Titans QB Debate: Malik Willis, Will Levis, or Ryan Tannehill?

Tennessee Titans quarterback Malik Willis (7) laughs during an OTA practice at Ascension Saint Thomas Sports Park in Nashville, Tenn., Wednesday, June 14, 2023.
Tennessee Titans quarterback Malik Willis (7) laughs during an OTA practice at Ascension Saint Thomas Sports Park in Nashville, Tenn., Wednesday, June 14, 2023. /

Malik Willis, Will Levis, or Ryan Tannehill? That is the franchise-defining question the Titans face this offseason.

The Tennessee Titans thought an answer had been found at quarterback when the team inked Ryan Tannehill to a lucrative long-term extension in the 2020 NFL offseason. Fresh off a sparkling 7-3 record as the starting signal-caller in 2019 — along with a sneaky run to the AFC Championship — the newly-acquired quarterback entered Year 2 in Nashville with even higher hopes.

Titans Find Success With Ryan Tannehill Behind Center

The Titans looked brilliant by signing Tannehill before he could truly breakout, as the former Dolphin first-rounder won 11 games in 2020 before bumping that number to 12 in 2021. Alas, Tennessee failed to find the same success in the postseason as it suffered two heartbreaking losses to the Ravens and Bengals in respective seasons.

Entering the 2022 NFL offseason, questions began swirling about Tannehill’s future with the franchise. Still under contract through 2023, the Titans opted to stick with the veteran signal-caller, but not without a caveat.

Titans Set Future In Motion With Selection Of Malik Willis

Malik Willis received loads of hype as he entered the 2022 NFL Draft. Although raw, the Liberty alum boasted rare dual-threat ability. He dominated as a runner at the collegiate level while flexing above-average arm strength downfield. Willis was a first-round prospect on some big boards, but he ultimately fell to the middle of round three before his slide came to a halt.

At No. 86 overall, substantially later than many expected, the Titans tabbed Willis as the future behind center. The hope was to essentially redshirt the developing rookie and allow him to learn for a full season under the guidance of Tannehill. For multiple reasons, this vision did not come to pass.

Early in the year, Willis took over for the benched Tannehill in Week 2 after a rough start vs. Buffalo. In his first NFL action, the Bills didn’t allow Willis to make his mark. He only completed one pass and was mostly kept in check as a runner.

Tannehill retained his starting gig in Weeks 3-7, but an ankle injury would knock him out of the lineup for the ensuing two games vs. the Texans and Chiefs. In his absence, Willis was once again thrust into the lineup — ready or not.

As we know by now, Willis was indeed not ready. The Titans knew it was a risk to deviate from the redshirt plan, but the options behind Tannehill on the depth chart did little to convince the front office to stick to its initial plan. Rather than throwing out an equally unproven player, head coach Mike Vrabel hoped Willis could learn on the fly.

The 23-year-old rookie completed only 42% of his passes in those two spot starts midway through the campaign. He accounted for less than 200 total yards in that span, with one interception mixed in. To add insult to injury, Willis accounted for as many tackles (1) as touchdowns (1) on the year.

Willis took back over in Week 16 after Tannehill suffered an injury that would keep him on the shelf for good this time. In his second appearance vs. Houston, Willis looked more comfortable and increasingly confident but still failed to take the bulls by the horn and solidify himself as the future at quarterback.

Titans Choose Joshua Dobbs Over Malik Willis Down The Stretch

Instead, in arguably the two most important weeks of the season, the Titans turned to 2017 fourth-round journeyman Joshua Dobbs. In a must-win situation, Tennessee placed its faith in Dobbs over Willis. This decision is damning on the surface, but things got even trickier in the offseason.

After Dobbs inevitably failed to lift the franchise back into postseason play, the quarterback dilemma began gaining steam. Could the Titans justify keeping Tannehill around given his exorbitant price tag and declining age? Would it be shortsighted to hand the keys to Willis after his volatile rookie stint? Is the rocket scientist actually the answer?

When the 2023 NFL offseason commenced, Tannehill’s time with the franchise was expected to come to an uneventful end. Whether by releasing him or trading him, the new Titans regime seemed ready to rip the bandaid off and start over.

New Regime Puts Vote Of Confidence Toward Ryan Tannehill

Free agency came and went, and to the surprise of many, Tannehill still had a spot on the roster. Not only that, but general manager Ran Carthon offered a vote of confidence toward the long-time veteran, saying that “he knows where he stands with us.”

At the NFL Combine, Carthon doubled down by saying Tannehill would be the team’s starter in 2023. As a soon-to-be 35-year-old, the Texas A&M alum is a placeholder at best this season, with Malik Willis competing for the QB1 mantle after a full season under his belt.

Or Did They? Drafting Will Levis Threw A Wrench In Everything

Herein lies the rub. Rather than committing to the top two options on the depth chart, the Titans threw a wrench in plans when Will Levis tumbled out of Day 1 to the top of round two. Rumors stated that Tennessee liked Levis and would consider him on the first day, but a move never materialized.

The team’s patience paid off when Levis was still sitting on the board, as the front office positioned itself to move up and secure the once-thought top-five talent. At the cost of a couple of pick swaps and a third-rounder in 2024, the Titans jumped to No. 33 and added Levis to the fold.

NFL Draft pundits such as Mel Kiper Jr. had a first-round grade on the signal-caller from Kentucky. I did not share this sentiment, as Levis graded out as a round two player on my big board. Narratively, the Titans got a steal at No. 33. In reality, they landed Levis at the exact spot he should have been taken.

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions…

So, with one of the most polarizing quarterback rooms in the sport, what will the Titans do? They are armed with three quarterbacks, all of which took vastly different routes to the league. Tannehill was a former wide receiver turned quarterback, while Willis and Levis tried and failed at previous programs before finding their footing at Liberty and Kentucky, respectively.

Tannehill is the most likely option to start Week 1, but he is also the most likely option to never take a snap in Nashville again after the 2023 season. Maybe the 10-year veteran has another trick up his sleeve this year. Or maybe he is washed up. It shouldn’t take long to find out.

Willis is making a charge this off-season to keep his name in contention as QB1. Reports say he has picked up the playbook quickly and looks polished, something that was severely lacking as a rookie. He still has a long way to go to be a difference-maker as a passer, but the improved ability to read defenses could give Willis just enough to survive until he refines the rest of his traits.

Levis is farther along than Willis in a few key areas, mainly in terms of running an NFL-style scheme. With Kentucky, the gifted signal-caller ran a system reminiscent of Sean McVay’s. Don’t get me wrong, it was a college version of the system, but it still did a lot for Levis’ development.

Possessing an even stronger arm and more of a prototypical frame in the NFL, Levis has a leg up physically. On top of that, he is a deceptive athlete capable of snatching ankles in space and flying past would-be tacklers.

Decision-making and improved lower-body mechanics could turn Levis into a legitimate starter in the league. I’m not sure he can reach that point before the year begins, so he might be taking a redshirt for 2023.

Final Prediction For The Titans QB Battle

•Ryan Tannehill Opens Season As Starter
•Malik Willis Slots In As QB2
-Sees Time As The Season Grows On
•Will Levis Holds QB3 Mantle
-Could Takeover As Starter Later In Year
•Malik Willis v. Will Levis Next Offseason
-Winner Becomes The Guy

It might be a headache to get the answer that the passionate Titans fan base so desperately seeks. Odds are, the 2023 season is not going to produce many wins. Rather than calling it a rebuild, it is more appropriate to label it as a retool. Tennessee has established itself as a force in the AFC South; regardless of who becomes the future at quarterback, Mike Vrabel and Ran Carthon will have them contending for division titles in the near future.