Texans quarterback Davis Mills’ full potential wasn’t on display in limited preseason action

Davis Mills, whose improvement is pivotal to the future of the Texans franchise, didn't have a lot to work with in first preseason game against the Saints.

HOUSTON — It was never intended to be a real showcase for Texans quarterback Davis Mills to show off his strong arm or delvie deeply into the nuances of the playbook that offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton has installed.

By the sheer nature of preseason football, especially when there’s no competition for the starting job, the goals change. That’s by design For Mills, that’s why an unproductive pair of three-and-out series with a fairly vanilla strategy while playing without Pro Bowl left tackle Laremy Tunsil and star wide receiver Brandin Cooks isn’t a legitimate cause for alarm.

Davis Mills, offense had underwhelming debut

Mills, whose improvement is pivotal to the future of the franchise and represents the bigger picture mission of the season for a rebuilding team, didn’t have a lot to work with. Mills threw just three passes, completing all of them for 14 yards and an 86.1 passer rating. His first pass went to Chris Conley, for a loss.  He threw shy of the first-down marker on a third down.

And his third pass led up to his final three-and-out before being replaced by third-string quarterback Jeff Driskel, who threw three interceptions and also led the Texans to a comeback victory with a late touchdown pass to undrafted rookie wide receiver Johnny Johnson III. The grade for Mills: incomplete.

“I felt comfortable going out there and picking up where we left of with training camp,” Mills said. “Now we’re onto the real stuff, onto the games. I’m comfortable out there. Obviously, I would have like to put together some longer drives, but I mean, it felt like I handled everything well. We saw the defense and thought we executed well. Overall, we ended up with a win tonight. The whole team put together enough to get the win, and that’s all we care about.”

“Overall, I think we shot ourselves in the foot a little bit too much tonight. A lot of penalty yards. Those add up and put us in third-and-long situations that you don’t want to live in. I had to play out of that a lot last year, and it’s tough. So, we want to stay ahead of the sticks in that regard.”

Mills looked composed and smooth, but penalties and a lack of a running game with Marlon Mack in the game didn’t generate any big plays.

There were no real conclusions or revelations to be gleaned from his short appearance. He played fine with his usual sound mechanics. Situationally, the Texans’ offense just didn’t click, and they didn’t run their more intricate portions of the playbook.

The best takeaway surrounding Mills: he made it out of the game completely healthy, unlike New York Jets quarterback Zach Wilson, who’s undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery for a meniscus issue.

The most exciting element of the night for the Texans’ offense was the performance of rookie running back Dameon Pierce, who used a punishing, downhill style to rush for 49 yards on five carries.

Texans followed a conservative approach

“As far as being conservative, yeah, it’s our first preseason game,” Texans coach Lovie Smith said. “And we’re going to play a lot of players. I don’t think the first preseason game is about tricking them an awful lot. We want to play kind of man-on-man football so we can get a good evaluation on a lot of players. I think we were able to do that. But we wanted to be more productive early on. Of course, that wasn’t a part of the plan. But as we grow, we’ll get better.”

“We wanted to get Davis some work. We wanted to give him limited work, just getting him out there on the football field was what we were looking for. Three of his offense linemen weren’t playing, so it’s a start. We didn’t have a lot of production with our one offense when we were out there. But again, what we wanted to get accomplished with him, he’s healthy going into game two.”

Many NFL general managers have indicated that Mills would have been a lock to go in the first round this year had he not declared early for the draft a year ago.

“Compared to the rookie class he would have been in this year had he stayed in school, yeah, Mills is a lot better than a lot of those guys,” an NFL general manager said. “Mills has a lot of upside. I’m interested to see how much better he gets this year. What I like about him is he’s a tall guy with a live arm and really good mechanics. He’s been coached very well at Stanford and in Houston.

“Mills doesn’t have a rocket arm, but he can spin it and he’s accurate. He’s careful with the football. He’s someone whose best football is ahead of him. You just want to see how he reacts when defenses start learning a lot of his tendencies. How he adjusts, that’s going to be critical for his development. Everything I’ve seen and heard about him so far, I like.”

At 6-foot-4, 235 pounds, Mills is a big traditional pocket passer with enough mobility to throw on the run. He went 2-9 as a starter in 11 starts and 13 games overall as a rookie, completing 66.8% of his throws for 2,664 yards, 16 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions for an 88.8 passer rating.

In the final four games of the season, Mills completed 68.9% of his throws to go 2-2 in the final month of his rookie year. During that span, he passed for 927 yards, eight touchdowns, two interceptions, and a 106.1 passer rating. He had 12 touchdowns with one interception in eight home games at NRG Stadium overall and four games with 100+ passer ratings, including a 141.7 mark in a loss to Jones and the Patriots.

Leadership qualities praised

Where teammates have witnessed growth from Mills is in his confidence and other intangible qualities. They see a 23-year-old taking command of the offense.

For the Texans to not pursue a free agent in the offseason or perhaps draft a quarterback in the first round like Ohio State star C.J. Stroud or Alabama Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young, they’ll need to be convinced that Mills represents their present and their future under center.

“I think he took a bigger step being a leader on the team,” Texans offensive tackle Tytus Howard said. “He wasn’t asked to get a lot of the guys together, he chose to get a lot of the guys together throughout the offseason, to get some extra work in, and you don’t see that a lot from a lot of younger quarterbacks. But I’m telling you, Davis is different, probably one of the most poised and calm players I’ve ever been around. It’s going to take him a long way.”

While the preseason game didn’t create a lot of excitement surrounding Mills in the wake of an offseason filled with encouraging anecdotes and comments about his growth, it’s hard to fairly call it a setback.

It was a preseason game, a glorified exhibition, and Mills did nothing to dispel the notion that he’s poised for a potential major step forward in his development.

Based on how he’s practiced and how he finished last season on a hot streak, it’s a logical projection. Football games are based on production, though, not projections.

The real games will ultimately tell the truth about Mills.

“It’s tough, obviously,” Mills said. “I mean, every rep and experience out there will benefit me. This is still the first preseason game. I’m sure I’ll get more playing time in the next one and even more in the following one leading up to the first game of the season. But it’s tough not getting all the reps, but we have a lot of guys who are right now fighting to make this team who are contributing and have contributed that are going out to get their chance. I mean, everyone played well, and they are doing the same thing we are out there trying to make a living and put some points up on the scoreboard. It’s exciting seeing all those guys get a chance to go out there and perform.”

In games against the New England Patriots, Los Angeles Chargers, and New England Patriots, Mills passed for a combined 867 yards and eight touchdowns. He had 12 touchdowns and one interception in home games at NRG Stadium. He had a 132.6 passer rating, a league-high mark, on passes traveling 20 yards or more with six touchdowns.

“We feel like he’s playing faster, and that’s really just processing information as you drop back as opposed to just saying, ‘Okay, what happened pre-snap is the determining factor in where we start,’” Hamilton said. “You’ve got to be able to make post-snap reads, and we’ll continue working on that, but that’s something that I feel like he’s improving that.”

What’s the bigger picture with Davis Mills?

Hamilton is tasked as the architect of an offense that needs to significantly upgrade the running game with new backs, Marlon Mack and Dameon Pierce, establish imposing wide receiver Collins as a strong complementary presence to Cooks, and improve the pass protection for Mills. Tunsil is back from thumb surgery that sidelined him last season, and Howard is back to his natural right tackle spot.

Mills is feeling good about things overall. This just wasn’t a significant moment for the second-year quarterback and former Stanford blue-chip recruit heading into a pivotal season for him and the AFC South franchise.

“I think I’ve always been pretty confident going out there,” Mills said. “I’m fully trusting my abilities and go out there and make plays. I think that comfort thing adds to the confidence level. I have a most-of-the-season under my belt so far, a full training camp and a second one now, so the experience is starting to build up.

“I’m really just itching to go out there in the first game – when the record is going to show up after the game, we want to put something in the win column. I’m excited, but like you said, just more comfortable and confident coming out this year with some experience behind me.”

Aaron Wilson is the NFL Insider for Pro Football Network. Follow him on Twitter: @AaronWilson_NFL.

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