley’s emergency start for the Bengals in 2020 resulting in a shocking upset of the Steelers.
Two of the eight names on that list never started a game after their rookie season, and they come from very different ends of the prospect pool. Druckenmiller was a first-round pick for the 49ers in 1997 and the heir apparent to Steve Young. He performed so well as a rookie that general manager Bill Walsh said that he would have been released if it were not for the salary cap ramifications. The other is Goebel, an undrafted free agent who was thrust into action in 1991 for the Eagles after Randall Cunningham, Jim McMahon and Jeff Kemp all suffered injuries. Goebel was terrible, but apparently good enough to hang around for a few more seasons in Cleveland and then Jacksonville as a “we are an expansion team and need warm bodies” player.
Josh Rosen is in a category all by himself. Extreme values of DVOA are exacerbated by small sample size; it’s hard to be as bad as -50% if you’ve thrown more than a few passes. Rosen had 439 drop backs in his rookie season, 170 more than any other name on the list. It was still a surprise that the Cardinals used their first-round pick the very next year to replace him with Kyler Murray, but considering that Rosen has bounced around and failed to stick with Miami, Tampa Bay, San Francisco, Atlanta, Cleveland and Minnesota since then, I suppose the decision was justified.
Of the other names, the one closest to Willis’ situation, if not playstyle, may be John Beck. Like Willis, Beck was a mid-round draft pick for a team with an aging established starter, in this case Trent Green. Like Willis, many observers at the time thought Beck might be the best passer in the class – Mike Shanahan, for instance, had him over the likes of JaMarcus Russell and Brady Quinn, which I swear sounded more impressive in 2007 than it does today. Like Willis, Beck was supposed to be a backup in his first season, but an injury to the starting quarterback shunted him up the depth chart. Like Willis, Beck struggled mightly in his few starts for a team that ended up going nowhere on the year. Like Willis, Beck saw the general manger that drafted him (Randy Mueller) fired. And like Willis, Beck saw the team take a second-round quarterback the next season (Chad Henne) who supplanted his role as developmental prospect du jour.
Where the two diverge is in their future prospects. Beck never had the enticing physical tools that Willis has; he was touted as a ready-for-action player after being drafted at age 26 The fact that Beck wasn’t ready for primetime was surprising; because he spent two years on mission before starting his college career at BYU, there wasn’t really much room for physical maturation once he entered the league. When he flopped, that was it. Willis was a toolsy prospect who needed time to develop; it’s less about immediate impact and more about future results in his case.
Three of the 26 did, in fact, get another chance to start – which just confirmed that, yes, they were as bad as advertised.
Ryan Leaf is the biggest bust of at least the past 25 years, but he was the second overall pick and someone who cost the Chargers an arm and a leg to trade up to go get. He missed his second season due to injury, but got nine more games as a starter for San Diego at the end of his third season…where he improved to a -35.5% DVOA. Thank you, next.
John Skelton hung around Arizona for a couple years after his rookie season, getting to start seven games as a sophomore after Kevin Kolb went down and flipping in and out of the lineup over the next two years, putting up DVOAs of -27.5% and -35.0% before finally being released. Danny Kanell is the third player and the most successful of the trio, getting to end his second season and begin his third season as the Giants’ starter after a brief cameo as a rookie. Kannell put up DVOAs of -11.5% and -30.1% in his two seasons with the Giants, which ended his time as someone you’d want to start. It was good enough to get him work as a backup in Atlanta for a couple more seasons, and then a stint in the Arena Football League went well enough for him to get a job in Denver for a couple more. Never someone you’d want to count on, Kannell at least became a below-average backup quarterback, and you need a few of those in the league.
Four of the 26 ended up transitioning from disappointing prospects to long careers as a backup, a path Willis would likely be more than happy to take right now.
The closest match to Willis would be Tarvaris Jackson, who the Vikings shockingly took in the second round in 2006. Jackson was described as a “developmental guy” and a raw talent Brad Childress and company could mold. Unlike Willis, though, Jackson didn’t have any competition in his second year, getting handed the starting job to begin the year. And he wasn’t half-bad – a -8.9% DVOA is nothing to write home about but isn’t terrible, and he also led the league in rushing DYAR that season. The trouble is, that ended up being his peak – he never took that next step forward in his development, continuing to miss receivers and throw poorly timed interceptions. Even that first step, however, was enough for Jackson to stick around as a backup in a nine-year career. Willis may not get the same chance Jackson had because Tennessee went out and drafted Levis. Jackson was also slightly better than Willis in his rookie starts, though not by a huge margin. Willis may need to go to another team to get Jackson’s chance.
The other three players in this group were Luke McCown, Tony Eason and Chris Miller. You could argue Eason and Miller deserve their own category – Eason started for the 1985 Patriots on their way to the Super Bowl and Miller made a Pro Bowl in 1991. McCown is closer to Jackson, getting years and years of value out of being an experienced (and cheap!) backup. But each of the four played for eight or nine more years after their poor rookie seasons, with none of them really having what I’d call particularly successful stints as a starter.
That leaves us with six players who I would say fully overcame their rookie season struggles, to one extent or another.
In one group, you have Matt Schaub and Trent Dilfer, both players who peaked at Pro Bowl levels, surrounded by years of mediocre-to-bad play. Schaub was the better player, but Dilfer’s got the Super Bowl ring, so I suppose we’ll call that even.
In a second group, we have Jared Goff and Alex Smith, both Pro Bowl players who helped lead an NFC West team to a Super Bowl, only to be supplanted by someone else when their teams tried to finally get over the hump. Didn’t work for San Francisco, as Smith went on to a better career than Colin Kaepernick. Worked for Los Angeles, with Matthew Stafford bringing the Rams the Super Bowl Goff couldn’t win, but then, Goff has gone on to produce better numbers in Detroit than he had in even his best seasons with the Rams, so there are pages left to be written there.
And then we have the two unmitigated success stories, in a pair of mobile, athletic Eagles quarterbacks who were bruised and battered as rookie before going on to very successful careers – Randall Cunningham and Donovan McNabb. Cunningham is the slightly better comparison to Willis, but then, no one really compares to what Cunningham’s rookie season was like. Buddy Ryan made a habit out of subbing Cunningham in to third-and-hopeless situations, which meant that nearly all of Cunningham’s first snaps were against ‘80s defenses able to pin their ears bag and rush him. Also, unlike Willis, Cunningham was a brilliant scrambler right from the off, while Willis has struggled there, too – we’re talking a 76.5% rush DVOA for Cunningham and a -27.3% DVOA for Willis. I’d be shocked if Willis was able to perform a Cunningham-like resurrection of his career, but, well, I suppose it was shocking that Cunningham was able to survive being ground into the turf at Veterans Field long enough to become a solid passer. Outliers are, by their very nature, unusual!
I still believe giving up on Willis after one season would be a mistake – or, at the very least, an opportunity for another team to buy low on someone with elite rushing talent and a rocket-launcher arm looking to somehow put it all together. I can understand why Tennessee would swing again considering it’s a different front office than it was a year ago, but that’s just an argument to include three quarterbacks on the roster. It would be poor asset management to cut bait on Willis after just one season, regardless of how poor that season went.
On the other hand, half of the players who had similarly poor starts to Willis went on to be total nonfactors in the NFL, and about 60% ended up not working out at all, even when given second or third chances. There are still precedents for Willis to dust himself off and have a solid, perhaps even spectacular career – but when the first step forward was so, so bad, it does significantly dampen anyone’s chances.