The NFL is a quarterback-driven league.
Events of the past few weeks have only solidified that statement. Over the course of the free agency period we have seen Russell Wilson traded to the Denver Broncos, Carson Wentz traded to the Washington Commanders, Deshaun Watson traded to the Cleveland Browns, and Matt Ryan traded to the Indianapolis Colts. Further, Mitchell Trubisky signed a deal to compete for the starting job in Pittsburgh with the Steelers, and Marcus Mariota is on his way to the NFC South, stepping into the shoes vacated by Ryan.
Oh, and Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady decided to return for another season.
Now, this movement might reflect how the NFL views this incoming class of rookies — more on that in a moment — but as the draft approaches, Liberty quarterback Malik Willis is perhaps emerging at the top quarterback on most boards. Or, at least, the quarterback that offers the most “upside,” making him the option teams will be more inclined to bet on early in the draft.
Should the New York Giants be in on the discussion?
With picks at five and seven overall, the Giants are in prime position to make the move for a new quarterback. If Willis is staring them in the face in either spot, should Joe Schoen go down that road?
Let’s look at both sides to the discussion.
The Case for Willis
At the outset, it is fair to point out that while Willis is rising up boards, he is by no means a certainty atop the quarterback board. But there is a trend in his direction. Thanks to Mock Draft Database, we can see how, coming out of the Combine, Willis saw his stock edge past Kenny Pickett in mock drafts:
What is also evident from this trendline is how Willis’s stock began to rise during the Senior Bowl. Prior to that event, the Liberty passer was viewed as a fringe first-round prospect, creeping into the later parts of the round at best.
But during Senior Bowl week, Willis showcased his arm strength and athleticism, traits which were on display as he practiced alongside Pickett and other quarterback prospects such as Carson Strong and Desmond Ridder. By the time the Senior Bowl was in the rear-view mirror and teams were finalizing logistics for the Combine, Willis was firmly inside the first round and chasing Pickett down from behind.
Can the Senior Bowl really move the needle like this?
Ask Mac Jones.
Prior to the Senior Bowl a year ago, Jones was viewed as a fringe first-round prospect, similar to Willis in that regard. But over the course of the practices, Jones emerged as the best quarterback down in Mobile, and almost overnight the ground shifted. Then, when the San Francisco 49ers traded to the third spot in the draft, some analysts were convinced that the move was made with Jones in mind.
Could Willis ride a similar wave to the top of the board, and if so should the Giants catch that wave?
In many ways, two events from the past NFL season are shaping the landscape around the league. The first of which was the AFC Divisional Round game between the Buffalo Bills and the Kansas City Chiefs. In that game, fans were treated to a showcase event from two of the league’s best young passers, Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes. As those two quarterbacks dazzled with their athleticism, arm talent and ability to create on- or off-structure, fans of the other 30 teams started to ask themselves this simple question:
Does our team have a quarterback who can do that? And if not, do we need one?
That, in a nutshell, is the allure with Willis.
His ability to create plays like this with his athleticism and arm talent are the things that you cannot coach:
Malik Willis 2022 Draft QB1— PFF (@PFF) October 9, 2021
Then you see throws like this and you imagine what this can unlock for a passing game:
Malik Willis DIME— PFF (@PFF) October 30, 2021
QB1 in 2022 Draft? pic.twitter.com/ao8cTIuwaM
All of which leads us to the case for the Giants drafting Willis with one of those picks in the first round, if the Liberty quarterback is on the board.
Because, after all, the question is this: Are we convinced that Daniel Jones is the guy for the Giants?
One way to answer that is like this. If we are still asking that question as he enters year four of his NFL career, we know the answer.
In this league, you either have the quarterback, or you move heaven and earth to get him. If the Giants are not convinced that Jones is the answer — and with a new head coach and general manager that is a possibility — then you try and add him by whatever means necessary.
The first order of business for the new general manager was to free up some cap space, which likely precluded a more aggressive move in free agency to address the quarterback position. But holding a pair of pick inside the top 10 of the draft gives the Giants a chance to add the top quarterback in the draft. Given where the game is trending at the position, with an emphasis on athleticism, arm talent and the ability to fix things when everything breaks down in the pocket — whether doing so mentally or physically — Willis could be the answer to the Giants’ quarterback questions.
A final aspect to such a move is this: One of the comparisons being drawn regarding Willis is, after all, Allen. When he was coming out of Wyoming, Allen was viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism by evaluators, myself included. It looked like he had a long way to go if he was going to reach his potential at the next level, and many thought it would never happen.
It did, thanks in part to Brian Daboll. Now Daboll is in New York, entrusted with the development of Jones. But could he work similar magic with Willis, and would that be a factor in moving New York’s decision in a few weeks?
We are in the middle of another offseason wondering whether Jones is the answer, and whether he’ll take that necessary step forward for the Giants to get to where they need to be as an offense. We can continue to wonder, or we can see New York make the move to go get the guy.
If Willis is there, that is why you draft him.
The Case for Patience
A few moments ago I referenced one of two seismic events that, in my opinion, have shaped this NFL offseason.
The first was that divisional round game between the Bills and the Chiefs, that left fans wondering if their team had that kind of quarterback already in the fold.
Yet, something else happened a few weeks later.
The Los Angeles Rams won the Super Bowl.
This too has shaped the NFL off-season. How? Because it illustrates another trend we are seeing with respect to roster construction. A shift towards valuing established talent over incoming rookies and draft picks.
The NFL draft, and the corresponding draft evaluation process, is an inexact science at best. Armed with all the information imaginable, teams still get things wrong. The Rams and general manager Les Snead decided to move in a different direction, and while it is likely we see the release of Elder Scrolls VI before the Rams pick in the first round again, they have a Lombardi Trophy to show for their efforts.
Now apply this framework to the decision facing the Giants we are discussing.
Yes, the ceiling of Willis is intriguing, and perhaps he develops into the type of quarterback that had fans mesmerized during that divisional round game. But what are those odds? Ten percent? Fifteen? Let’s be even more positive and say that in Daboll’s head there is a 35 percent chance that he can get Willis to where he needs to be as a passer, given his previous work with Allen.
Is that a bet you are placing with one of those first-round selections?
Perhaps, given the importance of the position. Again, as we just outlined, either you have the guy, or you are looking for him.
Or perhaps the fact that you would be passing on a prospect with a better chance of succeeding in the NFL — and at other important positions such as offensive line, pass rusher or cornerback — gives you pause.
Because the Giants are in a position to add two top-flight players with those picks at positions that, while not quarterback, are still critically important in today’s NFL. New York could emerge with one of the top corners, or one of the top pass rushers, or one of the top tackles. Imagine waking up the morning after the first round and seeing the headlines about Sauce Gardner, or Evan Neal, or Kayvon Thibodeaux, or any of the top players at those positions.
That might be a good place to be.
Then there is this: The rise of Willis towards the top of the draft might make that fifth-overall selection a prime trading spot. After all, the Carolina Panthers need a quarterback, and they sit at six overall. Then there are the Atlanta Falcons at eight and the Seattle Seahawks at nine, two other teams we expect to be in the quarterback market. If a team loves Willis, they might need to get to five to be sure they can draft him.
Of course, that could change, but five could be a prime spot for a trade.
This is a scenario that I discussed with our fearless leader at the Combine. If you are going to give Jones another year to develop under Daboll’s guidance, finding a way to add a future first-round selection via a trade back is perhaps the perfect hedge. Then, if Jones fails to improve, you have the draft capital in 2023 to get to the top of the board for C.J. Stroud, or Bryce Young, or Phil Jurkovec, or Will Levis, or any quarterback that emerges over the next college football season.
So, imagine this hypothetical. The Giants trade down to nine from five, and the Seahawks come up and draft Willis. New York adds a 2023 first-round pick, and Seattle’s third-round selection, which is 72nd overall. You emerge still having a pair of top 10 selections, and that first in next year’s draft, giving you the hedge on Jones.
And while we are thinking about using picks to address quarterback next year, you could also imagine a scenario where the Giants, following the Rams’ model, use the additional first-round selection as part of a trade for the established veteran quarterback, following that path to success.
During his podium session at the Combine, Philadelphia Eagles general manager Howie Roseman talked about the opportunity the Eagles have in this draft. With three picks in the first round, Philadelphia has huge chance to improve the roster. As Roseman outlined, the draft is, as discussed, an inexact science. But the more “bites at the apple” you have, the better your chances at hitting on some of those picks, and more likely you are to walk away from the draft with a truly improved roster.
With Jones in place, the Giants have the chance to remain patient and add two top talents, taking advantage of those bites at the apply, at other important positions of need. If they can find a way to slide back a bit, add future draft capital — giving them more bites in the future — that is also a scenario worth exploring. But with Jones in place they have time and a window to add at other critical positions, and walking out of the first round with top talents at other important spots would be a win for the Giants.
This is one of those moments where I am so thankful to do what I do for a living.
I get to write about football, and I am currently doing so from the comfort of my office at home while wearing sweatpants and drinking a delightful Sunshine energy drink. The blueberry lemonade flavor is quite tasty, and if the wonderful people at Sunshine are looking for anyone to promote their fantastic product, they know where to find me...
Beyond that, any “decisions” I make are just theoretical. My ability to pay the mortgage at the end of the month, or any other bill, is not at stake.
That too is a reason I’m thankful to do what I do for a living. Because, after all, my own evaluation history has some hits...and some misses. Likely more of the latter at this point.
So, I’m glad I am not in Schoen’s position as the draft approaches.
Because there are strong cases to be made for either path. If Schoen feels that same uncertainty about Jones and his future — and if Daboll is similarly uncertain about his ability to get Jones where he needs to be — then the Giants do not have “the guy.” Then, if you are going to take a swing at drafting the guy in this year’s draft, Willis at five or seven is the play.
But if you think that as an organization you can get Jones where he needs to be, and with a head coach who brings a record of quarterback development in the fold you might think that is a strong possibility, then improving at two other critical positions is a great opportunity.
If it were me, that is the option I would pursue.
But my job — nor my ability to purchase more delightful Sunshine energy drinks — is not on the line.