PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Rifling passes while operating a more free-wheeling offense during the final game of his rookie season, Texans quarterback Davis Mills delivered an encouraging last note to his rookie season during a season finale against the Tennessee Titans.
In a 28-25 loss to the AFC South champions to close out the season, Mills was extremely impressive in passing for three touchdown passes and zero interceptions. The performance continued Mills’ upward trend as he sparked the offense and made his case to enter the 2022 season as the Texans’ starting quarterback.
The Texans like the progress they've seen from Mills as their extremely likely QB1. And the Texans are considered unlikely to trade for a veteran quarterback like Baker Mayfield or Jimmy Garoppolo, according to league sources not authorized to speak publicly.
While Mills went 2-9 in 11 starts as the replacement for veteran quarterback Tyrod Taylor, Mills had his moments. He completed 66.8 percent of his throws for a franchise rookie record 2,664 yards to pass former top overall pick David Carr for 16 touchdowns and 10 interceptions for a respectable 88.8 passer rating.
"I got to see the best, some of the best, of what Davis could do last year, practice field, game, all of that," Texans coach Lovie Smith said Monday morning during the annual NFL owners meetings. "So you start with that. Demeanor, he’s smart. He can throw the ball. He’s a better athlete than he’s given credit for.
"Second year in the system with Pep Hamilton, all of those things just feel like [it puts him] ahead of the curve a little bit. And I’ve been around a few quarterbacks in my time. I know what they look like and we’re excited about going forward with him.”
Mill was as advertised in terms of being a big pocket passer with arm talent and sufficient mobility and scramble to create passing lanes when under duress.
For the 4-13 Texans, Mills finished strong.
He completed 68.9 percent of his throws to go 2-2 in the final four games of the season for 927 yards, eight touchdowns, two interceptions and a 106.1 passer rating during that span. In home games at NRG Stadium, Mills passed for 12 touchdowns with one interception. Mills had four games with 100 or higher passer ratings, including a 141.7 in a loss to the New England Patriots, 130.6 in an upset victory over the Los Angeles Chargers, 128.5 against the Titans and 106.2 against the Los Angeles Rams.
Throughout his rookie season, Mills maintained his composure.
"I think his ability to kind of handle everything that comes with playing that position and not get too rattled or too flustered," Texans general manager Nick Caserio said. "You guys have talked to Davis, his personality is even-keel, which is kind of a good thing. You don't get too high, you don't get too low. It doesn't necessarily mean there's not that internal drive. He's a competitive person, it's just his personality is such, which isn't a bad thing to have.
"I think he kind of handled everything put in front of him last year as well as he could have. When he went back in and played, he was able to kind of build on some of the things he struggled with early on. Those last four or five games he played at a decent level and at least gave us an opportunity to win. The most important thing at that position is just take care of the football and not turn the ball over. If you do that as a quarterback, you at least give your team an opportunity to go out and win."
Against the Titans, Mills completed 23 of 33 passes for 301 yards.
Just twice this season, a rookie passed for 300 yards with three touchdowns and zero interceptions in one game. Both times it was Mills, who hit those marks in a loss to the New England Patriots and the Atlanta native again during the season finale.
“I think the biggest thing was probably that I know I’m able to compete at a really high level in the NFL," Mills said after the season. "I think it took a couple games at the start of the season for me to get a really good grasp of the game at this level. But I think really ever since I came back into the starting role in the second half of the season, the game started to slow down a little bit for me. The better I knew the offense, I just felt more confident out there playing with all my teammates. I think some of the wins later in the season showed that. Also, I think we started to find our identity as an offense when we’re out there really just having a great time on the field competing together.
“I think just being in the offense, in the scheme for longer, I was able to get a better understanding for it. Really focused on what we needed to do on specific plays and certain situations in the game. There were things that I learned, in-game experience that I was able to kind of pull from later in the season when making decisions and kind of managing the clock, managing the whole game. I think just the experience from those reps early in the season allowed me to grow as a player.”
Mills isn't the type to pat himself on the back, but he knows he's on the right track. He got vastly better at reading defenses and in his understanding of the nuances of the game.
“I don’t know if I’m at mastery level of anything yet," Mills said. "I think I definitely have improved. I hope I get to that mastery level at some point. I think a lot of it, just being more efficient breaking the huddle, getting up to the line and making sure we’re in the right protection, pointing to the correct person, things like that where I’m able to see maybe the linebackers are bossed one way, but the safeties are showing that they’re in a two-high shell, but being able to anticipate that a safety might roll down and add into the box. Just kind of being able to work all that in your brain a lot quicker because you’ve seen it before, a bunch of different stuff like that has really allowed me to improve later in the season.”
The way Mills played, he showed he’s more of a solution than a problem for a rebuilding franchise.
“You can tell he is just getting way more comfortable,” Texans linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill said. “I was very happy and impressed with how he played, him slinging it around, throwing touchdowns. And there's been a lot of glimpses where he just flashes like an elite-level quarterback. I'm excited for his future.”
Mills had the most 125.0 or higher passer ratings among rookie quarterbacks, ranking first among rookies with four 300-yard passing games.
"The big thing from Year 1 to Year 2 is just improvement," Caserio said. "You obviously have a familiarity with the expectations from day to day, so you really have to focus on your individual craft and try to improve as much as possible as a player, whether it's working on your lower body strength or working on your timing with the receivers, it's just growth and it's just progress.
"That's the most important thing at this time of year. That's really the most important thing and try to establish a consistent routine in the spring and you can actually try to make improvement as a player. That's really the most important thing."
Aaron Wilson is a Pro Football Network reporter and analyst and a contributor to Sports Talk 790.