NASHVILLE – They did not have a crystal ball, but the Tennessee Titans got a good look at the future of the NFL this season when they studied opponents’ game film as part of their weekly preparation. Sunday’s game against the Houston Texans will provide one final glimpse.
Ten quarterbacks were taken in the 2021 NFL draft and half of them, including first-rounders Trevor Lawrence (first overall), Zach Wilson (second), Justin Fields (11th) and Mac Jones (15th), will finish the season as starters for their respective franchises.
The Titans have faced three of the five a total of four times – Lawrence twice, Wilson and Jones – in their first 16 games. They will make it four quarterbacks and five games Sunday when Davis Mills, a third-round selection (67th overall), leads the Texans’ offense in the regular-season finale. (For what it’s worth, Tennessee also got a look at Fields, who played the first half of the final preseason game between the Titans and Chicago Bears).
It has not gone particularly well for the Titans. They notched a pair of victories over the Jaguars and Lawrence but lost to Wilson and Jones. Wilson’s and Jones’ career-highs for passing yards to date – 297 and 310 yards, respectively – both came against Tennessee’s defense. Lawrence, on the other hand, threw five of his league-high 17 interceptions against the Titans.
The only other NFL team with so much exposure to this year’s leading rookie quarterbacks is Buffalo, which also will make it four quarterbacks and five games Sunday when the Bills face the New York Jets and Zach Wilson, who was injured the first time the teams met this season. They already have faced Jones twice, Lawrence and Mills and went 3-1 in those games.
“Looking back at the Titans … the games that they’ve had where it’s gotten away from the teams they’ve been playing, it’s because the teams didn’t take care of the ball, and that started with the quarterback position,” Houston coach David Culley said. “It was no different last week when they played the Dolphins. That game was a lot closer until they started turning the ball over.”
The first-rounders were chosen with the idea that they would be franchise quarterbacks, and their teams have been willing to endure whatever growing pains come with playing a rookie at that spot. That is not the case with Mills, a relative novice given that he appeared in just 14 games over three seasons at Stanford. He was selected amid uncertainty about Deshaun Watson’s legal situation (Watson has not played this season) and after veteran Tyrod Taylor was signed.
Mills started six games early in the season when Taylor was injured. In mid-December, though, coaches simply turned the offense over to him and turned the final month of the season into a referendum on whether he can be a long-term option at the position.
“I didn’t know I was going to get this opportunity this early in my career, but I’m extremely grateful for it and I’m grateful for my teammates and my coaching staff, and really the whole team here to put their confidence in me and support me,” Mills said this week. “I’m ready to go out there and give them my all each week.”
He has won two of his last four starts and his 85.2 passer rating is second to Jones (92.5) among this year’s rookie class. He leads all NFL quarterbacks with a 115.4 passer rating in the red zone and he completed 14 consecutive passes – the most by a rookie since 1991 – in Week 14.
For the Titans, he presents a different challenge than Taylor, who played and led the Texans to a 22-13 victory over the Titans in Week 11. The 32-year-old passed for just 107 yards but ran for 28 more and two touchdowns.
“Last time, Tyrod was able to get out of the pocket and use his feet. His mobility really hurt us in the red zone,” Tennessee safety Amani Hooker said. “It’s a little different – more drop-back, not so much RPOs – coming from them. But they still have the same stuff.”
Houston enters the final week of the season last in the NFL in yards and 30th in points scored. However, two of its three games with 30-plus points came in the last three weeks and they have converted all but one of their red zone opportunities in the last four games. Mills has completed more than 63 percent of his throws in every game since he was reinstated as the starter, and he has thrown six touchdown passes versus two interceptions.
For Mills, Sunday’s game will be an opportunity to create a lasting impression on franchise management headed into the offseason – and to let the Titans know this will not be the last they see of him.
“Right now, it’s just go out there and attack each week, and obviously make smart decisions with the football, because that’s where completion percentage comes from,” Mills said. “Ultimately, just go out there and do my job, move the ball down the field and get our team in the end zone.”