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LAS VEGAS — Malik Willis packed one suit for the 2022 NFL draft and that tells you everything you need to know about the expectations he brought to town — because he believed he’d be selected in the first round on Thursday and be moving on.
That didn’t quite work out.
The mock drafts, many of which had Willis going in the first round and perhaps even being the first quarterback taken, were wrong. And it wasn’t close because the second round also came and went Friday and Willis still wasn’t picked.
So when the Tennessee Titans finally made Willis the third quarterback selected in this draft — behind Kenny Pickett and Desmond Ridder — the would-be star who walked the red carpet 24 hours earlier was wearing sweats and watching the draft on TV at a local bowling alley he’d rented out.
And that’s the first lesson in managing expectations that Willis surely learned as an NFL quarterback: It doesn’t always go as planned and sometimes you have to adjust.
That lesson should come in handy now that he’s part of the Tennessee Titans.
Because Willis is the shiny new toy with the beguiling skillset, so there might be a temptation to expect a quarterback transition away from Ryan Tannehill very soon.
Pump the brakes. Because that’s what everyone in the Titans’ organization is doing.
“I think his role will be determined by how quickly he comes in here and learns the offense and improves and gains the respect of his teammates,” Tennessee general manager Jon Robinson said. “No different than any other player. They’re going to earn opportunities.”
The Titans are not handling this notable selection with any of the pomp that a team might handle a transfer of power at quarterback. Robinson didn’t call Tannehill to inform him a possible successor was joining the quarterback room.
So everyone is treading carefully — including Willis, at this stage.
“I’m going to have to go learn a playbook, just like anybody else,” Willis told local reporters.
“I just want to come in and just do all I can in order to get better at my craft. Whenever that time comes for me to get on the field, then that time will come. But until then, I’m just going to try to learn and be the best teammate that I can be.”
Coach Mike Vrabel, who handles the media like Leonard Bernstein conducted his orchestra, brushed aside any suggestion he’s got a potential new starting quarterback or any sort of future star on his hands.
“We’re excited to add Malik to the quarterback room with Kevin [Hogan], [Logan Woodside], and obviously Ryan,” Vrabel said, adding the new guy to the list of incumbents as casually as one adds a comma to a compound sentence.
“We’re really just excited about developing young players and see what happens. I don’t think anybody’s is going to be able to talk about anybody’s future tonight.”
That’s an amazing statement when you think about it. Because the NFL draft is inherently about the future. It’s all about everybody’s future.
But all the Titans wanted to do was discuss what Willis offers and make no promises beyond that.
“Good arm, athletic, moves around well, got a really good skillset, throws a good ball, he is tough to tackle,” Robinson said. “He has a lot of work to do, obviously, like all the rookies do, but excited to add him to the team and compete.”
And this is the part in this column where we wade through all the caution and coachspeak and scoutspeak and get to the crux of the matter: The Titans need Willis to be good.
They need him to be an upgrade over Tannehill. They need him to replace Tannehill.
And they’ve got no more than one season to see that begin to manifest because Tannehill hit his ceiling a couple of years ago and hasn’t touched it often enough since.
For a team with a good general manager, coach and roster beyond the quarterback, that’s simply not good enough. So Willis is the hope that could round out all those things into a championship team.
That, friends, is the true expectation in Tennessee that no amount of managing can deny.
Follow on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero