Sunday, March 26 2023

By Ben Arthur
FOX Sports AFC South Writer

After a third straight game watching his team struggle to finish, Houston Texans coach Lovie Smith was asked about the progress he has seen in second-year quarterback Davis Mills

Smith mentioned Mills’ pocket presence and better throws overall against the Chicago Bears than the previous week vs. the Denver Broncos

Then the coach added a caveat. 

“It’s hard to talk about progress when you finish the way we did,” Smith said Monday. 

And it’s hard, too, imagining Mills as the Texans’ long-term solution at quarterback from what we’ve seen. Houston is 0-2-1 heading into a Week 4 matchup against the Chargers.

Of course, all the Texans’ offensive issues — the league-worst third-down efficiency and no points in the fourth quarter through three games — don’t fall solely on Mills. That’s on coaching and personnel and execution around him, too. But Mills has failed to capitalize on the momentum of a promising rookie season, when he completed 66.8% of his passes for 2,664 yards and 16 touchdowns with 10 interceptions and an 88.8 passer rating in 13 games (11 starts).   

Through three games this season, the 2021 third-round pick’s numbers are down across the board — in completion percentage (57.9), touchdown percentage (2.8), interception percentage (1.9), passer rating (77.7) and QBR (27.1). Excluding interception percentage, he ranks 25th or worse in the NFL in all those categories. And that’s despite having strong pass protection. Mills has been pressured on only 18.4% of his dropbacks, fourth-fewest among starting QBs, according to Next Gen Stats. 

Mills’ struggles on third down and late in games, when the best quarterbacks find success, most illuminate his shortcomings. 

A breakdown of his league rank in some of those categories, according to Washington Post data: 

percentage of first down passes on third down: 23.3 (29th) 
percentage of first down passes completed on third-and-8 or longer: 9.1 (31st) 
percentage of first down passes on third-and-3 to 7: 35.7 (27th) 
percentage of first down passes on shorter than third-and-3: 20 (29th) 
percentage of passes completed in close games: 55.3% (30th) 
percentage of passes completed in fourth quarter: 48 (31st) 

It’s still very early in the season. Mills’ play could improve. But the Texans would be best served eyeing one of the top quarterbacks in the 2023 class right now. One of two winless teams, Houston is expected to be at or near the top of the draft again. 

Let’s be clear, too: Mills hasn’t really been a disappointment. He’s actually outperformed expectations, considering his draft position. In the past six drafts, 33 quarterbacks have been selected between the third and seventh rounds. Just two have started more games than Mills: Gardner Minshew (22), a 2019 sixth-round pick, and C.J. Beathard (12), a 2017 third-rounder. Currently, Mills is one of just seven starting quarterbacks not selected in the top two rounds of the draft. 

He landed in a perfect opportunity as a mid-round rookie — the franchise quarterback, Deshaun Watson, was on his way out the door and the bridge option, Tyrod Taylor, had injury and performance issues — and took advantage. The former Stanford standout started the final five games last season, finishing second in touchdown passes and completion percentage among rookie quarterbacks. 

Those positive signs, though, have not carried into 2022.   

His clock is ticking. 

“There’s pressure as being the starting quarterback,” Mills said Wednesday. “I’m not looking that far ahead of it. I’m taking this really one day at a time, one practice at a time right now. So I’m just going out there and putting my best foot forward for my teammates and trying to win games.” 

Ben Arthur is the AFC South reporter for FOX Sports. He previously worked for The Tennessean/USA TODAY Network, where he was the Titans beat writer for a year and a half. He covered the Seattle Seahawks for for three seasons (2018-20) prior to moving to Tennessee. You can follow Ben on Twitter at @benyarthur.

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