We are about 1 week away from the Draft and for the first time since 2013, wondering who in the the heck our QB is going to be? Among QB's Malik Willis has garnered the most attention due to his elite arm talent and running ability. ESPN has a QBR (QB Rating) metric that is based on EPA or Expected Points Added which is one of the few publically available metrics available for college football. Below is a great explanation of EPA and QBR by Joey DiCresce:
EPA means difference in expected points caused by a play. Expected points are based on historical mathematical chances a team will score based on the field position and down. For example, the expected points before a 1st and 10 from midfield is about 2. A 10 yard gain would result in a 1st and 10 from the 40 for an EP of about 2.5, meaning the previous play has an EPA of 0.5. EPA is great at eliminating the value of empty yards, a 9 yard gain on 3rd and 20 isn’t actually very valuable but for stats like passer rating and total yards, that play is just as valuable as any other 9 yard gain. EPA takes into account all plays impacted by the QB, so all attempts, sacks, scrambles, and QB runs are included
QBR is based on total EPA, but attempts to eliminate factors outside of a QBs control by dividing credit between the QB, OL, and WRs based on the amount of yards the pass travels in the air and the yards after catch. However the exact formula behind this is not given.
In an article titled "Which QB Stats are the Most Important" DiCresce found that, more than any other stat he looked at, EPA had the highest correlation to winning percentage so EPA becomes a highly relevant QB metric since it's the most influential position on game outcome. Another interesting finding was that PFF Grade, not current EPA, was the best predictor of next season Win % as well as next season EPA.
Per QBR, Willis was ranked 36th out of 125 QB's in 2021 after ranking 16th in 2020. However, he ranked #1 in each season when sorting based on Run EPA. Specifically, his Run EPA was 54.7 and 40.8 the past 2 seasons, both good enough to finish in the top 50 Best QB Run EPA seasons ever recorded by ESPN. Looking further, his Pass EPA is much more mediocre relative to his peers at 40.2 last year and 47.3 in 2020 which ranked him 65th and 18th.
In his 2 seasons at Liberty Willis put up Run EPA's of 41 & 55 and Pass EPA's of 40 & 47 so I decided to sort for all QB's that put up similar production. My search parameters were Run EPA's between 37-59 and Pass EPA's between 37-50 to stay close to what Willis produced in those categories. The search parameters produced 7 QB's which are listed in order of QBR rating:
Pat White, WVU, 2006, 90.5 QBR
J.T. Barrett, OSU, 2014, 87.1
Malik Cunningham, LOU, 2021, 81.9
Malik Willis, LIB, 2020 78.7
Sam Howell, UNC, 2021 76.1
Jordan Lynch, NIU, 2013 70.6
Malik Willis, LIB, 2021 70.0
Caleb Evans, ULM, 2019 69.8
Cody Fajardo, NEV, 2014 65.1
It's not hard to see that this is not exactly a list QB's who excelled in the NFL, although 2 of them also played in the most recent college season. Based on Willis' historical EPA production, there are zero QB's who have ever been considered successful in the NFL since QBR was available in 2004.
There are a few QB's who were great runners in college that also saw success, to some degree, at the NFL level. Looking at the same list of Top 50 Seasons in QB Run EPA are the following notable names in order of QBR:
- Kyler Murray, OKLA, 2018 95.4 QBR 109.6 Pass EPA
- Cam Newton, AUB, 2010 90.0 65.8
- Jalen Hurts, OKLA, 2019 89.7 84.7
- Colin Kaepernick, NEV, 2010 87.7 65.2
- Dak Prescott, MSST, 2013 86.5 24.5
- Lamar Jackson, LOU, 2017 85.4 53.6
- Lamar Jackson, LOU, 2016 84.8 54.2
- Colin Kaepernick, NEV, 2009 80.8 31.6
- Lamar Jackson, LOU, 2015 72.2 17.3
Note that every single player had a higher QBR and Pass EPA than Willis or in the case of Kaepernick and Jackson, finished their college career with a higher Pass EPA. Prescott, in his next two seasons saw his Run EPA drop out of the Top 50 Run EPA list and his Pass EPA improve to 43 and 73. Basically, he did less running and became a better passer every year he played in college. Looking at the list above (of "successful" QB's who were also great rushers), the lowest Pass EPA by a QB in his final college season was by Lamar Jackson at 53.6 vs 40.2 for Malik Willis. Is this significant?
Willis has elite arm talent. At the combine he threw the ball 60mph in the velocity test. Since 2008 only Josh Allen has thrown faster at 62mph. At just over 6ft tall and 219 lbs he is built like a running back and obviously has the running skills to go with it. But is that enough?
His production is fairly extreme. On one hand, as per PFF he has one of the best Deep Passing Grades and Big Time Throw Rates in the country. However, that is counterbalanced with the fact that he also has one of the worst Intermediate Passing Grades, Adjusted Completion %, and Turnover Worthy Play Rates in all of college football. Additionally, there is only 1 draftable QB who is sacked more often when pressured than Willis. It is also noteworthy that Willis played at a very low level of competition and some of his worst outing were against Power-5 schools.
Ultimately, I am not a scout and only time will tell how good Willis becomes.
What do you think? If available, should the Seahawks take him with the 9th pick?