NFL Draft player spotlight: Tight end Brayden Willis – The Leader of Sooner football

Oct 15, 2022; Norman, Oklahoma, USA; Oklahoma Sooners tight end Brayden Willis (9) reacts after scoring a touchdown during the second half against the Kansas Jayhawks at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 15, 2022; Norman, Oklahoma, USA; Oklahoma Sooners tight end Brayden Willis (9) reacts after scoring a touchdown during the second half against the Kansas Jayhawks at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports /

Expert’s note: This is part of a continuing series of articles looking at former Sooners players who are 2023 NFL Draft prospects.

Oklahoma Sooners Tight End – Brayden Willis

Do you remember those old MasterCard commercials that said, “CD player… 40 dollars, CD… 15 dollars… the first time you heard Slim Shady… priceless” That makes me think of Sooner tight end Brayden Willis.

Willis led a storied Sooner career at the tight end position that ended with becoming one of the team’s three recipients of the Don Key Award (presented to a player who exemplifies excellence on and off the field of play).

Willis 2022 season ended with him earning a 2nd team All-Big 12 honor while leading the team in touchdown receptions (7) and being second on the team in receiving yards (514 yards). His seven receiving touchdowns ranked him fifth nationally among tight ends.

Willis’ career numbers in Norman ended with 58 games played, 75 receptions for 998 receiving yards, and 13 receiving touchdowns.

Those were the numbers. Willis’ actual impact on the Sooner football program was priceless. Willis has been described by the Sooner coaching staff as a ‘true professional.’ Head Coach Brent Venables describes Willis as a consistent leader in the locker room and on the football field.

"“Like all great leaders, he is selfless, willing to sacrifice, great toughness, and a model of consistency. He (Willis) has great humility, loves to work, loves to grind, loves his teammates. He’s willing to say and do the uncomfortable and things that are not popular” – Sooner Head Football Coach Brent Venables on Brayden Willis."

Coach Venables also referred to Willis as an “Alpha,” a title that all 90 players in a division one locker room consider themselves to be.

In today’s transfer portal-dominated world, Willis has constantly reminded Sooner Nation what loyalty and passion best represent. Willis has developed an immense work ethic, a tremendous on-field product, and a fine example of true professionalism.

Film Study

The first attribute I notice when watching Willis play is agility. At 6’4” – 240 pounds, Willis’ agility is elite. He runs smooth routes and maintains his balance in and out of breaks. He understands the timing of an offense and showcases elite-level route running. After the catch, Willis has decent top-end speed for a tight end. He can outrun bigger defenders to the edge and has enough speed to often soften contact from pursuing defenders. He won’t be able to outrun defensive backs at the NFL level, but neither can any other 240-pound tight end.

The second thing I noticed, and perhaps his best attribute for a professional scout, was his versatility. Willis’ game is multidimensional, which for a tight end, is the name of the game. Willis was obviously a reliable pass catcher but also a violent blocker on the edge. Willis maintains excellent body control when blocking, allowing him to utilize his massive leverage to move bigger defenders. He frequently took advantage of smaller defenders on the edge. He showed an above-average willingness to block bigger defensive ends when called on.

Willis’ versatility will increase his value with NFL scouts. Believe it or not, he’s a little undersized for a traditional pass-catching tight end in the NFL. So, to maximize his career in the NFL, he will have to depend on his versatility in the passing game, the run game, and on special teams.

By the Numbers

Height and Weight: 6 foot 4 inches. 240 lbs. Vertical – 32″. Broad Jump – 9’9”. Bench Press – 20 reps. 40-yard dash – 4.75

Draft Day

Tight ends either go early in the draft or late; they rarely go in the middle rounds. If a team needs a tight end, they’ll target a first-rounder like Iowa’s two tight ends in 2019 (T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant). Outside of that, teams usually reserve the later rounds to pick up a tight end. As it sits now, Willis is the 10th-best tight end in this year’s draft. The nation’s best tight end is Brock Bowers from Georgia, and he’s not old enough to be drafted yet. This year’s tight-end class is not very deep.

With that being said, I see Willis going late. I think it’s likely a 5th to 6th-round pick. That is by no means a knock on Willis or his abilities, I just don’t see many tight-end needs, and there are bigger, more traditional tight-ends rated ahead of him. If Willis goes earlier than the fifth, I’d be excited… and shocked. If he goes undrafted, I’d be even more surprised.

Best Fit(s)

The best fit for Willis would no doubt be with the Dallas Cowboys. The Cowboys are starving for a tight end, and they could utilize a solid run blocker like Willis. They don’t need to take a tight end in the first or second rounds because they have offensive and defensive line needs that outweigh their tight end needs; however, I’m afraid they may. The Cowboys could wait to pull the trigger on a tight end until the 5th round, where I could see Willis going at pick 169. They may also choose to gamble and go with Willis at pick 212. Another likely scenario could be the Cowboys taking a first-round tight end and then taking Willis as another tight end option in the 6th or 7th round. Keep in mind I’m a big Cowboys homer… I’d love to see Willis playing in Jerry World.

The other fit I see Willis finding a place in would be with the Arizona Cardinals. Zach Ertz is currently the Cardinals’ tight end, and their backup situation is shallow at best. The Cardinals have other needs to fill early in the draft, but I look for them to select a tight end in the later rounds. Willis would serve primarily as a blocking tight end in OC Drew Petzing’s offense; however, he also schemes well with Petzing’s air attack. It would also be nice to see Willis paired up with Kyler Murray.

Wherever Willis goes, he will leave a lasting impression. Willis’s work ethic and leadership abilities are second to none, and he will make himself successful in the NFL. He’s a tough tight end who excels at run blocking and has an above-average catching ability. Those are rare combinations in today’s age of spread offenses and air attacks. Typically, you see tight ends who are good at one or the other. Willis’s athleticism, combined with his off-field leadership prowess, will earn him a long-time job as a tight end in the NFL.

Sooner Nation will miss Brayden Willis. We can’t wait to watch him on Sundays for years to come.

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