The Houston Texans began the season as the butt of the NFL’s jokes, the team most certain to sink and stink. But a funny thing happened on the supposed route to the gutter.
Yes, the early results were as expected. Beating the Jaguars in Week 1 was, some suggested, the Texans’ Super Bowl. Losing the next eight games fit the expected script.
But since the bye week, something fascinating has happened: The Texans have played some respectable football, going 3-3. Two of those wins were on the road, and two were against over-.500 teams.
A once-dormant offense has come to life. And all of a sudden, the Texans might not be as desperate for a quarterback as we once assumed.
Once Deshaun Watson was placed in football purgatory, awaiting his legal and professional fate to be resolved, the Texans felt like a team buying time until the next big move could be made at QB. Davis Mills has changed that narrative, the past three weeks especially.
You might not have been watching if you live, but Mills has recently impressed. Since reclaiming the starting QB position in Week 14, Mills has completed 73 of 106 passes (68.9%), thrown for 794 yards (7.5 yards per completion), compiled a 5-1 TD-INT ratio and taken only four sacks.
That’s a vast improvement over his cumulative performance up until that point, when Mills was 146-of-223 passing (65.5%) for 1,406 yards (6.3 YPC), had a 7-8 TD-INT ratio and was sacked 22 times.
You can excuse the Texans for rushing Mills into the lineup. There was always only so much they were going to learn about Tyrod Taylor anyway, and his hamstring injury opened the door for Mills in Week 3. Early as it might have been, Mills had won the backup job and deserved the shot.
Predictably, Mills was up and down. Yet there were enough highs in his early set of games — the Patriots performance in particular — to think he might not just be another third-round QB draft pick, even as the team kept the training wheels on for most of that ride.
What we’ve seen since Mills regained the starting job, however, has been the real eye-opener. The leash has been loosened, and the results have been impressive. Is it enough to tattoo “Franchise Quarterback” on his chest, “No Ragrets”-style? We say no.
But it certainly could alter the Texans’ immediate plans at quarterback. Especially when it comes to the 2022 draft.
What the Texans' 2022 QB picture should look like
Texans general manager Nick Caserio surprised some by making his first selection with his new franchise at quarterback. Lacking first- and second-picks in the 2021 draft, Caserio took Mills 67th overall — right after QBs Kyle Trask and Kellen Mond went in the three picks prior to that spot.
Caserio likely knew he couldn’t wait any longer to grab a passer. Mills almost certainly was Houston's highest-rated QB on its draft board.
Even so, taking Mills required forethought and patience. Given all the Texans’ needs, that had to be a difficult call in the moment.
The Watson situation had reached its first crest shortly before that, with the sexual-abuse allegations against him superseding his previous trade request. Caserio had to be prepared at the time for either Watson or Mills to essentially be redshirted this season.
— Houston Texans (@HoustonTexans) December 26, 2021
Watson has been deadweight on the Texans’ roster this season. He hasn’t taken a snap this season and might never again play for the franchise. Meanwhile Mills has shown enough to figure into the team’s future plans on some level. That has been the silver lining. The team now has won a few games and doesn’t appear to be completely rudderless all of a sudden.
Apples to apples, Mills hasn’t looked too different from what the Patriots’ Mac Jones has done this season, albeit in fewer snaps. Even taking into account the smaller sample size, the Patriots have a far better surrounding cast for Jones than what the Texans provide for Mills.
There’s a case to be made that Mills has been steadier and less rookie-ish than the first four quarterbacks off the board — Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Trey Lance and Justin Fields.
Does Mills have the upside and potential of any of those four? Maybe not. But it’s hard to argue he hasn’t bought himself time.
The Texans should ignore QB early in 2022 NFL draft
At no point has Davis Mills played at a level to guarantee he’s the future of the Texans’ franchise. But there’s little to suggest that he shouldn’t get an earnest shot to fill that role.
The Texans currently are set to draft third overall in the spring. That number likely will not be higher; the Jaguars and Lions each are one more loss away from guaranteeing their spots in the top two. Houston could slip as far as the ninth overall pick if it wins out and the teams picking immediately behind it now do not.
Even if one the 2022 draft’s top quarterback prospects — say, Pitt’s Kenny Pickett or Ole Miss’ Matt Corral — ends up going somewhere in the back end of the top 10 overall picks come April, the Texans probably should and will not be the team that selects either of them.
We’re not saying they shouldn’t consider drafting one this year. But with a top-10 pick? This isn’t the year.
For all we know, Corral, Pickett and some other QB prospects in this class might turn out to be fine pros. There's even a chance that if the Texans stick with head coach David Culley, they could be coaching at the Senior Bowl, potentially evaluating five of the top six QB prospects in person.
What we know now is that most NFL talent evaluators don’t seem to be nearly as excited about this coming year’s crop than they were about the 2021 class, which ended up with the five QBs taken in the top 15, along with the three more who landed in the top 70.
And we know how that class has fared overall so far as rookies.
If a later Day 2 or Day 3 quarterback tempts the Texans, there’s little reason to hesitate. Maybe someone such as Western Kentucky’s intriguing Bailey Zappe (who grew up a few hours down the road and started his college career at Houston Baptist) slips into that range. He's also headed for the Senior Bowl.
For once in the past few years, the Texans won’t be hamstrung by a lack of draft picks. They currently have one or more picks in every round (except for Round 5) and have extra picks in Rounds 3 (one) and Round 6 (two).
Passing on quarterbacks altogether in 2022 wouldn’t be criminal behavior, either. Mills and a veteran to be named later, whether it’s Taylor or someone else, should be the starting options for next season. And if that doesn’t pan out, the Texans can go full throttle looking for a QB to draft in 2023. This is no overnight rebuild, so they shouldn’t panic if they can’t draft one in a reasonable location this spring.
Don’t forget Davis Mills’ pedigree, lack of experience
We ranked Mills as our QB6 in the last draft class, and it was hard not to come away with some level of ambivalence when watching him at Stanford.
Yes, there were high-level throws and games. Mills had 504- and 426-yard passing games in college. His tape against a good Washington defense last year was another fine performance that belied his merely decent stats from the game.
But there were concerning and inconsistent patches in his play. There also was a small sample size (11 college starts, roughly 800 snaps) and an injury history to factor in.
In short, he was the 2021 NFL draft’s QB mystery man.
Mills likely was drafted about where he should have been, all things considered. Perhaps he’s QB1 in this class if he stayed in school.
We don’t know how it would have gone at Stanford had Mills stayed in school, but his replacement, Tanner McKee, opened scouts’ eyes with his impressive play this season, despite the Cardinal having to overcome talent issues.
Don’t forget that Mills was once a 5-star Rivals recruit not that long ago, ranked ahead of the likes of Tua Tagovailoa, Mac Jones and others coming out of high school. That means relatively little now but it’s a decent reminder that baseline talent never has been Mills’ issue.
The Texans took a flier on him, and the early results are promising. If it works out that they’ve found their starter in a range where starting quarterbacks typically aren’t found — in the past decade, only Russell Wilson and Nick Foles really qualify as third-round QB success stories — then they can celebrate their objet d’art.
If not, it won’t prove to be a huge sunk cost. They should not feel the pressure in the next draft to fortify the position with another young QB high in the draft. There are plenty of other needs that could use addressing.
The Texans might have struck oil here with Mills, based on what we’ve seen lately. They should keep drilling to see how deep that well runs before opening a new borehole.