The PRe-Draft Story
Davis Mills was the undercard among a 2021 draft class of marquee quarterback prospects because a significant part of draft capital for NFL decision-makers is multiple years of statistical and team success. While 4-2 at Stanford in 2020's COVID-shortened campaign, Stanford went 4-8 in 2019 and Mills only played in 8 of those contests.
With a total of 13 games played during his Stanford career, it's impressive that he earned a third-round selection in the 2021 NFL Draft and that was on the merit of his film.
Most people don’t have jobs where they have to possess an insane combination of physical, mental, technical, and intuitive skills with a margin of error that can span less than three seconds. And those who do this job the best actually have the makeup to create a “fudge factor” that can extend that window another second.
As we see with these three plays from Davis Mills' time at Stanford, one second can make a huge difference. Although the first two plays are difficult scenarios, even for some pro passers, Mills has shown a fundamental understanding of how to read the leverage of the defender facing his intended target.
This sail route from Stanford QB Davis Mills reveals a good lesson about reading leverage and using what you see to your advantage as a passer.— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) March 3, 2021
The best QBs--regardless of whether they whiteboard like a coach, process fast due to their understanding of leverage. pic.twitter.com/k5m1HnUAvJ
A quarterback usually has less than three seconds to make a decision and execute it.— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) March 3, 2021
Only the best can create a fudge factor an extra second, at best, without using their legs to create another 2-3 second window.
This Davis Mills rep is a good example. pic.twitter.com/6UBzbsW612
When studying Mills' game in greater depth, the third-round grade makes sense because of the combination of his strengths and addressable weaknesses during a limited college career:
- Mills often read the field like a top prospect. Where he didn’t, it is clearly addressable.
- Mills had “annoying” accuracy that’s just shy of pinpoint when it came to specific types of throws that he’ll need to make in the NFL.
- There are specific targets that Mills may never develop accuracy with but that's far too definitive of a conclusion to draw with only 13 college starts
- Where Mills made consistently bad throws were situations where the game plan and coaching gave him the directives to read the field a certain way that led to bad results.
- Mills showed underrated pocket presence.
Mills also displayed mental and physical toughness to make difficult plays to bring a team back from deficits. If you want a deep dive, Mark Schofield and I join Scouting Academy Founder and former Giants and Eagles scout Dan Hatman for an hour-long conversation and film breakdown of Mills.
With Deshaun Watson dealing with multiple civil suits and 10 criminal complaints after he already demanded a trade from the Texans' organization, it was likely Mills would earn an audition sometime in 2021. Tyrod Taylor's severe hamstring injury fast-tracked Mills' timeline. Against Cleveland and Carolina, Mills had serviceable performances for a player who wasn't earning first-team reps at any point of his short career until Week 3 of the season — completing 27 of 46 passes and delivering 270 yards, 2 touchdowns, and an interception during the first game and a half.
From the box score's perspective, Buffalo exposed Mills as a callow passer not ready for prime time, forcing four interceptions and limiting Mills to an 11-for-21, 87-yard performance and what The Athletic noted as the single lowest QBR score in the NFL for the past three seasons. Of course, the box score explained little and the article referencing Davis' overall performance thus far — a summary paragraph of the results — doesn't give you any real idea of what Mills is about.
- While Mills allowed a ball to slip from his hand deep in his own territory during the first drive of this rainy contest and he took a sack, he still managed to drive the Texans the length of the field in a scoreless game only to have Bills defender Jerry Hughes tip away a 4th-and-3 pass to a wide-open David Johnson that would have resulted in a score.
- Anthony Miller, who the Texans cut this week and will try to do better in Pittsburgh, failed to break back to a well-placed target between two linebackers in zone coverage and this led to MIlls' first interception. Another tipped pass at the line led to Mills' pass sailing well over the wide-open Brandin Cooks for another turnover while down 13-0.
- By the time the Texans ran their 35th offensive play, the Bills were ahead 33-0. Mills' third interception was the only one that was completely his fault: an underthrown deep seam route to Anthony Miller. Pharaoh Brown tipped a catchable pass the led to Mills' fourth interception with 1:34 left in laugher.
Mills didn't have a good game, but his performance wasn't as bad as, say, Zach Wilson's four-interception affair against New England in Week 2. This is worth remembering when considering that in Week 5, Mills took the Patriots to the wire with a 21-for-29, 312-yard, 3-score output. Yes, the Patriots traded Stephon Gilmore prior to the contest but much of Mills' work came from plays where Gilmore wouldn't have been a factor.
Much like their approach with Wilson, New England thought it could rattle Mills with pressure. Unlike Wilson, who has shown a tendency to play too fast during his rookie year, Mills displayed poised execution. He suckered the Patriots with a variety of strong play fakes, sometimes multiple fakes during the same play for good misdirection of the defense that set up effective screen passes. This may not seem difficult, but rookie quarterbacks are often inaccurate with short passes due to the sheer density of technical skills required to execute these plays that most fans overlook.
Mills also threw receivers open in the intermediate and vertical passing game. As you can learn below, Mills not only executed the game plan well, but he displayed promise with difficult passes in and outside of the structure.
Considering that Mills has already faced the four top-12 pass-defending units (3 in the top 5) in Browns, Panthers, Bills, and Patriots defenses, the next set of games prior to the Texans' bye week aren't as scary as they might appear on paper. The Colts, who gave up a monster performance to Lamar Jackson, may lose a concussed Xavier Rhodes for Week 6. Mills could have another strong performance this week.
Don't expect it to continue in Week 7. Arizona has a legitimate pass defense that can pose tough matchups but the Texans have the screen game to slow a lot of the pressure packages that these teams will want to employ. This may also help against Aaron Donald and the Rams in Week 8. However, Mills will have to deliver big plays, and with stud left tackle Laremy Tunsil out for the next four weeks, one should just hope for Mills to survive until Week 9 against Miami.
If you need a bye-week quarterback, Weeks 6 and 9 are probably your best matchups for Mills although Week 8 against L.A. could be more promising than expected because the Rams put cornerback Darious Williams on IR this week, the Rams' linebackers are suspect against the pass, and Jalen Ramsey can't do it all.
Taylor is still considered week-to-week. If you think like most NFL teams, the Texans will let Mills play until the Week 10 bye. If Mills impresses, especially against the Cardinals and 49ers, he could maintain a season-long grip on the starting job considering his draft capital, Taylor being a short-term bridge for the organization, and Watson likely spending a lot more time in court.
However, David Culley told the media that he doesn't believe in a quarterback losing his starting job due to injury, so Mills will have to be lights-out good without his starting left tackle against a slate of good defenses.
Don't count on it.
Although a third-round pick, Mills' draft capital doesn't mean much for an organization giving him extended chances. Will Grier, Cody Kessler, Jacoby Brissett, Mason Rudolph, Davis Webb, and C.J. Beathard were all third-round picks since 2016. Four of them are backups and three of those four are on at least their second team.
At the same time, the 2022 class isn't a strong group of quarterback prospects from what I've studied thus far.
Much will obviously depend on these next 3-4 games. If Mills can deliver similar production that he showed against New England, he could earn an extended audition against far more favorable defenses that include the Titans, Jets, Seahawks, Jaguars, and Chargers. One could also hope for Taylor to return shortly before or after the bye week, struggle, and given the Texans reason to use Mills for the rest of the way.
Pre-draft, I liked Mills more than all of the third-round picks mentioned above with the exception of Will Grier, who admitted that he didn't study as Carolina's backup. No matter how talented, if you don't prepare and fail, you not only lose the coaching staff but also your teammates. He had no shot in Carolina after that display of behavior.
I think of Mills as a partial glass of water — neither half-full nor half-empty — because he has skills but he's in the most difficult landing spot among the 2021 prospects with viable starter potential. Houston's leadership is under fire, it's a roster filled with aging veterans and less talented journeymen, and there's a good chance the owner lacks the will to stick with a long-term plan.
Weighing these two contrasting factors, keep a neutral perspective. Mills presents a worthwhile speculative addition for dynasty leagues. Make him a throw-in for a trade if you have a spot open on a larger roster, especially in Super-Flex formats. Offer more than a fourth-round pick in a dynasty format is paying too much for Mills. If he begins a streak of games with 280-300 yards passing and limits his turnovers, you can increase the offer to a third-round selection or ask for him in a package deal as a secondary or tertiary option.
In other words, Mills is better than he looks but his situation isn't favorable for him to become a long-term fantasy factor.