Lions QB coach: Senior Bowl is a huge advantage when scouting position

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Mobile, Ala. — Malik Willis took the snap and looked left during the first practice at the Senior Bowl. The Liberty quarterback didn't like what he saw and moved to his next read, then his third, before flicking a short throw to the right flat. 

It looked like a play you might see any given Sunday, an innocuous pitch and catch that might net five or so yards, but Lions quarterback coach Mark Brunell was visibly excited after the completion. 

The Lions will get an up-close look at Liberty quarterback Malik Willis this week at the Senior Bowl.

That's because a four-read progression isn't something many quarterbacks are asked to do in college. It's a layer of complexity the few who successfully transition to the pro game eventually add to their tool set.

But here was Willis, demonstrating the ability to learn and apply a complex concept on his first day working on the field with the Lions' coaching staff. 

"I was really impressed with that," Brunell said. "It was pretty sharp and it was something he had never done before. I'd credit the coaching, but it was probably more Malik than anything else."

The Lions aren't overtly in the market for a quarterback this offseason, but there's also no way to say it's off the table.

Whether that's pursuing a long-term upgrade from Jared Goff, who if nothing else, would eat up far less cap space than the present starter, or, alternatively, it's seeking a backup with upside to replace Tim Boyle and David Blough — who are both headed for free agency this offseason — it's an easy case to make.

Lions quarterback Jared Goff, head coach Dan Campbell and quarterback coach Mark Brunell.

And if the Lions are serious about addressing the position in the draft, they're fortunate enough to be coaching at the Senior Bowl, which provides a level of insight the league's other franchises aren't getting. 

"I think it's a huge advantage for our coaching staff and our personnel department," Brunell said. "We're spending more time with these guys than any other team in the NFL, so it's a great advantage for us.

"We get a firsthand look at some of the best college players in football. I know our coaching staff is thrilled for this opportunity. It's fun getting to know these guys because you spend enough time with them, it's more than just football."

Willis is one of a trio of quarterbacks under the purview of Detroit's staff this week, along with North Carolina's Sam Howell and Western Kentucky's Bailey Zappe, who busted Joe Burrow's NCAA touchdown and yardage records last season. 

The week isn't strictly about evaluating the physical gifts those guys possess. Much of that can be ascertained from their college film.

The Senior Bowl is more about their mental acumen, how quickly they can pick up a playbook in a foreign environment and apply what they learn in the classroom. And the other part of that mental makeup equation is how they respond to the inevitable errors they'll make during this early audition. 

North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell.

"Everything is brand new and we realize that," Brunell said. "We understand they're going to make mistakes, they're going to miss throws, they're going to miss some reads, but how they respond to that and how they learn from that says a lot about the type of quarterbacks they are.

"That's as important as anything, in my opinion. Not just making the throw, but what do you do after you make a bad throw. Do you respond to that? Do you forget about it and move on? Do you learn from it? Those are the types of things we're looking at right now."

One thing multiple quarterbacks have in Mobile that the Lions currently lack is the ability to extend and make plays with their feet.

Goff is a pocket passer, who can be exceptional when given proper time to process, but he'll rarely slip a defender in the backfield and make a downfield throw on the run. That's not his game, but it is for Willis and Howell, as well as a couple of the quarterbacks on the other Senior Bowl squad. 

Brunell wasn't much of a dual-threat during his career, either. In 18 seasons, he rushed for a little more than 2,400 yards. Baltimore's Lamar Jackson has 50% more production on the ground in just four seasons. 

But mobility has become increasingly important in recent years, as the NFL has evolved to the point that many teams are embracing getting QBs on the move. That shift is not lost on Brunell. 

"If a guy is mobile, athletic, can extend plays and make things happen with his feet outside the pocket, off platform, that's a great tool," he said. "Just look around the league. I can list a bunch of guys. I think the smart offenses use that to their advantage, a quarterback's ability to make some things happen outside the pocket."

That said, Brunell doesn't see the trait as necessary to be successful in this era of NFL football.

"It's always a bonus, but at the same time, I love coaching Jared Goff," Brunell said. "He's not exactly the most mobile guy, you know, but he gets it done, he's won a lot of games and he'll continue to win games.

"You just use their strengths. It's a great tool to have and you see more guys like that. It's attractive, of course, but there are multiple styles of quarterbacks out there and you can win with all of them."

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers