Commanding the huddle, organizing informal offseason workouts in his hometown and delivering the football accurately, Davis Mills is determined to make the most of his opportunity as the Texans' starting quarterback.
Mills enters his second NFL season having finished his rookie year with some encouraging performances.
For the strong-armed former third-round draft pick from Stanford, it's about intangibles and leadership qualities as much as it is about his efficiency and knowledge of the playbook and opposing defenses.
“I think a lot of the growth that I’ve made just comes with experience out there," Mills said as the Texans launched their voluntary offseason conditioning program at NRG Stadium. "Just getting those game reps in. Being able to react faster to different defensive looks. Had a better feel of the system at the end of last year. Obviously, we are in a new offensive scheme this year, but I’ve already seen a couple of the first installs and I’m looking forward to actually get out and running them on the field because it’s familiar to me from what I did in college. I’m extremely excited and hope that the growth from the last year continues straight into the next one.
“I’m definitely comfortable. I think the biggest thing is being a leader for the team. It starts with showing up every day. Showing the team that you are here to put in work. I think people mention a lot that the quarterback’s role is a vocal leader and I think that comes with the position. I’ve been doing that my whole life so I’m ready for that challenge and that standpoint of it. The biggest thing is going out and showing up every day in meeting rooms, weight room, on the field and gaining the respect of my teammates so I can take on that role.”
While Mills went 2-9 in 11 starts as the replacement for veteran quarterback Tyrod Taylor, he also 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.
And teammates have already noticed a change in Mills, including a certainty of purpose as he goes about his work.
“I can already see the confidence of him walking throughout the building, the way he is talking to other guys, the way he going to carry himself in and out of meetings, on and off the field," veteran linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill said. "I think that is going to go a long way in itself. I think having Brandin Cooks back, Justin Britt and all those kind of guys around him is only going to help.”
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. Mills' comfort level all-around is something the Texans are banking on as he works closely with newly-promoted offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton, the replacement for Tim Kelly.
“I am a believer in him and what he’s going to do," Texans coach Lovie 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, 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.”
During a 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.
And Mills, who has a low-key, even-keel personality, hasn't changed much, if at all, but he acknowledged he's feeling good about what he's doing.
“I’ve always been a very confident player," Mills said. "I heard a quote back in the day, ‘There’s a fine line between confidence and cockiness,’ and you kind of want to be on the conservative side of it. But I’m kind of dancing on that border, so I feel like I’ve done that well. I’m excited every day to go out and compete, so I think that’s a big one. A lot of it is just going out there and having confidence in those guys around you, too, and that’s what we’re doing in the offseason right now is coming together as a team and putting the work in, and kind of showing everybody that we’re here to work and we’re here to work as a team to get wins. ..The biggest thing is continuing on that trajectory that I started to play better last year and take that into camp and continue to improve.”
From when he was thrown into action against the Cleveland Browns in the second game of last season when Taylor injured his hamstring to the end of the season, Mills made a lot of strides. He threw a touchdown pass in his first NFL game on the road in the loss to Cleveland.
“You could look back at the end of the year compared to whenever he came in in Cleveland, the way he went about it, the calmness he had toward the end of the year, Tennessee, we started the first half terribly, we come back and we should’ve won the game, I’d argue," Texans center Justin Britt said. "Talk about his leadership, his calmness, his work ethic, his competitiveness, and that’s just kind of what we all want to be offensively, defensively."
For a 4-13 squad, 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.
Smith stuck an upbeat tone while discussing the former Stanford standout. As the Texans' 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.
How does Mills lead? Primarily, through his actions, not his words.
“The biggest cliché one is just leading by example," he said. "People say that’s not a true form of leader because they aren’t stepping up and being vocal for the team, but I think it starts by kind of leading by example and showing people you are there to work but when the moment presents itself, being able to step up and be a vocal leader. Hold someone accountable, be able to be held accountable yourself and see how the team response and rallies around that."
Mills' workouts at Greater Atlanta Christian High School, where he was a blue-chip recruit, were attended by several players, including backup quarterback Jeff Driskel, wide receivers Chris Conley and Davion Davis and Jalen Camp.
“It was great," Mills said. "Recently, we had a handful of guys out in Atlanta at my high school. Just brought people together to get some work and really continue to build that chemistry and show everyone it’s more than football. We are out here enjoying our time together and continuing to grow together.”
One of the biggest assets for Mills was the Texans signing wide receiver Brandin Cooks to a two-year, $39.6 million contract extension. Cooks, 28, was the Texans' Most Valuable Player in unanimous balloting from the Pro Football Writers of America Houston chapter. Mills also has wide receiver Nico Collins and tight end Brevin Jordan returning after encouraging rookie years.
“To start with Brandin, it’s huge that we signed him back," Mills said. "I’m extremely excited to continue working with him. He has a ton of talent and makes it really hard on defenses to game plan to go out there to stop him, so that’s the biggest thing first. He’s also a great leader for our team and for the younger guys in that room who are going to be catching passes, for Nico, for Brevin.
"Just setting the example of how they work and that’s something that Nico and Brevin have fed on and looked at him to realize how a pro prepares and handles themselves week in and week out to continue to perform as the season goes on. I think those guys have taken that in last year and have really taken the next step going into this year.”
The Texans' offense struggled at times last season. Mills was hurt by a lack of a dynamic running game. That affected the play-action passing game noticeably. The Texans signed Marlon Mack and may draft a running back, too. They also retained veteran running back Rex Burkhead.
Iowa State consensus All-American running back Breece Hall is visiting the Texans on Wednesday, according to a league source.
The offense remains a work in progress.
“It’s really a multitude of things," Mills said. "The biggest thing is that we are going to mix it up, run and pass. Obviously, run to open up the pass or pass to open up the run. Mix it in that way but also take advantage of big plays and vertical routes down the field. That will be one. A lot of it is just getting the ball to playmakers in space. Pep has already thought of a lot of really good ways to do that and I’m excited to start running it and get the reps with our team.”
“The biggest thing is going out and being able to compete again. Love chasing competition. I think that’s the most enjoyable thing about football is going out there and being able to compete Sundays, Mondays or Thursdays, so that’s the big thing. I think we started playing our best football at the end of last year and I think everyone kind of felt that. Everyone came back hungrier this offseason, so we are ready to attack and go out and start strong once we get to camp and through OTA’s until we get to the start of the season.
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.
“A lot of it is continuing to grow chemistry with the receivers and the guys that I’m throwing the ball to," Mills said. "So, personally, continuing to stay quick at the start of the drops so I’m able to play ahead of the game and not be surprised by something. Something might pop before I’m ready for it footwork-wise. That’s one big thing, just continuing to build that chemistry and timing with the receivers.”
Aaron Wilson is a Pro Football Network reporter and analyst and a contributor to Sports Talk 790.