Davis Mills broke the huddle first Tuesday morning, throwing the initial passes of an organized team activity while maintaining the same QB1 status, for now, that he ended the Texans’ season with during a costly victory over the Indianapolis Colts.
Ironically, it was Mills’ desperation fourth-down touchdown pass that led to the arrival of his eventual successor: former Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud, the second overall pick of the draft. If not for that score and ensuing two-point conversion pass to tight end Jordan Akins, then the Texans would have landed Alabama star quarterback Bryce Young.
Instead, Mills is working to try to hold off the challenge of Stroud as the Texans groom the two-time Heisman Trophy finalist to ultimately take over for him as the new starter. When that scenario will unfold is undetermined. All that Mills can do is continue to toil away and make progress heading into his third season.
Although there is trade interest in Mills, a former third-round draft pick from Stanford, he is unavailable, according to league sources.
“I’m competing for that starting job,” Mills said. “Since I’ve been drafted in the NFL I’ve been in a competition. I don’t think anything is going to change. It’s been great getting to know C.J. so far. He’s an extremely hard worker and it will be good to see how we go out there every day and make each other better.”
Mills was given two years to establish himself as the Texans’ long-term answer under center. He was largely up-and-down and appeared to regress last season after an encouraging rookie year. He was benched at one point for journeyman Kyle Allen before winning the job back when Allen was ineffective.
Does the arrival of Stroud motivate Mills even further?
“I think so, but a lot of it, I’ve always been a very self-motivated person,” Mills said. “I want to be the best player I can be. Obviously, he’s kind of another stress factor kind of pushing me to be my best, but I think a lot of that falls back on me. I’ve got to be the one putting in the work and waking up every day with that same motivation. I think, if I keep that with me, everything’s going to work itself out.”
Mills has gone 5-19-1 in two seasons as a starter. He passed for 3,118 yards, 17 touchdowns and 15 interceptions last season with a 78.8 passer rating. He had the third-lowest quarterback rating ahead of New York Jets quarterback Zach Wilson and Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett.
Mills went 3-10-1 as a starter, completing 61 percent of his throws.
Mills’ performance, shaky at times and sharp at others, and the Texans’ record led to the organizational decision to draft Stroud.
“A big learning experience,” Mills said. “Obviously, the record was what it was. We wanted to win more games, and I think it led to some of the decisions that we ended up having to make as an organization this offseason. I mean, it’s another day, another day to get better for me personally. I’m looking at it as another learning experience that’s going to add to my ability to go out there and play quarterback at a high level.”
Mills has 33 career touchdown passes and 25 interceptions.
Eventually, this will be Stroud’s offense. It’s Mills’ job to hold him off for as long as possible. Once he’s relegated to backup duty, then it’s his responsibility to mentor Stroud in a behind-the-scenes capacity.
“The big thing is trying to focus on myself: trying to get better every day,” Mills said. “Trying to put a lot of work in. Some of my weaknesses from previous years, trying to make those my strengths now. Biggest thing is kind of putting my head down and getting better each day.
“Different things I pointed out. I don’t want to say anything in particular. Don’t want to clue any defenses across the league. Just different things that I know I need to work on to make myself a better player.”
And Mills is absorbing another new offense, the third of his career. It’s the Kyle Shanahan-Gary Kubiak system that first-year offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik is installing in Houston.
“The only thing difficult is just picking up new plays and not having anything to fall back on from the year previous,” Mills said. “A lot of different offenses across the league run similar concepts, but they’re just calling it different things. Some of it is getting rid of the old verbiage and picking up new terminology. A ton of stuff we talk about in that offense is finding ways to create yards after catches by the receivers. Firing the ball in our inside-outside zone run scheme. Using our big, athletic linemen.
“Getting out on the edge and getting our play makers out on the edge, and also setting up play-action and just ways in the drop-back game to get our guys out there in space with the ability to run after catch. It’s been exciting so far. We’ve been pushing the tempo a lot, being aggressive with timing and anticipation on our side as the quarterbacks, and really trying to emphasize to those guys on the edge that we’re playing fast and we’re going to run by people this year.”
And playing for another new coach in DeMeco Ryans after previous stints and one-and-done tenures for Lovie Smith and David Culley. For Mills, change has been the constant watchword.
Ryans, a former Texans Pro Bowl linebacker signed to a six-year contract, figures to be in Houston for a long time.
“I think it goes for me and other guys in the locker room, everybody has a ton of respect for him because he’s been in our shoes especially, played for Houston,” Mills said. “He knows what it’s like to go through a training camp practice in this heat. He knows how to take care of his guys
“He knows what needs to be done to put in the work and win games and that’s kind of spread around the locker room. We feel the fire that comes from him and it’s been good. Guys have a lot of respect and we’re excited to play for him.”
What happens next with Mills isn’t entirely under his control. What he does to keep striving for improvement is, though. And he expressed confidence that he has become a better quarterback.
“Definitely,” Mills said. “Every year in this league, you feel more and more comfortable. Obviously, the hunger and the drive to become better is still there. It’s definitely a different feeling from when I was stepping in here as a rookie, not knowing anything to where I am now, having all that built-up experience from my starts over these past two years. I mean, it’s exciting. I’m blessed to have the opportunity to come in here and compete for another job. I’m ready for the year.”
Aaron Wilson is a contributor to Sports Talk 790.