Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, November 10, 2023

Players like Willis need minor league experience

Deal with USFL would benefit all NFL teams

Malik Willis greets Jonathan Ward and center Corey Levin during warmups before their game against the Atlanta Falcons on Oct. 29. - Photo by Wade Payne | AP

Malik Willis needs to be a starting quarterback in 2024 – for the Memphis Showboats.

The statement above is not meant to degrade or demean the second-year Titans QB. But Willis is the perfect example of why the NFL needs to start using spring football to develop players – especially quarterbacks – by allocating a handful of them in the offseason to get much-needed game snaps that could help once they return in the fall to the NFL.

In looking at Willis’ body of work in 11 games played with the Titans during 1.5 seasons, it’s clear the former Liberty University star is still not ready to operate the offense consistently.

Though Willis took some steps forward in the preseason, when he got a chance to fill in after Ryan Tannehill was injured, he reverted to some of the same bad habits he brought with him from college.

The truth is the Titans can coach Willis all they want and let him play in three preseason games a year, but it doesn’t add up to enough meaningful reps to fully develop a project quarterback.

It hurts that Willis is the classic square peg in the round hole of the Titans offensive scheme. The Titans offensive system is based on running the football and taking a lot of vertical shots off play-action in the passing game.

It showed as much when rookie Will Levis, making his first pro start, looked very comfortable operating the Titans’ system because he had played in a similar prostyle offense at the University of Kentucky.

Conversely, Willis played in a spread, run-pass option system under Hugh Freeze at Liberty, where much of the offense was centered on Willis making one read in the passing game and then taking off and improvising to make a big play if nothing was there.

That might have been good at helping Liberty win games and for Freeze to return to the SEC by being hired at Auburn, but it didn’t do Willis any favors in preparing him to be an NFL-ready quarterback.

The NFL has shown more of an embrace of RPO concepts in recent years because more and more spread-system quarterbacks are coming from the college ranks now. But the Titans haven’t really gone there yet.

Willis might have been better off if he had landed with Baltimore, Arizona or Buffalo where some of those concepts are a regular part of the playbook.

Instead, he has been forced to start from square one, and the results have been predictable.

That’s where a league like the USFL could come in. The NFL needs quarterbacks beyond just starters. Willis has the tools to be an NFL quarterback, but he must learn and develop.

It would be great for Willis next spring, instead of doing 7-on-7 work in the Titans OTAs in a T-shirt and shorts, if he could operate a professional offense over a 10- to 12-game season, getting valuable game reps unlikely to come with the Titans beyond the preseason.

The Titans would probably be more trusting of Willis in game situations if he had the experience of a spring season under his belt the next time he stepped into a regular-season huddle.

The USFL, it’s been reported, is about to absorb some or all of the rival XFL, which would make for a more stable league of 12 or so teams. That stability is another reason the NFL should now consider an allocation partnership.

What if every NFL team allocated four players to those USFL teams for development? There could be project quarterbacks and maybe other players who need playing time due to spending a season on the practice squad or injured reserve.

One longtime NFL personnel man and talent evaluator I spoke to on the condition of anonymity is a proponent of such a move.

“My idea is to have each team allocate four players and let them play,” he said. “For example, a Caleb Farley, it would allow him to get playing time after two years off and would give the spring teams some players with name recognition.”

Financially, the players that would be allocated are already under contract with the NFL, so there would be no expense salary-wise for the budget-conscious USFL franchises.

And if NFL teams are concerned players might get hurt competing in the USFL, that can be dealt with, too. Any player injured while playing in a spring league could start training camp on the physically unable to perform list. The league could allow their salaries to not count against the salary cap until said player is healthy enough to pass a physical and return to play.

The NFL tried this developmental concept back in the 1990s with NFL Europe, and players like Hall of Famer Kurt Warner and Super Bowl quarterbacks Jake Delhomme and Brad Johnson all spent time there.

More recently, the Browns’ P.J. Walker, the Falcons’ Taylor Heinicke and the Packers’ Alex McGough are spring league veterans who parlayed those additional experiences into a ticket to the NFL.

There is always a need for more quarterbacks who can play competently under center, given all the injuries at the position just this year. Ask the New York Jets and Minnesota Vikings how important the need for a decent backup is.

NFL Europe was scuttled as it was deemed to be too much of a financial burden for the NFL to continue to operate it abroad. That wouldn’t be an issue with the USFL. All teams in the United States, and the NFL does not have a financial stake in the league, which is owned by Fox Corporation.

The USFL is an independent league and, unlike the 1980s version, does not appear to be competing with and raiding the NFL for top talent.

Instead, it is a place where guys looking for another chance get to keep playing, continue to gain valuable game experience and have an opportunity to learn the nuances of professional football.

Isn’t that exactly what a guy like Malik Willis needs?

Terry McCormick covers the Titans for TitanInsider.com