Liberty quarterback Malik Willis had his pro day workout on Tuesday, and his impressive performance felt like a very good development for the Detroit Lions, more so than any other team.
If we’re to buy into the notion that Michigan EDGE Aidan Hutchinson is the most likely option with the No. 1 pick to the Jacksonville Jaguars, then the 2022 NFL draft starts in earnest at No. 2 with Detroit.
The Lions might have wanted Hutchinson there, but that ship might have sailed. If that’s the case, Willis actually might be in play at 2.
At the very least, teams knowing that Willis could be in play there will beef up the trade demands that Lions general Brad Holmes can cast out.
That’s a win-win for a franchise that has been cloaked in losing for so long now.
Putting too much stock in pro day performances can be a dangerous game. But we’ve had multiple evaluators who believe the pro day bump to be a real thing in the draft sphere. Whether they should be is a separate debate, but Zach Wilson‘s pro day a year ago holds up as proof positive that it exists.
That day felt like the opening night of a Radiohead tour, with VIPs everywhere in attendance. Even if Willis’ pro day this year didn’t quite have that same vibe, it might not have been far off. And he rewarded those in attendance with a reminder of his nuclear-grade skill set.
There’s only one direction Willis’ draft stock is going, and it’s not down. The price for his services is so high now that it’s certainly possible that we hear only one name called off in Round 1 before his is.
The only question would be whether the Lions will be the ones reading it or not.
Could the Lions really take Malik Willis that high?
There’s a pretty good case to take Willis at 2 if you’re the Lions. Although Jared Goff bought himself another year with his play down the stretch, the Lions no doubt want to find his understudy and eventual replacement.
And no team got a better pre-draft experience with Willis than the Lions, who coached him during a productive Senior Bowl week. Head coach Dan Campbell looked like a man trying to remind himself all week not to be fawning too much over Willis, but it was tough to hide his zeal. (Then again, for a coach who intakes unhealthy daily doses of caffeine, being reserved simply might not be realistic.)
Holmes reeled in a strong maiden draft a year ago, and he’s armed to the hilt with picks in this class. The Lions are attempting to build a team that’s stocked in the trenches, one that can physically dominate opponents.
You might wonder how Willis, the golden-armed rocket launcher, fits in with all of that.
We’d argue quite well. First off, Willis’s running ability and stocky build will upgrade almost any run game once he enters the lineup. And two, what better to complement a power run game than a vertical-shot element to the offense?
The arm checked out again on Tuesday, as did Willis’ excitement:
Both aspects could have Campbell even more jacked now.
With Goff in place as the Week 1 starter, Willis’ development can be brought along at the proper pace. He’s not ready for full-time duty now, but you know how these things go. Bet the under for Willis cracking the lineup — for whatever team he ends up on. Patience is often in short supply for teams that draft quarterbacks in the top 10.
And yes, we believe Willis will go that high. Many around the league do now, too. That wasn’t necessarily the case a month ago. But one year ago, Wilson was an atypical No. 2 overall pick; the same could be said for Trey Lance at 3 as well.
So if the Lions really want Willis and likely know they can’t wait to get him — or don’t think they can trade up from their No. 32 overall pick, via the Rams — why not take him second overall?
Lions QB coach Mark Brunell also had some moments during the Senior Bowl when he struggled to contain his excitement for Willis, and the two have some overlapping traits, really. Brunell was a thicker-built scrambler who also could lace a nice deep ball. What better coach to oversee his development?
The case against taking Willis at 2
The Lions might not want to force the QB issue. Sure, Willis is exciting. Yes, he has potential. But is he special special?
If they did select him, the Lions would have two first-round picks in 2023 that won’t be used on quarterbacks. The Goff trade netted them additional value next year, when the QB class is expected to be better on the high end than this class is — although we seemingly hear that narrative on an annual basis. It’s hardly precise science to forecast that far out, but NFL teams absolutely do it.
It’s not as if Detroit doesn’t have other pressing needs — plenty of them. And there’s even the not-so-wild idea that they might be ready to compete this coming season. Spending the second pick in the draft on a player who might not contribute much for a contending team could be viewed as a bit spendthrift from a value standpoint.
Here’s a bunch of Malik Willis passes from his pro day.
All 32 teams represented. 2 HC (Tomlin, Rhule) and 3 GM (+Hurney). I believe Falcons, Panthers, Steelers and Commanders with the largest contingents here. pic.twitter.com/Y3fWlI6xqH
— Ben Standig (@BenStandig) March 22, 2022
Or perhaps the Lions like Willis — but just not enough to take him that high. That does happen, after all.
There’s also the trade possibility. If some team is desperate enough to move all the way up, the haul could be wild. Lance really is the only comp, and he cost the 49ers a fortune to draft. The Lions likely wouldn’t want to move down quite as far as the Dolphins did and might not get dollar-for-dollar what the Lance pick earned.
But there’s absolutely a strong case for a still-rebuilding franchise to consider any potential windfall and moving down. If there’s ever a draft class where there’s not a lot of separation, talent-wise, between the second pick and, say, the 12th pick, this is it.
(Then again, that’s also might be a case for the Lions staying there and taking him. They’re not missing out on a Chase Young or Nick Bosa in this class.)
Either way, the buzz generated from Willis’ strong pre-draft showing, from Mobile to Indianapolis and back to Lynchburg, Virginia, only helps the Lions over the next six weeks. They can map out their plans to pick Goff’s successor and decide whether Willis is worth that high a dart or whether the trade-down-and-stockpile-talent route is best.