Texans QB Davis Mills’ rookie season: ‘Seemed above his years’

Davis Mills’ unflappable personality, improving accuracy and growing understanding of the game largely defined his rookie season.

Mills' positives outweighed his negatives as he displayed a live arm, precise throws and, most importantly, a quick ability to process information and an ability to learn from his mistakes.

Heading into the final game of his first year in the NFL on Sunday against the AFC South champion Tennessee Titans, the Texans rookie quarterback has made a strong impression on his teammates and coaches.

“He’s always really seemed above his years,” Texans right offensive tackle Charlie Heck said. “He never really felt like a rookie, but he’s really taken strides. He really kind of commands the huddle. You see that confidence in him. You see how he is taking control of the offense and kind of being the leader that a quarterback really should be.

“You see him just making the offense slow down a little bit, calming down everybody. He’s just making everybody take a deep breath, calm down and let’s go. The next play, one play at a time. He talks to us in the huddle, we listen to him, so we believe in him. He’s leading the way right now.”

The strong-armed third-round draft pick from Stanford has outperformed fellow rookie quarterbacks drafted in the first round statistically, including Jacksonville Jaguars top overall pick Trevor Lawrence and the New York Jets’ second overall selection Zach Wilson. Mills has the second-highest rookie passer rating behind New England Patriots rookie quarterback Mac Jones.

Two games ago, Mills engineered an upset victory over the Los Angeles Chargers. He completed 20 of 27 passes for two touchdowns and no interceptions for the 4-12 Texans and registered a season-high 130.6 passer rating as he outdueled Pro Bowl quarterback Justin Herbert.

“He’s a rookie that’s learning a lot every week and a guy who keeps getting better,” said David Morris, Mills’ private quarterbacks coach who prepped Mills and Jones for the NFL draft. “When you look back at Davis' college career, he had limited starts due to injuries. He’s had incredible starts early in his career in the NFL. I’m not surprised because he’s really good and he’s going to continue to get better.

“Mac and Davis are really good ones. They’re pros. They know what it takes to play this position and it means a lot to them. They don’t cut corners and know the work and sacrifice that it takes to be good. Both have very bright futures and will keep working to ensure that."

Mills’ performance against the New England Patriots earlier this season was extremely encouraging as he displayed mobility and an ability to throw on the run, completing 21 of 29 passes for a career-high three touchdown passes and zero interceptions for a 141.7 passer rating. He completed 12 of 13 passes on third and fourth down in that game for 209 yards and two touchdowns.

It was a big-time game for Mills, especially in light of his four interceptions overall, 23.4 passer rating, and a first-half passer rating of 0.0 with one completion and two interceptions in a 40-0 road loss to the Buffalo Bills.

Mills got off to a fast start against the San Francisco 49ers with a touchdown pass to wide receiver Brandin Cooks last week, but faltered later as his one interception led to a touchdown. The running game disappeared, and he was limited to 163 passing yards and a 75.4 passer rating.

Ball security is the top priority for Mills.

“Basically, the thing he’s got to do is he’s got to be able to do that,” Texans coach David Culley said of taking care of the football. “If he continues to do that and keep progressing the way he’s progressing, just the experience that he’s getting by playing, he’s just got to play well and do the things that we need to do to give us a chance to win the ballgame. First and foremost, it’s just protect the football.”

Mills has passed for 13 touchdowns, 10 interceptions, 2,363 yards and has a respectable 85.2 passer rating. He has completed 66.5 percent of his throws.

In 12 games overall and 10 starts, Mills has gone 2-8 as the starter.

He is the leading rookie quarterback over the past month with a 68.1 completion percentage, 6.9 yards per attempt and a 96.2 passer rating

Ideally, Mills would like to see continuity from the coaching staff as he continues to gain knowledge about the NFL and how to improve as a quarterback while being coached by Culley, offensive coordinator Tim Kelly and quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator Pep Hamilton. When asked if he expected Kelly to return, Culley replied affirmatively. "100 percent," Culley saidFriday morning

“It’s big," Mills said. "I’m not saying you wouldn’t have to worry about it, but one more thing that’s similar to the previous year allows you to put more of your focus on other things so it will allow you to grow in different ways. With the same offense you’re able to do self-study on your own offense, but allow yourself to do more study on opposing defenses and just stuff from around the league to make your own game better because you’re not going to have to worry about learning a new offense and stuff like that. The continuity is great and I’m looking forward to it this offseason.”

Mills' completion percentage ranks fourth among rookie quarterbacks since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, a mark only topped by the Dallas Cowboys' Dak Prescott (67.76 percent), Jones (67.72 percent) and Herbert (66.55 percent).

Mills ranks ahead of retiring Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's 66.44 completion percentage in 2004 when he finished 15-1.

“It’s pretty cool," Mills said. "Obviously, with the guys who have been in the league for a long time and been successful, it’s cool just to be in that same discussion as them. Hopefully, my career will turn out, say like Ben Roethlisberger who just played his last home game in Pittsburgh this last weekend.

"That would be awesome if I could turn my career into something like that, but right now it’s just go out there and attack each week, and obviously make smart decisions with the football, because that’s where completion percentage comes from. Ultimately, just go out there and do my job, move the ball down the field and get our team in the end zone.”

Drafted after Lawrence, Wilson, the 49ers’ Trey Lance, the Chicago Bears’ Justin Fields, Jones, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Kyle Trask and the Minnesota Vikings’ Kellen Mond, Mills replaced veteran Tyrod Taylor as the starter and has delivered some encouraging moments.

No rookie quarterback has approached Jones’ consistency and command, but Mills’ future looks strong. Mills has two games with passer ratings of 130 or higher, the only rookie quarterback to have that many.

Mills has cut down on his interceptions after throwing eight in place of Taylor earlier this season. He has just two interceptions in the past five games and six touchdowns during that span.

“Just the way I've grown in this offense, I feel like I'm able to make smarter decisions and not force footballs into tight windows and tight coverage,” Mills said.

Overall, the Texans have witnessed growth and talent from Mills. Now, it’s a matter of building on that heading into the offseason.

“He’s making good decisions with the ball for the most part,” Kelly said. “For the most part, he’s really accurate. The last two weeks, it was encouraging to see him display not only the arm strength, but the accuracy down the field with some of those balls when we were able to stretch the defense. Again, he’s done everything we’ve asked him to do.

“ I think he’s shown he’s got the ability and talent to make every throw, to do everything that we’re going to ask our guys I do. He’s got another great opportunity on Sunday to go against a good defense, a well-coached defense, to go and take another stride and make sure we’re heading into this offseason with a good taste in our mouth.”

Mills has won two of his past four starts. He has an NFL-high 115.4 passer rating in the red zone where he’s been especially sharp and completed 17 of 26 passes for seven touchdowns and zero interceptions. He completed 14 consecutive passes against the Seattle Seahawks, the most by a rookie quarterback since 1991.

“It’s been great,” Mills said. “I didn’t know I was going to get this opportunity this early in my career, but I’m extremely grateful for it and I’m grateful for my teammates and my coaching staff, and really the whole team here to put their confidence in me and support me. I’m ready to go out there and give them my all each week.”

Houston Texans v San Francisco 49ers

Photo: Getty Images

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