Willis struggled as a rookie, and the Titans drafted Will Levis -- long thought to be a first-round prospect -- after he fell, early in Round 2. Even with head coach Mike Vrabel listing Willis ahead of Levis as Tannehill's backup, the assumption was that Levis had the best shot to win the No. 2 job.
"I don't really get into all that," Willis said, via A to Z Sports Nashville. "I just try to go to work every day."
In the early stages of offseason workouts, however, Willis reportedly has put his best foot forward, including a strong practice on Wednesday. Meanwhile, Levis has gotten off to a bit of a slow start. The new quarterback roster rules for the 2023 NFL season could allow the Titans to keep all three this season, which might give Willis a better chance to move on from a trying rookie year.
The Titans' third-round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft was viewed as a project and was not supposed to play as a rookie. He was forced into the lineup late in the season when injuries hit starter Ryan Tannehill, starting three games.
Although he helped the Titans to a win at Houston in his first NFL start, Willis only accounted for one total touchdown in his eight games (three starts). All told, he completed only 31 of 61 passes (50.8%) for 276 yards, with no TDs, three interceptions and three fumbles (two lost).
When the Titans were making a run at the division title, they turned to street free-agent Joshua Dobbs as the starter over Willis. But don't call it a lost season for Willis, who took perspective on his first-year tribulations.
"A lot of people took (it as) bad, but what can you do in three games? It's sporadic during the season," Willis said. "In your rookie season, you are trying to learn. Everybody says 'you're a project this, project that,' but I mean, understanding, coming in everyday to get better at what I can do and (trying to) get more comfortable at what we are trying to do here."
Nonetheless, Willis isn't shying away from the criticism, as he realizes at the end of the day it's a performance-driven industry.
"It's a results-based business," Willis said. "It doesn't matter what I think, it doesn't matter what you think, it just is. I am just focusing on what I can control."
Willis said he's focusing right now on his "execution first, then everything else after that," starting with getting the play call read out correctly and making sure everyone is lined up where they need to be. As a reminder of how far he had to come in Year 1, Willis noted that one year ago in organized team activities, he was taking snaps under center for the first time.
The Titans made sweeping changes to the offensive coaching staff this offseason, which included elevating Tim Kelly to offensive coordinator, adding Charles London from the Falcons as QB coach and Pat O'Hara moving to the role of passing game analyst. Willis said the revamped offensive staff has not gone easy on him so far.
"They don't let me get comfortable," Willis said. "They don't let me just try to go through the motions. They want me to be urgent and try to continue to focus on things I need to work on and things I'm already good at."
It would be a shock if Tannehill wasn't starting Week 1, but the Titans also must plan for life after he's gone -- and also prepare for the possibility of him getting hurt again. If Willis can continue trending forward, perhaps his rookie season won't be the last we've heard from him in Nashville.