Houston Texans QB Davis Mills has a big opportunity, but is real success possible in his second year?

HOUSTON — On a muggy August Tuesday at the Houston Methodist Training Center in the shadow of NRG Stadium, the eyes of most observers were on Houston Texans sophomore quarterback Davis Mills. Spectators watched as the 23-year-old sliced ​​through Houston’s defenses 1,000-dead-style, mostly taking what was given and occasionally making a big play on the field.

The ones who haven’t seen Mills? Many watched as Texans freshman coach Lovie Smith watched Mills. His quarterback’s game will say a lot about how Smith’s early tenure and the direction of a Rebuild franchise unfolds. The famously-straight Kiel-Smith seemed impressed, if not elated.

“He was like that all along. He did plays,” Smith said of Mills. “It’s primarily about ball security, the quarterback protecting the football. He’s been doing that all camp and now when it gets down there you have to push it past the end zone. It was good to see him doing that today. “

The Texans have handed the keys to Mills, an 11-game rookie starter in 2021, to prove he can be the engine that drives the organization. During the first parts of the training camp, countless teammates praised his leadership skills. The former third-round pick from Stanford has shown growth and expressed confidence.

“I feel really good. I think I’ve evolved a lot since the end of last season,” Mills said. “I felt the progress late last year and then really took it into the off-season, great momentum and building on that has allowed me to come out here and play very quickly early in training camp and during the OTAs. I’m looking forward to moving forward.”

Is Mills a franchise QB? The answer to that question is a pivotal story of a 2022 season that will provide insight into the organization’s long-term future.

But the notion of Mills’ success raises another question for a struggling franchise that has had a straight four-win season. What would success even look like for Mills?

Mills’ 2021 numbers were better than any first-round QB in his draft class outside of Mac Jones, who helped lead the New England Patriots to the playoffs and secured a Pro Bowl berth.

In Mills’ last nine starts, he threw for 2,307 yards, 14 touchdowns and five interceptions with a 96 passer rating. It’s a stretch that included standout performances against the AFC’s top seeds last season at the Tennessee Titans, the Los Angeles Chargers and the Patriots, against whom he combined 867 yard passes with eight touchdowns.

These numbers were largely due to efficiency and accuracy. After Week 5, Mills was completing 69.8% of his shots in the middle and short ranges of the field, the 8th best in the NFL.

“I think if he’s working underneath, like short to mid-range, that’s exactly what’s going to help him. I think he has good accuracy,” a league manager said of Mills. “He’s a pretty polished pitcher.”

And when Mills saw an opportunity to rock it, he executed. On deep passes of 20 air yards or more, Mills had the highest passer rating in the NFL at 132.6 and threw 6 touchdowns.

“He played the position really well,” an NFL assistant told ESPN earlier this offseason. “He didn’t have a lot of rookie mistakes in the games I’ve seen. He can work through the progressions from the bag, great mechanics, basically solid, accurate on all three planes, can drive the ball and layer the ball. Really checked a lot of boxes .”

As encouraging as the numbers and sentiment about his game were, they belied a hard truth — Houston was 2-9 in games started by Mills last season, with his passing counts insufficient to make up for the deficiencies around him to overcome.

Wideout Brandin Cooks had the team’s best effort with 90 catches and 1,037 yards with 6 touchdowns, but Houston’s next four wide receivers combined through the air for 1,244 yards and nobody else on the team caught more than 33 balls.

The Texans’ offensive line allowed 44 sacks, the ninth-most in the NFL. And the invisible running game averages 83 yards per game, dead last.

Taking the next step for Mills will depend largely on whether he has the help to push the team forward in the Victory Column. And league observers find that a shaky statement at best.

ESPN’s most recent NFL Future Power Rankings drill ranked the Texans 27th, ahead only of the Detroit Lions, New York Giants, Chicago Bears, Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons. The league’s panel of experts determined that the Texans have the least talented roster in the league excluding the quarterback.

Houston’s 2022 draft was widely perceived as a step in the right direction. The Texans improved the offensive line by picking Texas A&M’s Kenyon Green with the No. 15 overall pick for left guard. The Texans also selected Alabama wide receiver John Metchie III in the second round, but Metchie III has been diagnosed with a form of leukemia and is unlikely to play this season.

The Texans weren’t aggressive when they brought premium talent to Mills through free agencies. They added ex-Colts 1,000-yard rusher Marlon Mack to spice up the game in progress, and they’ll also give Florida’s Dameon Pierce, a fourth-round draft pick, a backfield chance.

Then there’s the matter of Smith and the new coaching staff, although Pep Hamilton’s promotion from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator will provide some continuity for Mills.

Beyond the offensive roster and staff build-up, some reviewers in the league question Mills’ sheer talent to become a franchise QB.

“He’s not,” said a league manager, who asked not to be identified. “There are two types of quarterbacks. There are God-made quarterbacks and man-made quarterbacks. The God-made quarterbacks are guys who can roll out of bed and make throws that take the man-made quarterback an hour to warm up for. Davis needs to be consistent with all calls and he needs to play within the game and lead offense with maturity.

Some who reviewed Mills cite the lack of raw arm strength as a key concern for his future in the NFL.

“For his height and stature [6-foot-4, 225 pounds], you’d think he’d have that arm strength just to generate power from what he’s got. You didn’t really see that,” said the professional scout.

“To push the ball further than 20 meters is a gamble,” said a league manager. “So vertically, they’re always challenged there with him as quarterback.”

The naysayers run counter to Mills’ team-mates, who expressed nothing but their belief in the former third-rounder in the early days of training camp. Star receiver Cooks says of Mills, “He can be great.”

Mills’ Pro Bowl left tackle Laremy Tunsil referred to the QB he’s protecting as “a sidekick.”

Confidence reigns in the dressing room as Mills can prove he’s the future. Regardless of pundits’ concerns, he has a golden opportunity. It’s his mission. If that nine-game sample runs 17 games in 2021, the Texans’ QB decision in 2023 should be an easy one.

“I’m telling you Davis is different,” said right tackle Tytus Howard. “Probably one of the most even-tempered and calm players I’ve ever been with. It will take him far.”

https://www.espn.com/nfl/story/_/id/34373641/houston-texans-qb-davis-mills-big-opportunity-real-success-possible-second-year Houston Texans QB Davis Mills has a big opportunity, but is real success possible in his second year?

Emma Bowman

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