Stills the One: Breaking Down Kenny Stills’ Huge 2016 Contribution for the Dolphins

Before last offseason, Kenny Stills was acquired from the New Orleans Saints for a third round pick and overpaid linebacker Dannell Ellerbe. Stills was supposed to help elevate the Dolphins’ passing attack, but he came out of the gate slowly and never seemed to develop chemistry with Ryan Tannehill in another lost season. Fast forward a year, and Kenny Stills has regained his status as one of the league’s premiere deep threats at the wide receiver position. He may not receive the same level of praise as teammates Jay Ajayi and Jarvis Landry, but Kenny Stills and his field stretching ability have been instrumental in the success of Adam Gase’s offense. So, what were the conditions that changed to turn Stills from disappointing acquisition into unsung hero? Well, Greg, that’s exactly what I’m going to tell you. 

Improved Coaching:

As has been a popular narrative all season, Adam Gase and his staff have completely turned around the Miami Dolphins franchise. Currently sitting at 9-5, the Dolphins have won 8 of their last 9 games and have a legitimate chance to make the playoffs for the first time in nearly a decade. Among Gase’s greatest attributes is his penchant to scheme around his players instead of the alternative. So, unlike the previous coaching staff, Gase’s staff routinely puts his players in position to succeed. His offensive expertise, specifically in creative route concepts, certainly helps things along on that side of the ball. Under Joe Philbin and Dan Campbell, Stills was often used simply as a decoy as the coaching staff failed to maximize his ability. Stills was brought to Miami to improve Ryan Tannehill’s deep ball, but it was difficult to develop chemistry when the only routes he was assigned to run were “go” routes. Gase has found the happy medium, utilizing Stills’ straight line 4.38 40 yard dash speed with a much more diverse set of deep routes. Though sometimes Gase does just let him run fast in a straight line – honestly, can you blame him?

kenny-stills-touchdown

Expanded Opportunities:

The most significant cause behind Stills’ lack of production last season was his stunning lack of opportunities. Stills did not see the field frequently as he started the season relegated to the 4th receiver spot on the depth chart below the likes of Jarvis Landry, Greg Jennings and Rishard Matthews. As was mentioned previously, he was used exclusively as a deep threat and was asked to do very little. Considering that he had experience as the New Orleans Saints’ de facto number one wide receiver, the move was rightfully criticized. By the end of the season, Stills totaled just 440 yards and 3 touchdowns on a mere 27 receptions. Enter Adam Gase, i.e. a competent coaching staff.

stills

(Photo: Charles Trainor Jr/Miami Herald)

Throughout the 2016 offseason, it was reported that Kenny Stills had the best handle on the new playbook of any wideout. Whether or not that was true is ultimately irrelevant, as the coaching staff lauded his abilities and showed real confidence when they didn’t really have to. Stills’ hard work did not go unnoticed, as he was given the opportunity to be the team’s wide receiver 2B alongside the promising 2nd year receiver DeVante Parker. Parker and Stills get a fairly even split on opportunities in the offense, though Stills has actually edged Parker out this season. Like Parker, Stills is always present during 3 wide receiver sets, but Stills receives more snaps at 83.05% compared to Parker’s 76.22%.

On-Field Results:

Kenny Stills can take the top off a defense; we certainly know that. His physical speed coupled with his ball skills, body control and mastery of deep routes have been a staple of the Dolphins’ offense. The missing link that he has found is a rapport with his quarterback. Stills is 3rd on the team in receptions at 35 and 2nd on the team in receiving yards at 650. Both of these numbers are respectable for a number 2 receiver, but it is his efficiency that truly sets the former New Orleans Saint apart. For one, Kenny Stills leads the team with 7 touchdowns, which is more Jarvis Landry and DeVante Parker have combined and as many as Jay Ajayi has this season. Stills’ nose for the end zone is not surprising given his ability to blow by defenders for big plays:

great-play-tannehill-to-stills-td

Back during Stills’ time with the Saints, he was quite literally the most efficient deep threat in the league. Now, 15 weeks into the 2016 season, he has recaptured that form. In addition to being recognizable at the team level, there are a number of statistics that Kenny Stills shows at a macro-league wide level that are particularly notable. One such statistic is his yards per catch average. The speedy wideout’s YPC average of 18.6 is the 2nd highest in the league, behind only the Patriots’ Chris Hogan. So, to put that in perspective, Kenny Stills is a more efficient deep threat than guys like DeSean Jackson, T.Y. Hilton and Julio Jones. The second statistic is one that is incredibly important. It is time to dispel the notion that Kenny Stills has drop issues. Had it not been for his egregious Week 1 drop against the Seahawks that essentially lost the Dolphins the game, we would not be having this conversation. Stills has only two drops on the season for an excellent 3% drop percentage. For a guy that has to make so many difficult catches down the field, this is undoubtedly impressive.

The Skinny:

Though Kenny Stills is far from a perfect receiver, as his mediocre release and limited short route tree display, he has been incredible in carving out a role for himself this year. His efficiency as a deep threat has given Adam Gase a valuable tool to use all over the field; one that cannot be understated. His penchant for making truly game changing plays is second to none on the team, and the trust that he has developed with the coaching staff as a result has been a boon to the team’s performance in clutch situations. While Jarvis Landry and Jay Ajayi are the bigger cogs in this well-oiled machine, Kenny Stills’ contributions to Ryan Tannehill’s improvement throwing down field are nearly as important. Be it Matt Moore or Ryan Tannehill, it’ll be exciting to continue to watch number 10 make plays for the next two weeks, and hopefully into January.

 

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