Dolphins Wildcards: Will Kenny Stills Finally Make the Leap in 2016?
In the NFL, there are bona fide superstars and there are busts with little hope of becoming special. However, each season there are an array of players that fans and analysts alike can’t quite put their fingers on. These wildcards can either make the leap or hit a wall while they are often quickly phased out of the league to make room for new talent. The Miami Dolphins are hardly an exception to this rule and have had their fair share of both gridiron heroes and disappointing busts. Reshad Jones, for example, seemingly came out of nowhere as one of the best safeties in the entire NFL. Greg Jennings, by contrast, met neither the team’s nor the fans’ expectations as the Dolphins’ new veteran receiver. At this point in the offseason we can only guess who the next X Factor will be, and one potential wildcard ahead of the 2016 NFL season is wide receiver Kenny Stills.
Background and Stats:
Last offseason, Kenny Stills was acquired from the New Orleans Saints for a third round pick and linebacker Dannell Ellerbe. The trade was, and in my opinion still is, seen as great for Miami. At the time of the trade, Kenny Stills was coming off a stellar season in which he was the Saints’ leading receiver with 931 yards and 3 touchdowns on 63 receptions. So, the Dolphins were able to dump Ellerbe’s ridiculous salary and receive a very talented young wideout for just a third round pick. Unfortunately, Stills did not make the leap and meet the lofty expectations that were placed on him.
Stills did not see the field frequently in his first season as a Dolphin. Rather, he started the season relegated to the 4th receiver spot on the depth chart below Jarvis Landry, Greg Jennings, and Rishard Matthews. He did receive a bump in playing time once Joe Philbin was shown the door in favor of Dan Campbell, but he did not achieve a status any better than as the designated deep threat. He ended up with a mere 440 yards and 3 touchdowns on just 27 receptions. While his 16.3 yards per catch average showed he could be a potent weapon down the field, his lack of consistency left much to be desired.
Stills’ consistency as a deep threat should have been the spark to improve Ryan Tannehill’s deep ball, but his presence in South Beach did not have that effect. And, as of now, his small sample size as a Miami Dolphin makes it impossible to accurately gauge just how much of his NFL success can be attributed to Drew Brees. But that doesn’t mean I can’t try.
Kenny Stills was brought to Miami to improve Ryan Tannehill’s deep ball. Though he did not really receive the opportunity to develop a rapport with his quarterback, Stills remains the epitome of a deep threat. He has blazing speed (4.38 40 yard dash time) for a receiver with his 6-foot 198-pound frame. This straight-line speed has served Stills very well over the course of his three-year career. It has allowed him to effortlessly take advantage of weaknesses in opposing teams’ defensive backfields. If a cornerback makes the wrong move, or if a safety is out of position, you can guarantee that Stills will be taking his lunch money. Take this play for example:
It is not particularly difficult to realize that the former New Orleans Saint still has the ability to take the top off a defense. His speed is unquestionable, but it is also important to note his overall balance and body control. Stills undoubtedly has the athleticism to succeed in the NFL, but it’s his refined ball skills that could be his greatest ally going forward. His hands and tracking ability are very solid for a receiver with only three years at the professional level under his belt. In 2014, his 78.8% catch rate on targets coming his way was good for 4th best among wide receivers and, even more importantly, his 64.3% catch rate on deep throws was the highest in the entire league. So, while guys like Ted Ginn and Brandon LaFell often suffer from dreaded brick hands, Kenny Stills has had no such issue. Take a gander at this play from his time with the Saints to see my point:
Kenny Stills’ greatest weakness is his limited route tree. His labeling as a deep threat is actually quite accurate, as this is certainly what he does best. He escapes coverage with his speed rather than agility or route running. He is certainly not a terrible route runner; his skill set is simply maximized when he stretches the field. He does what he knows extremely well, as his deep routes are a thing of beauty. Because all he’s ever been asked to do is run in a straight line and wait for ball, his short and intermediate routes lack the polish of his deep routes. He often struggles to gain separation when he isn’t allowed to gain momentum downfield:
Additionally, he tends to get out-muscled more than someone of his stature should be. When faced with sticky coverage, he doesn’t do very well working in a tight window. He does have the ability to find the weak point in a zone or to blow by a defensive back out of position, but he needs to be more consistent when the play doesn’t go his way. Ultimately, It’s unfortunate that the promising receiver never received a fair shot to showcase his skillset under Joe Philbin’s staff. Much of his inconsistency on the field can be explained by the incompetence of his aforementioned former coaching staff, and there is reason to believe that Kenny Stills has a lot of the juice that made him such a dangerous deep threat in his first two seasons.
Kenny Stills’ opening season for the Miami Dolphins definitely did not live up to expectations. He did not see the field consistently and catchable deep balls were few and far between. He seemed to have taken a step back without Drew Brees throwing the ball, and he may be destined to be no more than a designated deep threat for the remainder of his career. Poor route concepts and inconsistent quarterback play were only compounded by his lack of playing time. However, the hope is that Adam Gase’s wide receiver friendly offense could become Stills’ new best friend. It has even been reported that Stills has the best handle on the new playbook of any wideout. Whether that is true or not, the new coaching staff seems to have taken a liking to Stills, and they should be able to turn his strengths into results on the field.
As it stands now, Kenny Stills will be the number three wide receiver behind Pro Bowler Jarvis Landry and promising second year wideout DeVante Parker. He should see plenty of opportunities during the 2016 season, so there won’t be any excuses if he puts out another lackluster campaign. If Kenny Stills does manage a return to 2014 form, Ryan Tannehill will have a wide receiver trio as talented as any in the league, making it far easier for the troubled quarterback to perform up to an irritated fan base’s expectations. If Adam Gase’s player friendly/non-toxic atmosphere is as effective as I think it will be, we may see a few more exciting touchdowns courtesy of number 10.