Leading up to the 2022 NFL draft, Malik Willis was frequently mocked in the first round, but the Tennessee Titans ended up landing the Liberty quarterback with the 86th overall pick in the third round.

“It’s definitely surreal,” Willis said to reporters after the draft. “I’m just appreciative that somebody took a shot on me, so I can be grateful and thankful and want to keep getting better at what I’m doing.”

For general manager Jon Robinson, the decision was simple. Willis was the best player on the board at the pick, and the Titans were in need of Ryan Tannehill’s eventual successor.

After outstanding years in 2019 and 2020, the Texas A&M product took a step back last season, culminating with a three-interception performance in the team’s playoff loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.

Barring unforeseen circumstances, Tannehill will be the starter come Week 1, and Willis can gain valuable experience watching from the sideline.

After 2022, the Titans have a potential out in Tannehill’s contract. If they cut him pre-June 1, it’ll cost $18.8 million in dead cap. In they cut or trade him with a post-June 1 designation, it’ll cost $9.6 million in dead cap.

Willis will eventually have his time to shine. For now, though, he’s just interested in learning under Tannehill’s tutelage.

“Ryan Tannehill is a great player and he’s a great leader for this organization. I just want to come in and do all I can to get better at my craft. Whenever that time comes for me to get on the field, then that time will come. Until then, I’m just going to try to learn and be the best teammate I can be.”

After Day 1 of the NFL draft, Willis was surprisingly still on the board. Most figured that he would go in the early second round, with quarterback-needy teams like the Atlanta Falcons and Detroit Lions in line to take the Liberty product.

One would assume that Willis falling as far as he did would leave a chip on his shoulder, but the Liberty product says he has always had one.

“I always have a chip on my shoulder,” he said. “I don’t think that the draft can put any more of a chip on my shoulder. It’s cool. It is what it is and God put me here for a reason. I’m not going to question it and I’m not going to try to be mad at anybody else for being where I am because a lot of people wish they could be where I am. I’m just grateful for the opportunity.”

Willis comes from an NFL lineage, with his uncle, James Anderson, spending 11 years in the league. Although he played on the defensive side of the ball, Anderson was taken at a nearly identical slot in the draft, going No. 88 overall in the 2006 NFL draft.

Asked if Anderson reached out to him, Willis said his uncle told him that draft position means very little.

“He let me know that it doesn’t matter where you get picked. It’s about the work you put in,” Willis said. “It’s about what you do every day and how good of a teammate you are and how many people follow behind you.”

Players before him, like Russell Wilson and Joe Montana — both former third-round picks — are proof that Super Bowl-caliber quarterbacks can be found in the middle rounds of the draft.

Willis originally began his collegiate career at Auburn but entered the transfer portal after it became apparent that true freshman Bo Nix would be the team’s starter.

In his first year on campus at Liberty, Willis completed 64.2 percent of his passes for 2,250 yards and a 20-to-6 touchdown-to-interception ratio. A dual-threat quarterback, he added 944 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns.

This past season, Willis surpassed the previous year’s total, throwing for 2,857 yards, but he also had six more interceptions.

He’s already drawn comparisons to former Titans legend Steve McNair because of their physical stature and dual-threat capabilities.

However, there’s not one player that Willis models his game after. Instead, he has tried to learn a little bit from everyone.

“There’s a lot of great players all over the place, and I’m just appreciative to being the one where I get to go try to be more like those guys,” he said. “It’s just taking little pieces, like Russell Wilson’s deep ball and Tom Brady’s anticipation and check downs. Lamar Jackson, his elusiveness, is just understanding what they add and how you can add that to your game.”

The Titans brass will get their first look at Malik Willis on the field when the team’s rookie minicamp opens on May 13.

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