Considering that Davis Mills started just 11 games as a rookie, still has just two wins under his belt and was the 66th player, and eighth quarterback, taken in the 2021 draft, what he was saying could be construed as a more-than-presumptuous thought from a 23-year-old just 14 months into his NFL career.
Take a listen.
“The thing I put in my mind each play is that I’m the best player on the field and there’s nothing the defense can do to stop me,” the Texans’ quarterback says. “Obviously, that’s not really realistic every down, but going out there with that mindset has carried me this far, and I wanna continue to have that mindset, that chip on my shoulder each and every week.”
Digest that. Then listen to his history. History that includes an illustrious start to his career as an Atlanta-area prep star, a consensus five-star rating as the country’s top pro-style high school quarterback, scholarship offers from Alabama and Georgia, a decision to go to Stanford and, after that, a litany of injuries that changed everything. He hurt his knee at the start of his senior year of high school and tore his ACL at the end of it. He tore the ACL again as a Stanford freshman and wasn’t fully healthy until his third year on campus.
Then, finally, in 2020, he became the Cardinal starter, only to have COVID-19 take that season down to five actual starts.
So, using simply logic, it’s easy to see where there might be more to Mills than you could put on the back of a football card.
And maybe, just maybe there is more here—the best player on the field—than most people realize, in a gifted, classically-trained quarterback carrying the kind of pedigree a lot of guys who did manage to make it to the first round in their draft year do. That’s the bet the Texans have made this offseason, anyway, in their first true post–Deshaun Watson year, with GM Nick Caserio’s organizational rebuild kicking into high gear.
If it works? Then, Caserio can keep building out the roster with the rest of the bounty he scored for Watson in March, without having to get desperate to find a quarterback. If it doesn’t, then a big percentage of that capital will surely get sunk into the position in a year or two.
Either way, Mills is getting his chance to prove he’s becoming the quarterback the Nick Saban’s and Kirby Smart’s of the world thought he could be, when he spurned them to play for David Shaw five years ago. And in this week’s GamePlan, we’re going to dive headlong into the fantastic opportunity Mills has in front of him, and what it could mean for Houston.
Mills, to be sure, isn’t the only non-first-rounder from the 2021 draft class—the group of prospects most affected by the pandemic, and a cloudy one to forecast because of it—who’s going into Year 2 with promise to be worth more than where he was picked. Steelers tight end Pat Freiermuth has built on a strong rookie year through the offseason. Panthers receiver Terrace Marshall Jr. had a strong spring too. Patriots tailback Rhamondre Stevenson and 49ers tailback Eli Mitchell could have breakout years.
But there might be not one with the kind of chance Mills has now, to affect so many things in the way his franchise will build from here. And maybe most fascinating is that, if you look at the totality of how he got here, it happening might not be that big a long shot at all.
“It’s very humbling where I’m at right now,” Mills told me. “Obviously, I dreamed of being in this position as a little kid, had a lot of adversity throughout the road that I had to deal with to get here. But I had a similar question asked of me before my senior season of college, I was the No. 1 recruit quarterback-wise coming out of high school and wasn’t really on the national media’s radar going into my senior year of college.
“And I had an interview where I said my confidence is still there, and that I’m exactly where I need to be, and I’m excited to go out and prove it every week, that I can go out and play with the best of them.”
That’s how he feels now and, based on their actions, the Texans are right there with him.
At the outset of the offseason, after Houston dismissed coach David Culley and offensive coordinator Tim Kelly, and promoted Lovie Smith and Pep Hamilton, respectively, to replace them, the public messaging was clear and immediate—the new guys, and Caserio too, really liked Mills, based on how he’d played, and handled an awkward situation with Watson hovering over the position, and were planning to make him their starter in ’22. Which echoed what Smith had told Mills right after the former Bears and Bucs coach got the job.
“We sat down, [Smith] told it like it is, he said, ‘Based on what you did at the end of this past season, you’ve won the starting job,’” Mills says. “‘And obviously you’ve got to compete for your position each day, but as of now, it’s your position and we want to instill as much confidence in you as possible to go out and play fast and get the team to rally behind you.’”
Teams say these things without meaning them a lot (you can ask ex-Bears quarterback Mike Glennon about that). In this case, on the other hand, as time went on, it became increasingly clear that the Texans weren’t yanking Mills’s chain.
The highest-profile veteran quarterback who was brought in was journeyman Kyle Allen, who’s been a spot starter or backup his whole career (and actually has a story that relates, in some ways, to Mills’s). The Texans took a corner with the third pick, a guard with the 15th pick, and a quarterback with no pick. So this was more than the Texans not bringing in a replacement for Mills. They weren’t even bringing in competition for him.
Even better, Mills wasn’t really worried about it to begin with.
“I trust the guys, I was confident with what they said,” Mills says. “Obviously, I watched the draft to see what new additions we were getting for our team, and what our opponents were getting. But I mean, I’m confident in where I’m at.”
And that allowed for Mills to have the kind of offseason he hasn’t, really, since high school.
Hamilton saw enough last year, as Mills’s quarterback coach, before he was promoted to coordinator, to sign off on Caserio and Smith’s decision to keep building on the Stanford alum’s rookie year. And while the talent was there, it was more than just that selling Hamilton on the idea.
“The way he finished the season, he gave everyone in the organization confidence that the traits are there, and now it’s just gaining experience and being more consistent in not only executing the offense, but managing bad plays,” Hamilton says. “A big part of the job as a quarterback, you always hear people talk about, ‘Well, you gotta win games, you’re evaluated on whether or not you win games.’ There’s more to that than just going out and executing.
“You’ve gotta have a great situational awareness, you’ve gotta have a great command of the overall unit. And when you step in the huddle, you have to distract everyone away from what they might feel and get them to focus on what the unit, and what the team and what the organization is trying to get done. And I think the more that he’s around our guys and he shows, continuously, that he’s gonna work at it, and be the type of teammate that’ll sacrifice to put our guys in a position to win, our guys will be willing to play hard for him.”
Hamilton picked out two specific games from last year to illustrate that Mills has that crucial intangible—being able to endure, and grow from mistakes—that has the Texans bullish that they can mold the guy who made as many starts last year (11) as he had in four years of college into more than just a ball of clay.
The first was against the Bills on Oct. 3. The Houston offense started the day with a three-and-out and a turnover on downs after getting the ball inside the Buffalo 20. Mills threw a pick on the team’s third possession, and everything unraveled from there, with the Texans taking a 40–0 shiner home to Houston with them.
Two and a half months later, on the day after Christmas, and after Mills had gone back to the bench (with Tyrod Taylor healthy) and later returned as full-time starter, the Texans were home against the Chargers. And a wild afternoon with ups and downs ensued. Mills stayed steady throughout, fighting through a couple mid-game lulls against Brandon Staley’s complex defense to pilot a 41-point effort in an upset win.
“He stayed focused,” Hamilton says, “and he made plays when we needed him to make plays.”
To Mills personally, it was the manifestation of a goal to use his first cluster of six starts (Weeks 2 to 8) to inform how he’d play in his second cluster of starts (Weeks 14 to 18).
“I already had some experience that I could learn from,” he says. “And then a big thing I talked about last year—you can never make the same mistake twice. I think I did that well. Came back and started making a lot better decisions, and really putting together some good football at the end of the year and showing some stuff on tape of what I could really do out there. The record that we had is what it is, but we started playing some of our best football at the end of the year, and just the growth and progression I made went with that as well.”
Which is how he earned his way to where he stands now, as the team’s undisputed starter.
And that gave him two things that, again, he hasn’t had since high school.
One, he got to work off a substantial amount of tape from the year before, with those 11 starts to study the good, the bad and the ugly of his rookie season. Two, he got a full offseason of work with teammates who knew he’d be their starter in the fall. Both were significant to where Mills finds himself now, with the spring done and camp looming.
As frustrating as the injuries were for Mills in college, the way his last year at Stanford went (which contributed to his decision to declare) was equally so. Finally entrenched as the first-team quarterback, Mills lost the shot to build with his teammates when the pandemic wiped out spring practice and later led the Pac-12 to cancel the season in the middle of fall camp. The conference later doubled back on the decision, leading to an abbreviated season that wasn’t really satisfying for anyone.
That’s why the last nine weeks have been so fulfilling for Mills. Because where much of his college career was left to what might have been, this spring became about what could be.
“Definitely, it was exciting,” he says. “I feel like we put in a lot of really good work. I feel like we’ve already installed pretty much our whole offense this offseason; coach Hamilton’s done a really good job of making sure we’re prepared. I think if we needed to go out and play a game today, we could do it. Obviously, there’s some game plan stuff we’d install each week against any opponent, but I feel like we’re in a really good spot now.
“And I’ve gotten a ton of valuable reps this offseason that’ll continue to carry me into the year.”
The extra time Mills hasn’t had since high school has given him two things he’s never had before—or at least hasn’t since all those years ago back at Greater Atlanta Christian.
First, he’s got two and a half months of coaches working with him both on the field and off to build an offense for him. That Hamilton was coach for Shaw for three years (2010 to ’12) and was his offensive coordinator for two of them gives the Texans’ OC a very solid base to work from in making Mills as comfortable as he can. And Hamilton says, from there, “Some of the terminology we’re using now in particular is similar to the terminology he was exposed to at Stanford,” which is part of an effort to get the quarterback playing fast.
Second, Mills’s teammates know he’s the guy, and that’s no small thing. It means he can be the one staying after practice with them. He can be the one telling them how he wants a route run. They can learn his tendencies and how he throws the ball. And everyone can work together with Mills offsite, too.
“Building it this far out in advance, you have time to continue building chemistry and talking through things,” Mills says. “We set one up before OTAs, throwing sessions with the guys, and we’re gonna try and do another one in July where we can go out and continue gaining those reps, and getting as good a feel with each other as possible, so we can go out and function at the best level on Sundays.”
With as much runway as they’re getting, Mills should have a much better shot to do that this year than he did last year.
This, by the way, isn’t just how the Texans see Mills. A quick check-in with rival scouts and coaches Thursday, all of whom faced Houston last year, showed some variance in opinion on Mills’s ceiling, but a unanimous feeling that he can be a viable NFL starter.
“He got better over the course of the year,” says an AFC exec. “Throws an accurate ball, good enough arm; not a run threat but good pocket athleticism and awareness, knows how to slide and avoid in the pocket. Good decision-maker, good game manager. He’s not going to win games on his own, but he won’t lose them. And he is cheap!”
“He’s better and more talented than people realize,” a head coach says. “Smooth stroke, strong, I really liked him.”
“You definitely saw the growth from when he first started,” says one NFC exec. “He’s physically talented, but probably a guy that needs pieces around him. And they need playmakers. The time he spent playing late in the year, you could see it, the line had injuries, a bunch of stuff was unsettled, and with all the other stuff with organization, it just was not conducive to a young quarterback having success.”
And that goes back to what the Texans liked so much about him coming off last year.
Now, Hamilton did say, when asked about Mills gaining momentum, that “confidence is overrated,” and ultimately where the 23-year-old’s self-assuredness goes from here will be a product of experience and consistency. That said, at least Mills is now getting some, which is finally allowing him to build on his natural ability.
“Physically, he’s talented,” Hamilton says. “He can make all the throws, he’s a lot more athletic than what you’d assume, because he’s, I guess, what you’d consider a prototypical type of pocket passer coming out of Stanford. But the position is all about decision-making and just really working to get his eyes and feet in sync, and ultimately gaining a great understanding of NFL defenses, so he can be quicker making good decisions.”
That said, with all that accounted for, and after all he’s been through, just having the chance to get there is something that Mills is thankful for. And thinking about it takes him to conversations he’s had with fellow Stanford alum Andrew Luck. The two talked while Mills was in school, and have talked a little more now that Mills is with Hamilton, who coached Luck both in college and the pros.
They talk football, of course. But, Mills says, “His biggest advice is always just have as much fun with it as possible.” And that hit home for Mills because just as injuries delayed his own rise as a football player, they wound up ending Luck’s.
“When it comes down to it, when you think about it big picture, we’re out there playing a child’s game for a good living,” Mills says, of what he took from Luck’s message. “We’re living out our dreams every day. It’s a stressful job, but when you think of it that way, we’re having a blast doing it, trying to be the best at our jobs, the best at our positions we can be, and trying to put something together as a team that we’re proud of.”
And Mills, for sure, has always seen himself capable of getting here, with the chance to be what a lot of people figured he someday could be.
Now, finally, we’ll all get to see how far he takes that.
MORE FROM THIS WEEK
1. This quote from Jadeveon Clowney is worth paying attention to: “I was all about where my boy Deshaun was going. I just wanted to go play with him and see what I can do with him again.” Indeed, the prevailing thought before Clowney re-upped with the Browns was that he was either going to stay or go back to the South, to be nearer to his native South Carolina. So the story, with Watson’s other suitors all being in that region, checks out. But beyond just that, it also indicates that playing with Watson remains a draw for other players, despite everything that’s happened the last 16 months. As does the fact that Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr.’s interest in playing in Cleveland was renewed with Watson’s arrival there back in March. (Even though, obviously, Landry’s now gone, and chances seem slim Beckham goes back.)
2. I’ve said this more than a few times: The fewer details that come out on Lamar Jackson’s negotiation with the Ravens, the better. Baltimore’s closed ranks on this one, and that’s an acknowledgment of how important trust is to Jackson. The relationship between player and team has always been good, in this case, and the Ravens know keeping it that way will be vital to doing a megadeal with a guy who doesn’t have an intermediary doing his deal for him.
3. Minkah Fitzpatrick’s contract in Pittsburgh is a pretty good sign that we’ve been overvaluing first-round picks for some time now. People thought the Steelers were way off to deal their first in 2020 to Miami for Fitzpatrick in September of ’19. And the Steelers’ return, now? A two-time first-team All-Pro who’s started 46 games for the team and done it for a total of just $5.78 million in Pittsburgh. That he makes over $18 million per now—the highest rate ever for a safety—and the Steelers chose to lock him up through ’26 as part of that pact is a great illustration of what a bargain they got three years ago. And the Dolphins’ piece of this? They took Austin Jackson with the 18th pick in ’20, to replace another vet, Laremy Tunsil, they traded. Jackson didn’t make it as a left tackle, necessitating the signing of Terron Armstead at a rate of $18 million per year. New coach Mike McDaniel’s now giving the former first-rounder a look at right tackle.
4. We’re seeing the assistant GM title used more now, with the Eagles (Alec Halaby, Jon Ferrari) and Browns (Glenn Cook, Catherine Raîche) each naming two of them. Why this trend? Well, it’s a good way to reward folks for their work. But it’s also, under the new rules, a position from which teams can block execs from leaving for anything but a true GM job.
5. People asked for my explanation the other day when I said, in response to George Kittle asking for a second bye week as part of the 17-game schedule, that the networks weren’t going for a 19-week slate. And that sounds weird, since another week of NFL programming is, well, another week of NFL programming. So why wouldn’t they want that? Well, as it stands, it’s pretty challenging for the league to maintain strong Sunday afternoon doubleheaders while still putting compelling inventory on Sunday night, Monday night, Thursday night, holidays and the occasional Sunday mornings overseas. If they added another bye week … it’d be that much more difficult, because you’d necessarily be working with fewer games per week. Which, in turn, would give you a diluted product. So I get Kittle’s point. I also don’t think it’ll come to pass anytime soon.
6. Dan Snyder refusing to testify before the House Oversight Committee is another bad look for the Commanders’ owner, considering all that he’s been accused of. But I guess we’re long past the point of him caring about that.
AND ONE THING TO LEAVE YOU WITH
I love this gesture from new Bears coach Matt Eberflus.
Eberflus has embraced the history of the franchise really from the minute he accepted the job back in the winter. And this is a really cool way of showing it, and a great way to create a teaching moment for the players while you’re at it.
More NFL Coverage: