There was plenty of hype coming into the Tennessee Titans' first preseason game against the Baltimore Ravens -- a 23-10 loss -- and it had to do a lot with the rookies. Wide receivers Treylon Burks and Kyle Phillips had great training camps, cornerback Roger McCreary and offensive tackle Nicholas Petit-Frere are both in the midst of position battles and then of course there's the new quarterback, Malik Willis.
The former Liberty signal-caller got the start on Thursday night with Ryan Tannehill inactive, so there was a special feeling around this exhibition matchup. Willis wasn't considered to be the most polished quarterback in the 2022 NFL Draft, but he's a dual-threat athlete who's quick on his feet, and also has a cannon for an arm. Willis isn't fighting to start this upcoming season, but the NFL world was excited to see what he was capable of in his first professional action, and Titans fans wanted to get a glimpse at what the future could look like.
A slow start
Willis missed on his first three passes. The Titans went three-and-out on their first drive, running back Julius Chestnut fumbled away Tennessee's second possession and then the offense again went three-and-out on the third drive.
That fourth drive was when things began to click. Willis completed his first pass to Chestnut on a screen, who took it for a gain of 12 yards. Chestnut was clearly set on making up for his earlier fumble, as he broke loose for a 29-yard gain two plays later to get Tennessee near the red zone. After Hassan Haskins took a pass 18 yards to get to the Ravens' 7-yard line, that's when we saw Willis record his first highlight-reel play.
The touchdown run
On second and goal, Willis rolled right on a pass play, but quickly reversed course -- spinning to the left -- and slipped between two defenders to score the touchdown. For a moment, it didn't look like the rookie was going to find pay dirt, but Willis made sure he finished the play.
While the rookie wasn't playing against starters, his speed certainly stood out. The rollout created open field in the other direction, his instincts kicked in and he went off script. Willis hadn't done much in the passing game up to this point, but that was about to change.
The deep ball
The very next offensive play for the Titans, Willis found second-year wideout Racey McMath racing down the field off of play-action. The defensive back turned early, took a bad read on the ball and it resulted in a 48-yard completion for the Titans.
This was one of the biggest plays of the game, and how the ball flew off of Willis' arm certainly stood out.
As a quarterback at the next level, you're going to have to fit the ball into tight windows and adjust your release in certain scenarios when it's necessary. Coming off of play-action in the second quarter, Willis was met with a defensive end with his hands raised. Check out how he adjusted.
This isn't a play that guarantees Willis will be a franchise quarterback in the future, but it's a neat highlight.
The rushing touchdown and deep pass were fun to watch, but maybe the biggest takeaway from the Titans' first preseason game is that Willis played smart. He didn't throw an interception, he knew when to throw the ball away, he knew when to take a sack and he knew when to take the check down when things weren't open downfield.
To go along with playing smart, when Willis started to find his rhythm -- things didn't really change. Young quarterbacks who make a few big plays in a row can get excited and try to force the issue or extend a play when they shouldn't. We didn't see that from Willis.
Willis looked quick in escaping pressure in the pocket and showed the ability to keep plays alive. Overall, he completed 6 of 11 passes for 107 yards, and rushed five times for 38 yards and a touchdown. Willis wasn't always accurate, but overall he recorded a performance that will have Titans fans -- and NFL fans in general -- excited for his next outing.
We all have to remember that this is the preseason and Willis won't be challenging Tannehill for his job. But the rookie absolutely showed potential in his first professional outing, and played mistake-free football.