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I need to start out this breakdown with a little bit of a rant about the optics because a very effective bit of PR-speak that the Texans have put out there is that Mills “could have been a first-round pick in 2021.” Well, here’s why that works well for them:
– it’s optimistic
– it’s completely unprovable, because we’ll never get a chance to see how that would have played out
– Mills has started so few games that it creates a vacuum of uncertainty about what he’ll become, so leaning into that idea works in the same way that this is the year that Kahale Warring will finally show us what he can do. Anybody with an NFL-level body can do the things it takes to be an NFL starter. The subset of those who do is small, and the subset of those who do without demonstrating it loudly in college is smaller.
The problem is that, well, if he went back to school, he could also have bombed and gone undrafted. It’s not hard to see the physical tools and pedigree that got the Texans interested in Mills. It’s not hard to see the splashes of advanced play that you want from your quarterback. What Mills lacks on his game-by-game resume — the top-strength arm throws that would wow scouts — isn’t really something that Stanford’s offense creates. They didn’t create many of them for Andrew Luck either. But the opportunities that he’s had to hit those throws have been less hit and more hit-or-miss.
Projecting Mills to be a first-round pick in 2022 would have relied on a lot of growth over this next college football season. He was inconsistent when he played, and he didn’t have many starts in college. His process was great on some downs and sloppy on others. His seam throws were good sometimes and poor on others. The highlights, more than anything, make a quarterback prospect sizzle to the scouts and there are a few really nice ones on Mills’ reel. But on a down-by-down basis, I don’t think there’s a lot of dispute that Mills left plenty on the bone last year. He will need to improve from what he is coming out to be an NFL starter.
And he can do that. In no way should we rule that out. But let’s be honest about what he’s starting from.
Where this prospect comes from
Mills came out as an Elite 11 quarterback with offers to basically any school he wanted out of Atlanta. Alabama, Georgia, Miami, Michigan, Michigan State, Ole Miss, USC, UCLA, Wisconsin were among the schools that made offers. He settled on Stanford. He was 61st on ESPN’s 300 in 2017. Here’s the scouting report on him from that time:
AREAS OF IMPROVEMENT: Lean and will need to fill out his frame. Lacks the cannon arm to make all the throws. Does not have the speed to be a true dual threat. Mechanics are less than ideal, but he gets the job done. … BOTTOM LINE: Mills is a very polished passer at this stage. If he can add some more bulk, he has a chance to get on the field sooner rather than later at the next level.
Mills was only 198 pounds coming out of high school and he obviously made good on the bulking up bit.
Physically Mills hits a lot of the traditional benchmarks to become an NFL quarterback. The one that stands out to me after watching him play is that his hand size of 9 1/2-inches is just barely in that traditional checkmark box. There are throws where Mills seems to have a good idea of where the ball should go but the ball just comes out a little bit awkward and I’m wondering if that is a hand size issue or not.
As a runner, the Cardinal used Mills as a part of their read-option package and he carried the ball fine. He has solid enough speed but not a lot of change of pace on the go. I didn’t see anything that would keep him from being a part of a package, and he has the size to take a solid NFL-style hit. Sometimes he comes up with plays that surprise you as a physical specimen because he seems a little underwhelming and then all of the sudden this happens under pressure:
Mills did not play against Oregon in Stanford’s season opener of a COVID-impacted short schedule, but he played enough to lead the Cardinal in expected points added. The Stanford pass offense was slightly above-average, but their defense had a down season in 2021 and that kept them at 4-2.
Stanford played a regular schedule in 2019 and Mills split time with K.J. Costello. Stanford’s defense got blasted, allowing 29.8 points per game and allowing six separate teams to drop at least 30 points on them, including Washington State and Arizona. Mills handily out-played Costello in completion rate, yards per completion, yards per attempt, and was about even on yards per carry. Costello transferred. The Stanford offense tended to play ball control and were interested in staying on schedule, so they weren’t very explosive. They did wind up running a fairly low amount in both 2019 and 2020 because of the defense. The Cardinals wound up 67th in 2019 passing S&P+ and 31st in 2020 total S&P+. (Sorry about not having a passing split, Bill Connelly went behind the paywall.)
As a “pro-style” quarterback, whatever that actually means in 2021, Mills relies on his intuition and reads. He wanted to go to a team that would let him do that. I’ll get to the eval on that in a bit, but that was the one interesting thing I heard from his Pro Day presser. I think he knows that he is going as far as his mind will take him.
Mills decided to come out this year in part because of how badly COVID wrecked Stanford’s season, to the point where they couldn’t play home games — and obviously there was a late start factored in to that. David Shaw explained a little further on In The Loop a few weeks ago:
And so that’s how he became available for the draft, how his college team fared, and the circumstances that created him. Let’s talk about how he actually played.
Texans fans are obviously a bit spoiled from the past couple of seasons as far as how Deshaun Watson performed off-script. You can’t reasonably expect Mills to provide that level of play in those scenarios, because Watson’s ability on off-script plays are part of what makes him a franchise quarterback to begin with. But I was pleasantly surprised that Mills showed some good improvisation skills. I take this next video bit from The QB School — aka J.T. O’Sullivan, former NFL quarterback — who has done four different videos on Mills that I think are a good watch as far as what to expect.
Mills shows some really good intuition on this rep. Reads the play well, goes through his progressions, knows enough to know that his back would get one-on-one, and this is not a wildly easy throw on the run with a man in his face. If you think about the major factors you’d want in an NFL quarterback, outside of the cannon arm, I think Mills displayed all of them at some point in his career at Stanford. He gets deep into his reads, he shows some ability to win outside of the structure of the play, he shows plus-plus anticipation, he can place balls really well on the seams and outside, he is willing to step into throw. Look at this ball in the face of this pressure:
That’s stupendous placement with a free runner, the kind of jaw-dropper that they make highlight reels out of. That’s not the only time I’ve seen him drop a throw like that into a rusher either, so he’s comfortable with the hits. That’s humongous for my own personal evaluation of his worthiness because there’s nothing I can’t stand more after (under breath) watching certain quarterbacks who have been employed here (/under breath) take crumplesacks.
So, the thing with Mills is that he’ll show you that, and he’ll also show you a lot of process where you’re wondering what exactly he’s seeing. I’ll go back to the QB School tapes for a clip that just simply has to be a throwaway while I note that I don’t think much of Stanford’s play-action game worked well so it should be a smooth transition to Tim Kelly’s offense…
Finally, I think this play from the 2019 USC game exemplifies a lot about Mills’ downside as a prospect:
They have the play they want. Check. The receiver wins on the double move. Check. Mills sells it with a terrific pump fake. Check. Process all good. The throw’s not even in the receiver’s basic area.
That’s the play I kept coming back to with Mills’ lowlights. He shows a lot of technical prowess as a player. He sees what he has created fairly well. But then it’s time to throw the ball and, well, sometimes this happens:
Walking away from about 7-8 of Mills’ games watched and slowed down, I think there’s a lot of upside to him as a player and I can see what the hype is about. It’s just also kind of obvious that, well, if he hits the throws he creates, he’d be a first-round prospect. He didn’t, and so he’s here in the third round. That’s the rub. That’s why “he would have been a first-round prospect” has become the saying around the hub, because projecting improvement in a football player is victimless and we all do it for the guys we are rooting for.
How he fits the Texans
Well, nobody cares about the Stanford Virtual Reality System stats, Davis. Sorry, I think you’re in for some learning on the bench and I think that would have been the case on a good team or a bad team. Nick Caserio basically gave a 300-word “no comment” when asked about Mills’ franchise quarterback status:
I totally understand the pick. If you hit on Davis Mills then you either a) find yourself not needing a quarterback or b) find yourself in a spot where you might be able to pick a quarterback and trade a Mills who maybe showed some real steps forward in 2021 before the 2022 draft. It’s the highest-upside swing this team could make and they desperately need high-upside swings. Zero complaints about the pick. I preferred Mills over Kellen Mond and Kyle Trask in that tier.
I do want to leave you, though, with this thought. The Texans under Brian Gaine successfully insta-started Justin Reid, created roles for Jordan Akins, Jordan Thomas and Keke Coutee. They did that without a first- or second-round pick. Since that draft, when was the last time you can remember someone the Texans had starting right away and being legitimately good? As a rider, who on the roster do you think has developed appreciably well under Jack Easterby’s tutelage? I think I could sit here today and write that Reid’s best season was 2018. I don’t know that Tytus Howard and Max Scharping — handicapped as they were by Mike Devlin — took a major step forward in 2020. Thomas got cut. Akins and Coutee have seen roles seized from them by free agents. Lonnie Johnson probably had the best season of any of the 2019 picks and he had to move to safety mid-season. Charles Omenihu is absolutely the best success story since Easterby came on and I don’t think I’ve seen enough to leave me convinced he can handle being a run downs player as a base 4-3 end.
So Mills has appreciable upside, but he’s now a Texan. Is that a death knell? No. But am I a little skeptical that this group will grow him well? You better believe it. I hope Caserio brings a new influence into “the program.” But they also just signed 39 veteran free-agents. So. You know. What is development anyway?
In an ideal world, Mills fixes the too-frequent process errors and too-frequent errant throws and becomes Matt Ryan’s heir. I believe he can hit that kind of upside, because there’s not a lot he hasn’t shown he can do as a quarterback. That arm strength is going to keep him off the top-top-tier of quarterbacks as far as scouting rankings, but I think he’s got plenty of arm to play in the league and hit the throws he’ll need to hit. His anticipation as a thrower is so good that if he continues to develop mentally as a quarterback — understanding everything and batting. 900 on pre-snap diagnosis instead of .500-.700 — he’ll be very good.
His floor to me is, well, he’s a competent Cody Kessler-esque backup who you ask to hit easy passes and keep the offense moving. Given that this team set $7 million on fire over the last two years by letting A.J. McCarron do that but with worse pocket presence, that’s not too shabby. As I said, I like the pick. Wait, nevermind, there’s Jeff Driskel.
There’s a lot riding on how good of a player Mills is for the future of this franchise, and I do think he’s an honest attempt at a quarterback answer despite some rumored medical red flags from other teams. You’d really hope that he’d get a chance to start no matter wha–
Ah, well, nevertheless.
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