INDIANAPOLIS – When Malik Willis stepped up to the podium here at the NFL Combine last year, the first question he was asked focused on what makes him the best quarterback in the draft class.
"In my opinion," Willis responded, "I just think it's my willingness to learn. My willingness to try to be great and the physical tools I've been blessed with. And, my work ethic."
The 2022 season was a learning experience for Willis, who was selected by the Titans in the third round of the 2022 NFL Draft.
Because of starter Ryan Tannehill's ankle injury, Willis ended up playing earlier than the Titans intended.
Willis played in eight games, with three starts, for the Titans in 2022.
While it sometimes wasn't pretty, Willis undoubtedly made strides in his rookie season.
At the same time, he also proved he has a ways to go.
At this year's NFL Combine, Titans officials say they've been pleased with his attitude, and work ethic since the end of last season.
"He's already dove into the offseason, and he's communicated with the staff about where he's been, working with different coaches, a group in Jacksonville, and reporting back," Vrabel said of Willis. "His demeanor, walking through the building and seeing him in the cafeteria, he understands what it is supposed to look like, being a starting quarterback, being a quarterback in this league. You have to be on when you come in the building, it's a certain presence you have to have."
Titans offensive coordinator Tim Kelly said he's seen Willis in Nashville plenty, and he's been encouraged by his progress.
"Malik is doing a great job coming into the building every day, having a good routine right now," Kelly said. "He is so charismatic, comes in, pops his head in with a big ol' smile, and it's exciting to see him in that routine, doing what it takes to be a professional quarterback. We'll see where everything ends up, but we're excited with the progress that it looks like he's made."
The Titans initially planned to let Willis sit back and learn – while developing – during his rookie season while backing up Tannehill, who hadn't missed a game with the team since taking over as the starter in 2019.
Tannehill, however, suffered an ankle injury back in October, which forced Willis into action.
While Willis had his moments – he guided the Titans to a win in his first NFL start at Houston – he also had his share of struggles while playing in an offense he did his best to adapt to in a hurry.
Willis finished the season the season 31-of-61 (50.8%) for 276 yards with zero touchdown passes and three interceptions, with a passer rating of 42.8. Willis also ran for 123 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries.
At the end of the season, the Titans elected to go with Josh Dobbs – not Willis – in the final two games.
On locker clean-out day, Willis said he knows he needs to improve on a lot heading into Year 2, from his footwork, to being on time with throws to staying in rhythm. Willis said at season's end he needs to make quicker decisions, and get the ball out faster. Willis acknowledged he created pressure for himself by drifting in the pocket.
New Titans general manager Ran Carthon said his communication with Willis has been good since being hired.
He's pushing Willis to be better, but he also likes how Willis is pushing himself.
"The one thing I talked to Malik about was just to continue to grow as a quarterback, and that is not just throwing the ball, and not all these different things," Carthon said of Willis. "A quarterback is so much more mental than it is physical, and from that standpoint I just talked to him about being able to lead the locker room, being able to have that presence and just continuing just to reach out to some of the greats in our games, and guys that (could) help him.
"So, we have been able to connect, and he's reached out to other quarterbacks in the league to kind of serve as mentors for him, which kind of shows you who he is as a person and where he sees himself and where he wants to go."