Texans' Davis Mills: 'I feel like I'm at a good spot'

Texans quarterback Davis Mills broke the huddle, quickly scanning the field to read the defense and identify the formation, alignment, and personnel. Mills' mental checklist unfolded in rapid-fire fashion as he operated from the shotgun formation, going through everything from his protection to his receivers' progressions while diagnosing the defensive scheme.

Mills took the snap and quickly found the open target, connecting with imposing tight end Pharaoh Brown for a touchdown in the back of the end zone with a well-placed spiral. It was a snapshot of Mills' work this spring, which has been a growing collection of him playing faster and looking more comfortable and confident heading into his pivotal second NFL season and his first as the designated starter for the Houston Texans.

A lot hinges on this season for Mills, a strong-armed former third-round draft pick from Stanford, who finished last season in impressive fashion on a 4-13 squad. Mills had the second-best statistical performance among rookie quarterbacks behind his friend, New England Patriots starter Mac Jones, and outplayed first-round draft picks in Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, and Justin Fields.

The early returns from minicamp and organized team activities from Mills are encouraging, including how he organized informal throwing sessions earlier this offseason in his hometown of Atlanta and how he has improved his lower body strength and knowledge of the offense.

“I feel like I'm at a good spot," Mills said. "Obviously there's still a lot of room to grow, but more confident, more comfortable out there with the offense and my teammates around me. Ready to keep progressing and head into the season.

"I think one big thing that's helped me a lot is just comfortability out there. Just having experience and being able to make fast, smart decisions and protect the football.”

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% of his throws for a franchise rookie record 2,664 yards to surpass former top overall pick, David Carr. Mills threw 16 touchdowns and 10 interceptions for a respectable 88.8 passer rating.

The fact that Mills has displayed leadership qualities and a strong work ethic hasn't gone unnoticed. Mills' comfort level is something the Texans are banking on as he works closely with newly promoted offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton, the replacement for Tim Kelly.

“Every day we’ve opened up the building, he’s been in here," Texans coach Lovie Smith said. "He’s our quarterback. When you’re the leader, you’ve got to be visible. It’s been documented on what I think of Davis. I think he’s going to be an excellent quarterback in the NFL for a lot of years, but it’s about this year.

"Having a year, he and Pep Hamilton getting on the same page with our offense, and him being in a role from the start, that’s different also. But that’s what you do. You have a chance for him to establish himself as one of our primary leaders each day."

In the final four games of the season, Mills completed 68.9% of his throws to go 2-2. He passed for 927 yards, eight touchdowns, two interceptions, and a 106.1 passer rating during that span. In eight home games at NRG Stadium overall, Mills passed for 12 touchdowns with one interception. He had four games with 100+ passer ratings, including 141.7 in a loss to the Patriots, 130.6 in an upset victory over the Los Angeles Chargers, 128.5 against the Tennessee Titans, and 106.2 against the Los Angeles Rams.

“Definitely. I think experience is a big factor in how my game progressed through the last season," Mills said. "These reps I've gotten in this offseason are extremely valuable, and I'm excited to keep progressing. I still have a lot to prove to myself and to my teammates to go out there and win games. But we're all excited for it, and I want to keep moving forward.”

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 the loss to New England and during the season finale. Mills also had the most 125.0 or higher passer ratings among rookie quarterbacks, ranking first among them with four 300-yard passing games.

Where the Texans are seeing and hoping for continued growth is how quickly he processes and how frequently he makes the right decision.

“Well, you expect from Year 1 to Year 2, any player or any quarterback in particular to have a better sense of an NFL defense," Hamilton said. "That’s going to allow him to process information faster, and ultimately make better decisions, or be more consistent in making good decisions.”

The partnership and collaboration between Mills and Hamilton is critical. They spend countless hours together at NRG Stadium breaking down film and talking football strategy. Their relationship is a good one.

“I like him a lot," Mills said of Hamilton, who was promoted from passing game coordinator and quarterbacks coach when Smith was promoted from defensive coordinator to head coach. "He's been coaching the quarterback position for years now, so he really understands what we see back there and how we can react to things and how we can progress forward after bad plays.

"It feels like -- we've only been together for a year now, but he's known about me since before I was even at Stanford. We have a really good connection in that regard. We feel like we're on a really good similar page with a lot of things, so we're excited how everything is moving.”

The Texans had the worst running game in the NFL last season as a failed committee approach backfired. The Texans got some solid play at the end of the season from Rex Burkhead after trading Mark Ingram, but, generally, the running game was substandard, and former starter David Johnson wasn't retained as a free agent.

The Texans averaged just 3.4 yards per carry and 83.6 rushing yards per game. The lack of run blocking was a large factor as Pro Bowl left tackle Laremy Tunsil injured his thumb and played in only five games. Meanwhile, right tackle Tytus Howard played out of position at left guard and then left tackle. Offensive guard was a large problem as there wasn't enough push in the middle of the line.

This offseason, the Texans signed former Indianapolis Colts starter Marlon Mack as a potential primary back and drafted bruising Florida RB Dameon Pierce in the fourth round. If the running game improves significantly, that could go a long way toward making the entire offense and Mills more successful.

The Texans also signed veteran wide receiver Brandin Cooks to a $39.6 million contract extension, drafted former Alabama standout John Metchie III in the second round, and are hopeful that second-year WR Nico Collins and TE Brevin Jordan will make significant improvements.

“We've brought in a lot of guys with a lot of experience," Mills said. "I feel like everyone is really bought into what we're trying to do out here. I feel like we've really set the standard for how we want to treat things around this building and how we want to go at things, practice and working out wise, meeting wise. I feel like we're in a really good spot, and we have a lot of good leaders on the team who are leading the team in that direction. ..

“It's been great. As much time on task with the guys as we can get as possible is how we're going to be the best. I feel like we've put a lot of really good work in. Everyone is on the same page and our chemistry is at a really good spot right now. But obviously, we can keep growing and I'm excited for it.”

During a loss to the AFC South champion Titans to close out the season, Mills was extremely impressive in passing for three touchdowns and zero interceptions. The performance continued Mills’ upward trend as he sparked the offense.

Cooks, a deep threat with 4.33 speed in the 40-yard dash, caught 90 passes for 1,037 yards and six touchdowns last season.

“I just think his leadership and his confidence is really taking control in that huddle," Cooks said. "He’s not that rookie anymore. He comes in, he knows that’s his huddle, and that’s what you look for in your quarterback and he’s definitely doing that.”

New teammates, including right guard A.J. Cann, a former Jaguars starter who played last season with Lawrence, have taken note of Mills' low-key, even-keel personality.

“I love Davis, very humble, laid-back, doesn’t really talk much, but he’s a very, very cool quarterback," Cann said. "I got a lot of respect for Davis. Trevor was a quiet dude. He was a leader. Didn’t really need to speak unless he had to. I kind of see a little of that in Davis. Really doesn’t talk much, but when he gets in the huddle you see he is very poised and very confident, and I love that about a quarterback.”

For the Texans, in their second season under general manager Nick Caserio, arguably the most important pending decision is determining whether Mills is their quarterback of the future after this season. If not, will they need to acquire a proven veteran passer or try to land a top rookie prospect like Ohio State's C.J. Stroud or Alabama's Bryce Young?

For Mills, it's about being in the moment and capitalizing on this prime opportunity to be the guy as the Texans' QB1.

“It's awesome," Mills said. "I still have a lot to prove. Got to go out there and win the job each and every day and put my best foot forward each and every day out here at practice. It's exciting and I want to keep proving that to the guys.”

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