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State of the 2022 Houston Texans: Will Davis Mills prove he's the type of QB Lovie Smith can win with?

Where does your franchise stand heading into 2022? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

Members of the Texans' organization, Texans fans around the world and those who are happy they at least have the Houston Astros to root for:

The Houston Texans have had back-to-back four-win seasons. But they have brought in a veteran leader to put the team back on track. Can he do it? Let's take a look.

2021 rewind

One high from last season: Sweeping the division rival Jacksonville Jaguars. The first win against the Jags, in Week 1, even made you think the Texans could maybe be onto something. I also want to note here what I felt was the team's best win of 2021: a 41-29 victory over the Chargers in Week 16, which eventually helped cost Los Angeles a playoff berth.

One low from last season: The Deshaun Watson situation. Because the focus here is primarily Houston's 2022 on-field prospects, we're not going to spend a ton of time on this, but to recap: Watson, the one-time franchise quarterback, requested a trade early in 2021, then was accused via civil litigation of sexual assault and misconduct during massage therapy sessions (he has since settled with 20 of the 24 women who sued him). He sat out all of 2021, then was traded to the Browns this March. In late June, the Texans were sued by one of the women accusing Watson for allegedly enabling Watson's behavior. (UPDATE: The Texans have reached confidential settlements with the 30 women who have made or intended to make claims against the organization for allegedly enabling Watson's behavior during massage therapy sessions, the plaintiffs' attorney announced Friday.)

2022 VIPs

Head coach: Lovie Smith. The NFL is a better place with Smith patrolling a sideline. He should have never been fired from Chicago, especially after going 10-6 in his final season in 2012. Since then, the Bears have made their fourth coaching hire, Matt Eberflus, a defensive guru who has drawn comparisons to -- wait for it -- Lovie Smith. I know Smith's two seasons in Tampa Bay (8-24 in 2014 and '15) weren't great. But he was in a bad spot there. In Year 1, he was given the QB combo of Josh McCown and Mike Glennon, and in Year 2, he had a front row seat for Jameis Winston's up-and-down rookie season. Smith was ultimately replaced in Tampa by his own offensive coordinator, Dirk Koetter.

You could say Lovie is in a similarly thorny situation in Houston, where he's been asked -- like David Culley, who was fired after one year, before him -- to lead an unproven roster during a tricky franchise transition. And there's the awkward fact that the Texans interviewed McCown twice this year (after also looking at the former QB last year) for the job they eventually gave to Smith, who was Culley's defensive coordinator in 2021. Regardless, I'm a huge believer in Lovie and look forward to him adding some stability to this organization.

Quarterback: Davis Mills. I was a fan of Mills' while he was at Stanford, and he ended up having a pretty solid debut season after the Texans selected him in the third round of the 2021 NFL Draft. In fact, he led all rookies in passing yards per game as a starter and in completion percentage. Among first-year pros, only the Patriots' Mac Jones -- a first-rounder -- registered more passing touchdowns, a higher passer rating and a better TD-to-INT ratio than Mills. Otherwise, Mills was a standout compared with the seven quarterbacks (five of whom were first-rounders) selected ahead of him last year.

I was especially impressed by Mills, who was pressed into service early in the season by a Tyrod Taylor injury, down the stretch: He had 14 passing touchdowns and five interceptions in his final 10 games. When you think of how Lovie has been successful in this league, it's been by pairing great defenses with quarterbacks who limit mistakes. (This is where I would make a joke about Rex Grossman being a Super Bowl starter, but I'm not going to do that, because I'm more mature now.) Instead of making a change at the position, Houston decided to rock with Mills, who, at this point in his development, seems to fit that Lovie-friendly profile.

Projected 2022 MVP: Brandin Cooks, receiver. I just feel like Cooks is never given the deference and respect he deserves, even with the 28-year-old inking a two-year, $39.6 million extension this offseason. Last season, Cooks led the Texans with 90 receptions, 1,037 yards and 6 receiving touchdowns. Which was pretty good. He was also targeted 134 times, more than twice as many times as the next-most-targeted Houston player (Nico Collins, with 60). And here's another cool thing: Cooks has logged six seasons with 1,000-plus receiving yards since 2015, tied for second-most in the NFL, behind only Mike Evans.

New face to know: A.J. Cann, guard. The Texans dedicated much of their offseason efforts to retaining in-house dudes. Because when you get a chance to keep together a team that has won eight games in two seasons, you do it. I kid. In terms of new additions this offseason, though, Cann is the kind of player who can come in and provide some stability on the offensive line. Yes, the 30-year-old, who'd spent his entire career with Jacksonville previously, played just four games last year before suffering an MCL injury. But when he last started most of a season, in 2020 (15 starts), Cann posted a PFF grade (69.0) that was better than any of the Texans' starting offensive linemen in 2021. Plus, Cann's relatively low-cost contract (two years, $10.5 million, with $4.5 million guaranteed) allows Houston to maintain some financial wiggle room in the future. Cann will start at right guard, opposite first-round pick Kenyon Green, who will be at left guard.

2022 breakout star: Jonathan Greenard, Edge. I guess we could say that Greenard already broke out last season, when he led Houston with eight sacks, but he was limited to just 12 games. The biggest reason why he made the leap in his second pro season (Greenard posted just four sacks as a rookie in 2020) was the arrival of Smith, who as defensive coordinator put Greenard's hand in the ground and let him get after the passer. Lovie raved about Greenard in an interview on the team's official site. The coach is expecting Greenard to take an even bigger jump for the club in 2022.

2022 roadmap

Three key dates:

  • Week 3 at Chicago Bears. I know, everybody is clamoring for this one. Note that this will actually not be Lovie's first trip back to Chicago to face his former team. In fact, he's 0-2 against the Bears. And he never won a game for the Illini while playing at Solider Field -- OK, that last fact was completely made up.
  • Week 5 at Jacksonville Jaguars. The Texans swept the season series last year. In fact, the Texans have won eight consecutive games against the Jaguars.
  • Week 16 at Tennessee Titans. Houston closes the season with games against all three divisional opponents, including this, a Week 17 matchup against the Jags at home and the regular-season finale at Indianapolis. Is it possible the Texans are playing for something, or will they merely be playing spoiler?

Will the Texans be able to ...

... make rookie cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. a star? I was a little stunned when the Texans took Stingley third overall in this year's draft. Now, I thought cornerback was absolutely the right pick. In fact, in my mock draft ... with a twist, I had the Texans going corner. Only, I had Houston selecting Sauce Gardner, who ranked second on Daniel Jeremiah's Top 150 prospects list and went fourth overall to the Jets. Stingley is a riskier pick, no doubt about it. If you only saw him play in his freshman season at LSU, when he logged six picks and 15 passes defensed, you would have thought he was going to be a sure-fire top-five draft pick. He was inconsistent over his next two seasons, though, and missed much of 2021 with a Lisfranc injury. Yet, the Texans obviously love his skill set. Playing in an elite conference (the SEC) also helps. I hope it works out for them.

... run the football? I've talked a bit about the offensive line. And if you know one thing about Lovie, it is that he's going to want to run the football. Veteran running backs Marlon Mack and Rex Burkhead currently sit at the top of the depth chart. But the player I'm looking out for is rookie Dameon Pierce. The fourth-round pick is kind of already the perfect committee back, because the Gators barely used him (he had just 119 touches in 2021), and yet the dude still had 16 total touchdowns. The fantasy guru in me is telling me to draft Pierce late this season. The buzz is going to build.

One storyline ...

... people shouldn't overthink: The current state of this roster. Because it's still a work in progress. I know I joked about re-signing all of those familiar names, but the GM Nick Caserio & Co. are doing some solid roster building. They had four total picks in the first two rounds this year, selecting Stingley, Green, safety Jalen Pitre and receiver John Metchie. (I love the former Crimson Tide pass-catcher, who I truly believe is going to be a big star in this league.) Even after all that infusion of talent, the Texans still have six total picks in the first two rounds over the next two drafts, including four first-round choices, two of which came back in the Watson trade (which also included a first-rounder in 2022). This roster is going to be loaded -- one day.

... people shouldn't overlook: Davis Mills' passing ability. This is a fun little stat. In 2021, Mills became the only rookie since 1950 to post three games with a passer rating higher than 125 (minimum of 25 pass attempts). He had two games with more than 300 passing yards, three touchdowns and no picks. Only Justin Herbert and Daniel Jones had more such games (three) in their rookie seasons. Is there any way I can get you to focus on the Justin Herbert part of that statement, and not the Daniel Jones part? I didn't think so. I should also point out Mills lost both of those games. This statement was originally slated for the MVP category, until I realized it might seem kind of foolish to put Mills' name there, given that some of his best outings ended in defeat. Again, with Lovie, it's all about playing great defense and running the football. Mills is only going to throw when the team is losing by a lot -- which, I'll admit, could happen with some frequency.

For 2022 to be a success, the Texans MUST:

  • See what they have in Mills. I don't really have high expectations for wins from this team. I just don't. Mills doesn't have to be Herbert or anything, but if he can establish himself as a legitimate starter, allowing the team to spend its draft capital on a position other than quarterback next year, Houston could be a serious contender in 2023.

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