Lovie Smith watched Davis Mills rifle passes for his entire rookie season, watching his progression from some rough moments during a red-zone training camp drill to emerge as a quarterback capable of beating NFL defenses with his arm and his mind.
The Texans coach stuck an upbeat tone Monday morning while discussing the former Stanford standout. As the Texans' projected QB1, Mills has arm strength, size, mobility and a growing knowledge of the game working in his favor.
While Mills hasn't been anointed as the Texans' quarterback of the future, he's being given every opportunity this offseason to establish himself and build with the AFC South franchise.
“I am a believer in him and what he’s going to do," Smith said. "Eventually he’s got to do it all on the football field consistently where everybody loves him every snap and all of that. But before a guy has played enough to do all of that, he shows up everyday. Availability, he is available. He has recruited other players to come here, and what the guys see him doing is just working.
"When I say I believe in him, (offensive coordinator) Pep Hamilton, second year in the system, all of these things, if you just go back and look at the plays he made throwing the ball downfield last year, there are so many good things he did. And that’s as a rookie. The improvement you see from year one to year two is normally a big improvement, and that’s what we’re going to get from him. Just like every other position, he’s going to take a few hits, strengthen his body, all of that. That’s what we’re doing with him now.”
In a 28-25 loss to the AFC South champion Tennessee Titans 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.
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.
The fact that Mills has displayed leadership qualities, including organizing a throwing session at his high school in Georgia with receivers and reserve quarterback Jeff Driskel hasn't gone unnoticed.
“Davis is our quarterback, so that’s one thing about leadership," Smith said. "In order to lead, you’ve got to show up. You’ve got to be here. They have to see you in every situation and not just on the football field. For Davis, for the team to get a chance to know him, just hanging out in the facility. Just him being around us."
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 during the NFL owners meetings. "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."
Just twice last 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.
Mills had the most 125.0 or higher passer ratings among rookie quarterbacks, ranking first among rookies with four 300-yard passing games.
“Heading into the second season, I think that the simple fact that we are talking about Davis as potentially being our starting quarterback, it’s going to be really important that he brings a certain level of consistency every day in the meeting rooms, in the weight room, out on the field with our guys and the strength coaches," Hamilton said. "As well as continuing to work to understand NFL defenses so that he can go out and play faster and be a better decision-maker with the football.”
There are specific criteria where Hamilton wants to see Mills improve: how fast he processes and how quickly he is able to adapt to defenses and deliver accurate throws.
“First and foremost, we have to speed up our drops," Hamilton siad. "That’s a big part of staying on schedule in the passing game. We have to continue to work on managing the pocket and keeping our eyes down field. There’s a lot of times when we get off schedule and we moved off our spot. There is a spot that we typically set up at the top of our drops. Well, if you have to move off your spot, you just want to maintain your throwing posture, keep your eyes downfield and continue your progression and if it means finding your check down, we’ll do just that.
“It sounds like it’s a lot more complex than what it really is. I think the thing that is the most challenging at times is just understanding that there is a clock associated with every time the ball is snapped and us making fast, effective, quick decisions with the football. It works together to help us stay on schedule and execute our plays.”
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 after the season. "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.”Aaron Wilson is a Pro Football Network reporter and analyst and a contributor to Sports Talk 790.