Can Titans' Levis make a better first impression than Willis?

One could make a case that if it were about fairness, then the Titans would give Malik Willis the start against the Atlanta Falcons in place of an injured Ryan Tannehill on Sunday.
It was Willis, after all, who was named the team’s number two quarterback way back in March, just after the Titans had made Levis the 33rd overall pick in the NFL Draft.
It was Willis who received the bulk of the Titans’ second-team snaps during training camp.
It was Willis who was the Titans’ backup quarterback in the team’s first six games, not Levis, who was inactive.
So why exactly is Levis being readied as the starter on Sunday, per the NFL Network, assuming Tannehill’s injured ankle doesn’t allow him to play against the Falcons?
There are two obvious reasons.
The first is that Levis is the more recent high draft pick, chosen by new general manager Ran Carthon — a selection no doubt made in conjunction with Titans coach Mike Vrabel, who watched Willis closely throughout his rookie season. That move was a pretty clear indication the Titans weren’t sold on Willis as their starter of the future.
The second reason is closely related to the first: Willis simply hasn’t shown enough in his opportunities to make the Titans believe in him.
Willis, a 2022 third-round pick out of Liberty, has always been considered more of a project, a raw talent who was never meant to start as a rookie. But he still needed to do more in his three starts last season, when Willis threw zero touchdowns and three interceptions, was sacked 10 times on 79 dropbacks and produced a quarterback rating of 42.8.
Those numbers prompted the Titans to go with waiver-wire pickup Josh Dobbs over Willis as a starter for the final two games of last season, when a playoff berth was still a possibility.
Willis’ next regular-season game opportunity to show he’d made progress came Oct. 15 against Baltimore, when he was thrown into a difficult spot, subbing in for an injured Tannehill and trying to lead a come-from-behind win against a nasty Ravens defense. Willis’ passing numbers weren’t bad, as he connected on four-of-five attempts for 74 yards.
But there was still too much hesitation in his game, illustrated by the 3.55 seconds it took for him to throw the ball on average, and by the four sacks he suffered on just 12 dropbacks.
So it is the Titans will see if Levis is a fit.
Would Willis have benefited from a full week of practice in a first-team role, not to mention going into a game as the starter — as opposed to having to come off the bench late in a comeback situation? Absolutely. That would have given him a much better opportunity to show the progression he’d made in his second year.
But the NFL isn’t necessarily about fairness.
Who can blame the Titans for wanting to get a closer look at a quarterback they moved up to draft, a second-round selection that most predicted was going to be a first?
The Titans clearly have more invested in Levis than they do in Willis.
We’ll see now whether Levis can make a better first impression than Willis did.

John Glennon
Filed 10.26.2023

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