The Vikings sent the promising tight end to a specialist on Tuesday to see if there was more extensive damage to his ankle than just a sprain. The tests revealed that Mills just needs more time to heal, which is good news for a West Coast Offense seeking more consistent play from a field-stretching tight end.
"There is still a little ways to go," Mills said of the injury last week. "I'm still working with the trainers every day to try to get it back to 100 percent."
But after repeatedly being sidelined between then and now, the Vikings wanted to have another look at the ankle. Asked on Tuesday how Mills is progressing, head coach Brad Childress gave a less-than-encouraging report.
"Not as fast as he would like," Childress said. "He's had about every test that we know of and the doctors know of. It's just he's uncomfortable with sticking (his foot) in the ground and breaking. The straight-ahead stuff is okay. So he's just going to try. It's not a deal where two weeks rest is going to make a difference. He's tried three or four days rest. He went and saw a specialist again today. We feel like we are treating it right; it's just a matter of it settling down. Everybody heals different."
But Mills might just need more time before he's able to return to the field and build on a solid regular-season finale to the 2007 season. After being inactive for the first 15 games of the season, Mills produced two receptions for 26 yards against the Denver Broncos.
"I just went out there and did what the coaches wanted me to do. I had kind of been waiting for my chance. They say, ‘Just be ready when the opportunity comes' and that's all I tried to do," Mills said.
But he was looking forward to continue building on that performance this year.
"I think it's real hard to prove yourself in one game. I went out there and did the best I could do in one game, but no one is going to earn their spot after one game," he said.
Mills was having a solid offseason working with the Vikings this year, but when he got his legs tangled with safety Madieu Williams in the end zone during a training camp practice, what appeared to at first be a mild injury has now kept him out of two preseason games and counting.
"I had a good first few days of practice and then an injury came. It's part of the game. You've just got to take it in stride and recover," he said.
Once he's ready to resume practice, he figures he will still be able to feel the injury, but he realizes the sooner he is able to return and make another positive impression on the coaches, the better. He waited long enough to get a chance to prove himself last year.
"Obviously, I came into a situation that was already pretty established," Mills said of joining the team before the first regular-season game. "Coming in week one, it obviously took some time to learn the playbook and get acclimated with the offense and those types of things. At that point, I just kind of have to sit back in practice and do what I do and wait my turn."
Mills had to wait so long last year in part because he was still getting used to a new offense. The New England Patriot surprisingly waived Mills before the start of the 2007 season with the intention of adding him to their practice squad, but the Vikings did one better by him. They signed him to their active roster, despite a request from Bill Belichick to allow Mills to slip through waivers. So the pass-catching tight end spent the first part of last season getting acclimated to a West Coast Offense that likes to use tight ends to stretch the middle of the field.
"It's different, but all offenses have differences and all offenses have similarities, different terminologies but a lot of the same concepts," he said. "It didn't take me too long. I felt like I had a grasp on things pretty quick."
Mills' release from the Patriots was a surprised because the 2006 fourth-round draft pick entered the league with impressive credentials. He finished his college career at Tulsa as second all-time for Division I-A tight ends in receptions (201) and yards (2,389) and set the NCAA record with 1,235 yards receiving as a senior.
Even with all of that college success, Mills knows he has to be a well-rounded player to earn his NFL stripes.
"You've got to be able to do both. Obviously, everyone has strengths and weaknesses in their game, but you can't rely on one aspect to get you on the field. I think my size kind of shows my strength," said the 6-foot-1, 235 pounder. "I'm never going to be a guy that's going to go and just punish defensive ends, but it's part of the position so you've got to do it."
And he hopes to begin proving himself all over again once his ankle responds enough to treatment.