2022 NFL draft: Liberty's Malik Willis tries to crash top of QB power rankings

·9-min read

Each week during the college football season, we'll stack the quarterbacks with 2022 NFL draft eligibility based on their pro potential — and nothing else.

Some of the players we list below may not enter next year's draft, but we'll list anyone who has a remote shot to declare early.

Here's how we see the NFL QB prospect hierarchy stacking up after the first eight weeks of college football.

1. Kenny Pickett, Pittsburgh

(Last week: 2nd)

In his first outing versus Clemson, way back in the 2018 ACC championship game, Pickett and the Panthers were completely overwhelmed. The Tigers sacked Pickett three times, forcing one fumble, and he finished the game with four completions in 18 attempts for a net 8 passing yards and an interception.

Pickett faced coordinator Brent Venables' defense again last season, and once more it was a trial by fire. At the end of what would be a 52-17 blowout in Death Valley, Clemson led 31-0 at the end of the first quarter. Pickett started the game a horrific 3 for 11 passing for 15 yards, four picks and a sack, and it really never got much better after that.

That's why Saturday's dominant performance against the Tigers — even if this isn't a vintage Clemson team — is so notable. This is a program that had owned him and his team, and yet after a slow start Pickett completed 25 of 39 passes (with four drops and three throwaways) for 302 yards, two TDs and zero turnovers. 

Before the game, Venables even made a comparison that some others are latching onto, saying that Pickett reminded him of Joe Burrow when Clemson faced him two years ago in the national title game. Pickett might not be quite the playmaker Burrow was, but then again, Pitt's offensive teammates aren't in the same stratosphere as what Burrow had at LSU.

But you can get the sense that Pickett is winning over NFL evaluators with each passing game. We believe he's headed toward landing in the first round the way he's going, even if some teams won't be quite as enamored with his upside.

2. Matt Corral, Ole Miss

(Last week: 1st)

This was perhaps the least impressive performance of Corral's 2021 season in Saturday's win over LSU. There was nothing egregiously bad about his play, mind you, but Corral didn't make a lot of high-leverage throws in the game, will lock in on his first read too much and still faces questions about facing pressure.

We're Corral fans, and he had been in the top spot for several weeks now. But there's a sense that his Day 1 readiness isn't terribly certain. When he's working out of structure, it's a dice roll on how it's going to end up. Corral has delivered some big plays but also thrown some breath-holding passes that give us the occasional willies.

3. Malik Willis, Liberty

(Last week: 3rd)

Willis is going to be the ultimate wild card in this year's class. His body type and skill set are an unusual combination. His unique playmaking ability as a runner and deep-ball thrower could rocket him up the pecking order. No other QB in the 2022 NFL draft class can make (or attempt) plays such as this:

Also to his credit, Willis has thrived this year as a passer without the benefit of a lot of cheap screen yards and with two very young receivers as his go-to targets.

But Willis' middle-field accuracy and occasionally boneheaded decisions also could scare some evaluators off. Like with Lamar Jackson, the team that drafts Willis must have a firm plan in mind in terms of how it will design its system.

Willis is an easy Senior Bowl projection, and it could be a massive week for him. If he thrives in Mobile, the first round is not at all out of the question.

4. Sam Howell, North Carolina

(Last week: 4th)

We have had Howell ahead of Cincinnati's Desmond Ridder all season long, and that's drawn the attention of some readers who have asked: but why?

So we checked around a bit late Saturday and early Sunday, and two of the three evaluators with whom we connected agreed with us. Howell has maintained a pretty healthy respect in NFL circles, despite his statistical drop this season. One undeniable reason is how much UNC lost to the draft this spring and how poor the offensive line is. 

Most weeks, Howell is running for his life. And actually, it's a facet of his game he's been able to showcase more than expected.

Howell and the Tar Heels were on bye this week. They face three ranked teams — at No. 11 Notre Dame, versus No. 13 Wake Forest and at No. 17 Pitt — in the next 17 days. Expect a slew of NFL evaluators at the Howell-Pickett matchup in three weeks.

5. Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati

(Last week: 5th)

Ridder turned in yet another solid performance in the unbeaten Bearcats' 27-20 win at Navy. Although his accuracy has dipped a smidgen in recent games, and Ridder lost a fumble in the win, he's taken better care of the ball this season than he ever has.

With 42 starts and counting, it's been easy to chart his steady ascent, displaying tangible (albeit incremental) growth. If Ridder can hone his throwing mechanics and fine-tune his accuracy a bit more, he can be in the top-40 mix in next spring's draft.

We could see Ridder pairing well with a team that has talented receivers who can separate but a need at quarterback, such as the Carolina Panthers, Atlanta Falcons, Pittsburgh Steelers, Washington Football Team and Denver Broncos.

6. Carson Strong, Nevada

(Last week: 6th)

There are times when Strong looks like the most interesting passer in the 2022 class. He's an easy-armed slinger, and Saturday's loss to Fresno State was actually the showcase game we've been semi-waiting for this season.

Strong played well in the comeback win at Cal and diced up Hawaii two weeks ago. But even in the loss, Strong's performance (49 of 61 passing, 476 yards, four TDs, one INT) made us sit up and take notice.

Nevada quarterback Carson Strong signals to the sideline against Fresno State during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Fresno, Calif., Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021. (AP Photo/Gary Kazanjian)
Nevada quarterback Carson Strong signals to the sideline against Fresno State during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Fresno, Calif., Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021. (AP Photo/Gary Kazanjian)

The health of his knee — which he's slowly appearing to trust more as the season goes on — is a wild-card factor in his draft placement, and it's no guarantee he even opts to come out this year (with one year of eligibility remaining).

Truth be told, there's very little separating Nos. 1 through 6 in our mind. This order could be shuffled up quite a bit in the coming months. But this top six pales in comparison to the 2021 QB class' top six — and by and large, that group has struggled as rookies so far in the NFL.

7. Jayden Daniels, Arizona State

(Last week: 7th)

Daniels and the Sun Devils were on bye last week.

8. Tanner McKee, Stanford

(Last week: 8th)

McKee and the Cardinals were on bye last week.

9. Grayson McCall, Coastal Carolina

(Last week: 9th)

McCall and the Chanticleers fell on the road Thursday to Appalachian State, although it really wasn't his fault. The pass protection really broke down in the second half, and yet McCall still was able to complete 15 of 23 passes (with four drops) for 291 yards and a touchdown. 

We'd like to see him use his legs a bit more than he has, but McCall — more likely a 2023 draft QB, if we're being frank here — has been on point most of the season. 

10. Bailey Zappe, Western Kentucky

(Last week: n/a)

The small-framed Zappe has been on a tear in recent games, hitting the 3,000-yard passing mark on the nose through seven games. Yep, do the math, and you'll see that comes out to 428.6 yards per game. He also boasts a 29-4 TD-INT ratio, which is pretty impressive considering it's his first-year call-up from FCS-level Houston Baptist.

Western Kentucky quarterback Bailey Zappe throws a pass against Michigan State during an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021, in East Lansing, Mich. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)
Western Kentucky quarterback Bailey Zappe throws a pass against Michigan State during an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021, in East Lansing, Mich. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

Now there's a ripple of buzz around him in his first year with the Hilltoppers, especially following his 488-yard, three-TD performance at Michigan State a few weeks back. According to a source within the program, "every team has been asking about him." At the least, Zappe is a shoe-in for the East-West Shrine Bowl, and he could work his way into the Senior Bowl picture.

How high can a 6-foot, 215-pound quarterback with average arm strength be drafted? That's the million-dollar question. But there's a high-floor backup in Zappe, we suspect, especially for a team that operates with a short and intermediate rhythm passing game.

Just missed the cut

Brennan Armstrong, Virginia; Jake Haener, Fresno State; Spencer Rattler, Oklahoma; JT Daniels, Georgia; Kedon Slovis, USC; Brock Purdy, Iowa State; Will Levis, Kentucky; Skylar Thompson, Kansas State; Chase Brice, Appalachian State; Aqeel Glass, Alabama A&M; Phil Jurkovec, Boston College (injured); Jack Coan, Notre Dame; Malik Cunningham, Louisville; Levi Lewis, Louisiana; Tyler Shough, Texas Tech; Dorian Thompson-Robinson, UCLA; Emory Jones, Florida; Taulia Tagovailoa, Maryland; D’Eriq King, Miami (injured); Kaleb Eleby, Western Michigan; Sean Clifford, Penn State; Tanner Morgan, Minnesota; E.J. Perry, Brown; Dustin Crum, Kent State; Myles Brennan, LSU (injured); Chase Garbers, California

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