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The Film Room: Davis Mills’ First NFL Start

Breaking down rookie QB Davis Mills TNF start for the Texans.

Carolina Panthers v Houston Texans Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Houston Texans rookie quarterback Davis Mills stepped into the starting role against Cleveland Thursday after Tyrod Taylor’s hamstrings hamstrung his career once again. It’s a tale as old as time, and one for Taylor that’s disappointing to hear, but it grants Texans fans the opportunity to get a glimpse of what Houston drafted in the third round of the 2021 NFL Draft.

Before the game, the broadcast team put up a quote about the young Stanford quarterback from star wide receiver Brandin Cooks:

He’s so even-keeled. When you get in the game in those situations, you never know if he’s nervous because he’s always the same, day in and day out. That’s what you expect from your quarterback. - Brandin Cooks

That’s certainly a vote of confidence heading into the kid’s first career start on national TV. You never truly know who a person is until the lights shine on them. This isn’t a middle school talent show where you can imagine everyone in their underwear.

Mills was 19/28 for 168 yards, threw 1 touchdown, no interceptions, and took 4 sacks. All in all, that’s not a terrible stat line. It leaves more to be desired than your aunt’s $25 gift card to Starbucks for Christmas, but you’ll take it.

Mills’s first possession didn’t offer much analysis. His first throw was a screen pass that was batted away at the line of scrimmage. His second throw was a running back screen pass that was snuffed out. The Texans kept it simple early on to wet the webbed feet of Mills.

The first play we’ll analyze is a 1st and 20 after a holding call on first down.

Texans are in a 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) with two receivers to the field side. They are playing against a man-to-man defense with one safety high. The Panthers are taking away the middle of the field and anything short; daring Mills to throw down the field. To mitigate this, the play is drawn up to get him out of the pocket and give him two clear options to throw to.

His footwork moving out of the pocket is quite clean and his hips are in a balanced alignment. He isn’t too outstretched, which gives him enough power and strength to get the ball out quickly.

The best observation on this play comes from Mills timing his throw to when Cooks precisely broke out of his route. He’s not throwing to an open man, he’s throwing to a spot he knows the receiver will be.

This pass gets a golf clap from the fans and is a first step in a progression of throws for a young guy.

Two plays later, Mills gets sacked on a drive ending blitz. It’s a fantastic scheme by the Panthers and utterly confuses Mills in the process. The Panthers stack the box with six defenders on the line of scrimmage. Three of them drop into coverage and they bring a corner blitz.

The best thing Mills can do is stay in the pocket and get the ball out fast on a reasonable 3rd and 5. Instead, he sees pressure, and immediately ducks his head

The Texans are running a route concept to beat man coverage. Two shallow crossers (mesh) are a quarterbacks best friend. The Texans also layer on a wheel route to clear out one of the crossers and a deep corner route to sit in between cover two zone on the back end. It’s a fantastic play call. However, Mills sees red (in this case white jerseys), tries to find green, and ends up looking black and blue in a sack.

Unfortunately, there’s two instances on this play where better composure would have picked up the first down. Mills had both Chris Conley and Jordan Akins open for receptions.

This is tough to see, especially the missed opportunity with Conley down the field for 20 yards. He’ll see this on film and hopefully absorb this information quickly. Defenses are going to give a rookie quarterback so much to look at it. He’s going to have to learn how to maintain composure under pressure.

Let’s move further on into the game. Davis Mills executed a fairly phenomenal two minute drill to end the first half. On 2nd and 10 in the redzone, Mills was looking at an agnostic defensive alignment. Zero safeties deep and almost everyone is 7-10 yards off the line of scrimmage. There’s no way to tell if it’s man or zone coverage.

The Texans offensive read is fairly simple: IF man coverage, throw the inside slant to Cooks. If zone coverage, throw the post route to Conley.

Mills is reading one player. The deepest lying defensive back, which is Donte Jackson (#26). If Jackson stays with Cooks, Cook will be open underneath due to Jackson’s depth. If he leaves Cooks for the post route, indicating zone, Mills will throw the post route to Conley. The Panthers were in man, Mills read the defense correctly, and the Texans were in business.

Let’s get one more play in. How about the rare deep play down the field? Ha, you wish. Mills only threw one completed pass beyond 15 yards and it was to a wide open player. Here’s his passing chart brought to you by the nerds at NextGenStats

Mills primarily threw three types of passes; outbreaking dig routes to the right, slant routes to the left, and screens to the left. If I can see that, imagine what the Buffalo Bills are seeing.

For the fourth play, we’ll give Mills a bone here with a his second best throw over the middle. The Panthers are lined up in a fairly conservative cover two zone on 1st and 10. The Texans are running a high-low concept, with Mills focusing on which player is not being double teamed by the defense. In this case, the Panthers tried to bracket the ten-yard out routes, which were Mills’s primary passes. Instead, Mills read the weak side safety to ensure he wasn’t faking cover two (and would instead be in the middle of the field). He then redirects his eyes to the open receiver in the middle of the field.

This throw itself leaves a lot to be desired. If it’s in stride this goes for an extra seven to twelve yards, which, when down by two scores, adds up. I’m not saying this is a Pro Bowl type throw. It’s a throw you’d want out of a professional quarterback, which is what David Culley and the coaching staff are trying to find out.

Overall, Mills played within himself and showed where he has room to grow. Compared to the other seven quarterbacks drafted before him, this was by far the best debut. No, Mills isn’t Trevor Lawrence or Justin Fields, but the tape shows a higher floor than expected for a rookie, on a short week, playing on a completely retooled team, and against the number one defense through two weeks. The next steps for Mills will be to incrementally add more throws to his arsenal, trust his offensive line more, and continue to keep his composure.