With the NFL Combine less than a week away, draft season is upon us. This time last year, we were talking about the impact that several of the 2021 draftees were going to have on the teams that drafted them. Where 2021 saw numerous high-end quarterback prospects hit teams’ big boards, 2022 offers a plethora of edge rushers and offensive tackles. The quarterbacks this year are not nearly as highly touted as last year’s. Many analysts believe not a single quarterback should be taken in the first 15 picks of the draft.
All that talk has me thinking about last year’s quarterback class. The first three selections were all quarterbacks and two more quarterbacks were taken before pick 16. Quarterback Davis Mills wasn’t selected until the third round — pick 67 overall — by the Houston Texans. Despite being the eighth quarterback taken, Mills played surprisingly well his rookie season, leading the miserable Texans to two wins while completing nearly 67 percent of his passes. He was by no means incredible, but serviceable enough. Compared to the underwhelming performances of the other rookie quarterbacks, Houston was probably impressed with what Mills was able to accomplish. He will most likely remain the starter in Houston next season, or at least until the Deshaun Watson “situation” gets figured out. All in all, things worked out pretty well for Mills...except for his contract.
See, as a third-round draftee, Mills did not sign for nearly as much money as his first-round counterparts. Mills’ rookie contract has an average salary of $1,304,383 with a $1,157,892 signing bonus. Mac Jones, the last quarterback drafted in the first round, signed a deal worth $3,896,588 annually with a $8,695,528 signing bonus. That’s a big difference.
Mills wasn’t your typical prospect. He had fantastic measurables. The biggest drawback was his lack of games played. Mills started just 11 games in his collegiate career, partly due to an injury he suffered in 2019, partly due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Mills had very little time to prove himself. When he did play, he wasn’t outstanding — left a lot to be desired in the touchdown department — but still had the physical attributes to peak every NFL franchise’s curiosity. So, if he had stayed in college an extra year and played a full schedule, would he be better off than he is now? I think so.
Never mind the fact that Mills likely wouldn’t be drafted to the Texans if he were available this year, so he’d be better off in that regard, but just in terms of money, given how poorly this QB class is being looked at, Mills would likely be in for a massive pay day. Sure, there’s the argument of “What if he plays really poorly this season?” However, that hasn’t really affected draft stock in the past. Most of the time, someone with insane physicals and arm talent can play through an underwhelming season and still garner a first-round selection.
Look no further than Sam Darnold. Darnold was considered a top-tier NFL talent after his second season at USC. He underwhelmed in his third season though. He didn’t take the Heisman-level leap that several fans believed he would, and many analysts started to point out flaws in his game. Did any of that matter? No. Darnold was still selected third overall.
Mills never reached the heights that Darnold did, but Darnold was also taken in what was viewed as a quarterback-heavy class. Baker Mayfield, Josh Allen, Josh Rosen, and Lamar Jackson were all considered solid prospects. Many of them had better seasons statistically than Darnold, yet Darnold was still the second quarterback taken off the board. Seeing as how most gripes with Mills revolved around lack of play time, Mills would probably be QB1 in this class as long as he played a decent number of games. After all, he was one of the most sought-after high school prospects ever. Even if he put together a lackluster season, many NFL teams would likely still consider drafting him because of his potential.
With so many teams aching for a young quarterback capable of leading them to the playoffs, someone is bound to reach early for guys like Malik Willis, Matt Corral, or Kenny Pickett on draft day. Mills would likely be one of the top QB prospects, if not THE top prospect, in this year’s class. That sounds like a top-20 or 25 pick to me.
To recap, if Mills had decided to stay at Stanford and play in 2021, he’s likely viewed in a much higher light than he was after 2020. He’s likely not drafted by the hot mess that is the Houston Texans, and he’s likely making first-round (early second-round at the latest) money. You don’t need to have an insanely long neck to see just how beneficial staying an extra year could’ve been for Mills’ career. Alas, let’s see how he pans out next season after his top target Brandin Cooks is traded away.