Liberty QB Malik Willis generating buzz at Senior Bowl, as Browns GM Andrew Berry watches him and all the top prospects

MOBILE, Alabama — Liberty quarterback Malik Willis is generating a lot of buzz at the Senior Bowl, where Browns general manager Andrew Berry was among the many NFL personnel executives getting an up-close-and-personal look at him and all of top prospects on Day 1 of practices here.

Willis, one of six quarterbacks here, caught a lot of eyes on Tuesday with his excellent arm, mobility and pinpoint accuracy on the run.

One high-level NFL personnel executive told cleveland.com that “Willis is a franchise quarterback’’ and destined to be the most successful of the bunch.

Another evaluator told cleveland.com that Willis reminds him of the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes, but that he’s very raw and will need a year to develop.

That could work out well for the Browns, who said they “fully expect” Baker Mayfield to be their starter in 2022, but must also be thinking long-term about their quarterback situation.

The other quarterbacks here are Pitt’s Kenny Pickett, Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder, North Carolina’s Sam Howell, Nevada’s Carson Strong and Western Kentucky’s Bailey Zappe.

All six had decent showings on their first day of practice as they worked out the kinks of throwing to new receivers and taking direction from their NFL coaches.

Evaluators raved about Willis’ character and mental makeup, and believe he has what it takes to succeed.

The downside for a team like the Browns picking 13th is that Willis might get grabbed before that by one of the teams above them, including the Lions at No. 2, the Texans at No. 3, and the Panthers at No. 6.

The Steelers, who pick 20th and are looking for a replacement for Ben Roethlisberger, spent time talking to Willis on Tuesday after practice, and even chatted with his parents.

There’s a lot to like, and he’ll be one to watch as the predraft process heats up.

Kenny Pickett the next Joe Burrow?

Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett, who looked polished and smooth on his first day of practice, drew a comparison to Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow by Senior Bowl Executive Director Jim Nagy.

Pickett heads into the Senior Bowl as the favorite to be the first quarterback drafted,

“I know that just the way he’s wired and spending time around him and the kind of guy he is, and talking with the guys at the Manning (Passing Academy) that have been around him and the guys at Pitt, he’s going to crush this process,” Nagy said at a press conference Tuesday. “I think he’s already starting to in the interviews right now. He’s got a really cool way about him. Kind of reminds me a little bit of Burrow when I got to know Joe through this process. Guys gravitate to him. He’s a leader. It comes easy to him. So this is the start of a big week for him.”

Pickett was honored.

“That’s a hell of a comparison,” he said. “I’m going to have to have Jim intro me like that everywhere I go. … But he’s a heck of a player obviously at the college level and now doing what he’s doing at the NFL. Had a chance to be roommates with him at the Manning Camp. Talked to him towards the end of our season at Pitt. Great guy, definitely great role model to have going into the NFL.”

Like Burrow, Pickett is mobile enough to get the job done, and demonstrated that in practice.

“We’re both not Lamar Jackson, but we can move around and extend some plays and find guys downfield,” he said. “I think that’s a huge piece, and I think really the mental aspect. The game’s definitely slowing down for him. You can just tell by the way he’s playing. That’s where I got to the point this season at Pitt and at the college level, and I just want to streamline the process as much as I can and get to that level at the NFL as fast as I can.”

The winner of the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award this season, he brushed off the notion that his hands are too small to be effective in the NFL. He declined to have them measured here, but will do so at the NFL Combine next month.

“I think that’s like the No. 1 thing for quarterbacks in the draft process every year is hand size,” he said. “The good news is that I play in Pittsburgh. Anyone that’s been to Pittsburgh knows it’s not the nicest place to play in October, November.

“So I’ve had experience playing in tough weather and I didn’t measure in this week. I just want to give the most measurement I can. I’m working on mobility things.”

Video: Senior Bowl Day 1 practice notebook from Feb. 1 (SMG)

Senior Bowl Day 1 practice notebook from Feb. 1

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Nagy advised Pickett to return to Pitt this year, telling him he’d be a Day 3 guy if he entered the draft last year as a junior. The move paid off, with Pickett likely to go in the top 10 or 15.

North Carolina QB Sam Howell draws comparison to Baker Mayfield

Howell, who had one of the better days among the quarterbacks in regards to accuracy and decision-making, has drawn comparisons to the Browns’ Baker Mayfield.

“He’s a great player and I have a lot of respect for Baker,’’ Howell said. “He’s had a lot of success in the NFL, so just to be compared to the guys that are doing it at the highest level is pretty cool.’’

Howell has tried to take a little something from each one of his idols in the NFL.

“I want to take care of the ball like Peyton Manning, but I also want to let it rip a little bit like Bret Farve,’’ he said. “Those have kind of been my idols growing up. Of course, the legend Tom Brady. I mean, you can’t say enough about that guy. I think my game translates a lot to what Matt Ryan does. I’m not Lamar Jackson by any means, but I have good timing and anticipation.’’

DE Cameron Thomas tweaked a hamstring, but the Browns should keep an eye on him

San Diego State defensive end Cameron Thomas headed to Mobile with a hamstring issue but tried to gut it out on Tuesday, a source told cleveland.com. Shortly after practice began, he headed into the locker room, and came out in street clothes. His day and possibly his week are over.

But the Browns should continue to keep a close watch on the versatile edge-rusher, who’s drawn comparisons to J.J. Watt.

At 6-5, 270 pounds, he’s powerful and explosive, and would pair well with Myles Garrett. As of now, Thomas is projected to go in the late first round to early second, but that could change as the process goes along because of his tremendous potential.

Calvin Austin III of Memphis can fly

In the afternoon practice, Memphis receiver Calvin Austin III displayed his devastating speed, something the Browns need badly on offense. One evaluator likened his speed and shiftiness to that of Tyreek Hill.

Austin is small — 5-7 3/8, 173 — but the speed and playmaking ability could be worth the size risk.

At Memphis this season, he caught 74 passes for 1,149 yards and eight touchdowns, and he can also return punts.

The Browns have speedster Anthony Schwartz, their 2021 third-round pick from Auburn, but can use more speed both at wideout and in the return game.

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