NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tom Brady isn’t here. There’s no pomp and circumstance or barrage of reporters waiting to find out when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers QB will inevitably return from his planned mid-training camp sabbatical. Instead, the Buccaneers and the Tennessee Titans are ready to duke it out in practice over the next two days to iron out the kinks in their respective programs.
It’s 9:31 a.m. CT on Wednesday, and rookie QB Malik Willis is stretching between tight end Geoff Swaim and guard Nate Davis. The third-round pick is currently battling for the backup QB spot behind starter Ryan Tannehill. And if last week’s preseason opener against the Baltimore Ravens was any indication, Willis is running away with the job in his battle with incumbent backup Logan Woodside.
The life of NFL rookie QB: 119 minutes following Malik Willis at Titans training camp
Willis, who garnered first-round buzz from notable NFL draft pundits, fell to the 86th overall pick in April. He watched as only one QB was selected in the first round, and two total QBs were drafted above him.
Despite standing out during the week of Senior Bowl practices in Mobile, Ala., in February, Willis landed in a spot where he won’t start a regular-season football game for several weeks — if not months — barring a major injury to Tannehill.
But that’s okay. As Willis, despite his draft hype, was considered a long-term project with immense upside who needed time to adjust to the NFL after playing his college ball at Auburn and Liberty. So, with patience on his side, Willis is in the middle of his first NFL training camp, receiving backup reps while Tannehill works with the first-team offense.
On Wednesday, Pro Football Network followed Willis’ every move to get a feel for what a day of practice is like for the NFL rookie QB. With the additional intrigue of practicing against a different defense, Willis was challenged in team reps.
Here’s how Willis spent 119 minutes during a joint practice with the Bucs:
Willis is stretching with his helmet on with Swaim to his left and Davis to his right. The rookie QB looks comfortable in his pre-practice routine as the rest of the group gets ready to face off against the Buccaneers in what will be a competitive and efficient practice in Nashville.
A whistle blows. Willis and his teammates surround head coach Mike Vrabel, who gives final instructions for the joint practice. After the huddle is broken, Willis and the offense head to the field closest to the Titans’ headquarters, while the Buccaneers bypass the middle of the field and head to the field that is furthest from the building.
Willis is third in line for passing drills behind Tannehill and Woodside. The Titans’ coaches are working on the QBs’ ability to handle pressure in the pocket. Coaches and staff members are throwing towels and pushing pads into the faces of the QBs before they release a pass. This drill is not for the faint of heart, as the coaches are pelting these signal-callers several times per rep before a pass is thrown.
Willis finally gets his shot to perform in the gauntlet of tossed things, and he looks cool and collected as towels hit and/or whiz past his helmet. He’s been through these drills throughout the summer, so this is nothing new.
Following the passing drill, Willis and the QBs meet up with the running backs who have been working on ball protection reps. The two position groups take part in handoff drills, as Tannehill and Willis switch off after every rep to keep the drill efficient from a time perspective.
Another whistle blows, and a horn sounds. Both teams meet at the middle field for an overarching huddle. Both coaches, presumably, discuss their goals and guidelines for the joint practices. Following several reports of fights breaking out at various joint practices this week, emphasizing the importance of an efficient practice is paramount for both teams.
Following the break of the huddle, the Titans’ offense returns to their primary field with the Buccaneers’ defense. The Titans’ defense heads to the opposite field with the Buccaneers’ offense.
It’s time for 1-on-1 drills with wide receivers and defensive backs. The defensive linemen and offensive linemen are positioned on the opposite fields as well.
Willis and Tannehill are alternating tosses to wideouts, as Woodside takes reps as the QB during pass-rushing drills.
Willis’ first few passes end up on the ground. First-round wideout Treylon Burks drops a ball from Willis with cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting in coverage. Wideout Kyle Philips draws a defensive pass interference penalty from Bucs cornerback Kyler McMichael, but Willis and the receiver are unable to connect.
Eventually, Willis is able to connect with wideout Reggie Roberson, who beat Bucs cornerback Carlton Davis with a nifty move over the middle. The pair would connect again against Davis a few plays later. This time, Davis had great contested coverage, but Roberson still hauled in the pass. Willis also connects with wideout Mason Kinsey, who slithers past Bucs corner Dee Delaney on a double move over the middle.
Team drills are about to begin. Future’s “Where Ya At” (featuring Drake) blasts through the speakers as Willis, Woodside, and the second- and third-team offense watch from the sidelines as Tannehill leads the starting group against the Buccaneers’ defense.
Tannehill connects with Burks on an impressive connection down the field. Burks beats Bucs cornerback Tre Avery on a slot fade down the seam to end the first round of first-team 11-on-11 work. Willis and the second-team offense take the field.
Following a handoff, Willis hits wideout Nick Westbrook-Ikhine on a rollout toss to the right. A few beats later, Willis is back on the sideline while Tannehill leads the charge. The QB1 connects with wideout Racey McMath on a jump ball over great coverage by Bucs cornerback Zyon McCollum.
As McMath comes down with the ball, Burks walks off the field with a trainer.
The Bucs and Titans are still battling in 11-on-11 drills, with Willis watching Woodside lead the third-team offense. Woodside is picked off by Bucs safety Chris Cooper over the middle.
The whistle blows, and it’s time for special-teams work. Willis and his offensive teammates await 7-on-7 work.
Back to team drills, without linemen, and Tannehill has already had a few tosses, including an over-the-middle strike to tight end Austin Hooper.
Willis is now in charge, and he connects on three consecutive short passes to Swaim, receiver Cody Hollister, and running back Trenton Cannon.
Willis takes on his second round of 7-on-7 drills. This round isn’t as sharp as the previous one, as Willis is struggling to find open receivers and is holding onto the ball for too long. After practice, Willis admitted as much.
“I’ve been trying not to run at all at practice,” Willis told PFN. “I know I can run. I’m just focusing on my pocket presence and climbing, and just being able to let that thing rip when I want to, and not just because I see an open gap, take off.”
After holding the ball for roughly seven seconds, he finally hits Hollister over the middle for a pointless(?) completion. Willis then fires a laser to running back Julius Chestnut, but the ball ricochets off his hands for an incompletion in the flat. On the next toss, Willis targets Cannon, but the ball hits off his knee as he jumps for it, and it falls incomplete again.
The horn blows after the two consecutive drops.
Willis and the QBs run to the opposite end zone from the drills they had previously worked on for a cooldown session. Willis takes his helmet off and wipes sweat from his brow before jogging over to Titans QBs coach Pat O’Hara.
For several minutes, Willis is positioned to O’Hara’s right, while Woodside is on the coach’s left side during the drills.
The team drills restart, and Willis and Woodside are still bookending their position coach as Tannehill connects with Hollister over the middle of the field on an impressive throw. Willis claps enthusiastically for his teammates’ success.
Willis gets another shot at 11-on-11 work. He takes the first snap under center from lineman Corey Levin and fires a laser through the hands of McMath. Willis takes another snap under center and hands the ball off to running back Hassan Haskins, who runs north to south through a pile of bodies.
Willis’ third rep is essentially a representation of his entire day in team drills. The Buccaneers almost immediately swarm the QB after he receives a snap from the shotgun, and following a clear would-be sack, Willis takes off for three yards and slides.
“Just because you’re running doesn’t mean you have to be a running back,” Willis said with a smile. “I played baseball my whole life. It wasn’t that hard [to slide].”
On the next play, similar results. Bucs outside linebacker Anthony Nelson almost immediately gets past a blocker to get in Willis’ face. With a would-be sack acknowledged, Willis heaves a ball down the field for another incomplete pass.
“Making mistakes in practice is what you want to do,” Willis said. “That’s the only way you’re going to learn from it. If you think you’re perfect because you don’t make a mistake in practice, then you’re never going to learn for when that situation happens in a game. You won’t know what to do.”
Willis immediately heads to O’Hara on the sideline, and they seemingly go over the last play, using their arms to replicate the trajectory of a route or Willis’ pass.
With Tannehill working in team drills, Willis and Woodside toss the ball to stay loose on the sideline. During this game of catch, Tannehill tosses a ball over the middle, and it’s intercepted by Bucs linebacker Devin White, who returns the ball to near where Willis and Woodside are playing catch by the opposite end zone.
Woodside heads back to the huddle and leads the offense. After a couple of plays, Titans offensive tackle Christian DiLauro limps off the field with the help of trainers. DiLauro’s injury doesn’t stunt the offense, as Woodside immediately connects with tight end Chig Okonkwo over the middle.
Willis and Woodside get another game of catch in. Tannehill is back in team drills, and he connects with wideout Kyle Philips on an out route. Willis applauds in approval. The horn sounds again, and Willis heads back to O’Hara to chat.
O’Hara and Willis are locked into a conversation during field-goal drills. After a few minutes of chatter between the QB and coach, wideout Terry Godwin comes by to check in with Willis, and they share an aggressive high five, with the slap being heard throughout the facility (good acoustics?).
A trainer hands Willis a new towel, and the rookie QB heads over to Woodside and Tannehill.
Another whistle blows, and the Titans’ offense heads to the sideline to watch special-teams coverage drills in the center field. Willis chats with McMath, cornerback Elijah Molden, and safety Kevin Byard as the drills take place.
Eventually, Willis leaves the conversation, grabs a water bottle, takes a sip, and then jogs to his fellow QBs on the adjacent field with a smile on his face. Willis then takes part in an individual throwing session with a member of the staff. Tannehill and Woodside eventually join in.
That freaking horn goes off again. Both teams jogged to the field closest to the facility. Willis fist bumps Levin and chats with Woodside on the sideline while the first-team prepares for 11-on-11 two-minute drills.
As the Buccaneers’ offense faces off against the Titans’ defense, Willis chats with offensive coordinator Todd Downing and wideout Robert Woods. Eventually, Willis and Woodside get loose with another game of catch.
Willis heads onto the field for his third session of 11-on-11 work, but this time, it’s all under pressure because of the two-minute drill. With an offensive line that features Jalen McKenzie at left tackle, Willie Wright at left guard, Corey Levin at center, Hayden Howerton at right guard, and Nicholas Petit-Frere at right tackle, Willis struggles.
First, after being flushed from the pocket, Willis scrambles for a short gain. He then hits Okonkwo near the sideline. The playmaker gets out of bounds to stop the clock.
On the next snap, Willis struggles to find open wideouts, and he is sacked by the combo of Bucs defensive lineman Willington Previlon and linebacker Andre Anthony. The clock is stopped at 40 seconds.
Willis bounces back with a pass to Hollister down the seam. However, on the next play, Bucs cornerback Dee Delany breaks up a pass to Okonkwo, and the drive ends. Willis heads back to the sideline to chat with Woodside.
“That’s why we do these [joint practices], and why we wanted [Willis] out there,” Vrabel said after practice. “The look changes post-snap, and that’s what good defenses do. He’ll have to see that, and he’ll have to recognize, and we’ll just have to get him prepared for the next situation.”
Bucs linebacker K.J. Britt has just been helped inside by trainers. Willis is catching up with O’Hara again. The pair have been inseparable for most of practice.
Those chats during drills are “probably more important than some of the reps themselves because you get to see the conceptual view, and you get to see both sides view of what the offense and defense are doing,” Willis said. “I hear the play the offense is doing, and then I see what the defense is doing, and then you see how they are trying to stop whatever we’re doing. And that’s just a mental rep, and you see how that plays out. You keep doing that, and then you have a lot of different outcomes on the same play.”
Willis watches Woodside’s team drills intently near the sideline. He watches Woodside connect with Okonkwo in traffic, and Willis puts his hands up in celebration of the connection.
Willis is chatting with Woods again as the final horn blows. Both teams separate to their respective huddles to close out the workout.
Following the break of the huddles, Willis is met by a few members of the Buccaneers’ staff. He also chats with Bucs cornerback Jamal Dean and Titans cornerback Roger McCreary. All three players played together at Auburn before Willis transferred to Liberty.
Willis speaks with PFN in a 1-on-1 chat to go over practice. The rookie QB admits he made some mistakes and the adjustment of playing a new defense in practice led to some struggles. Still, Willis is smiling brightly after a competitive practice with the Bucs. He enjoyed the change of pace in the middle of camp.
“I like the competitiveness of [joint practice],” Willis said. “The other team is probably the best part when it comes down to it. You go against your teammates every day for all these days of camp, and now you have another team come in, and you can just compete.”