Sixteen wide receivers were selected ahead of Kenny Stills in the 2013 NFL Draft, but none of them performed as well as he did in the Saints’ season-opening win over Atlanta.
For that matter, neither did any of the receivers taken after him.
Stills, a fifth-round pick from Oklahoma, led all rookies in Week 1 with 86 yards on two receptions, including a 67-yard catch-and-run in the second quarter. Rest assured, he noticed.
“I’m very conscious of how many receivers were drafted before me,” he said. “I’m a very chippy player, and I remember that stuff. It’s something that I write down. It’s something that I think about every day.”
With Joe Morgan sidelined for the season with a torn ACL, Stills has taken over as the Saints’ No. 3 wideout behind Marques Colston and Lance Moore. His numbers Sunday would have been even more impressive if Drew Brees had not underthrown him in the second half when we was open for at least a 20-yard gain.
Brees looked for him deep on the Saints’ third offensive play. He threw to him on the first play of the second quarter and again on the opening play of the third quarter.
So his confidence in Stills is apparent. He’s running the same deep routes Morgan loved while also getting opportunities on intermediate patterns that Morgan never ran.
His 67-yarder against Atlanta came on a seam route when he lined up in the slot, faked an outside move and beat cornerback Robert McClain to the inside, then turned safety Thomas DeCoud around with a quick cut after the ball arrived. He made his other catch after lining up wide right and finding a hole in the defense, turning around to catch a 19-yard pass that started the Saints’ go-ahead touchdown drive in the third quarter.
“He’s a very talented guy who works hard at it, and he understands what we’re trying to accomplish within the scheme,” Brees said. “He’s a good route runner. He’s a competitive guy.”
The way Stills has played since the start of training camp, the mystery is why he lasted as long as he did in the draft. Unlike Colston, who played tight end for Football Championship Division school Hofstra before the Saints took a flyer on him in the seventh round of the 2006 draft, or Moore, who went undrafted out of Toledo in 2005, he was a valuable receiver for a high-profile program.
When he declared for the draft after his junior year, he ranked third in Oklahoma history with 2,954 receiving yards. He led the Sooners last season with 82 catches for 959 yards and 11 touchdowns.
He is fast, has good hands and has an NFL pedigree, too. His father, Ken Stills, played safety for Green Bay from 1985-89.
Yet every team passed on Stills in the first four rounds before New Orleans grabbed him with the 144th pick. A knock on him was off-the-field issues, particularly a January 2011 arrest for driving under the influence.
“Some of the things that I was doing were immature, but I’ve matured from it,” he said. “I’m still trying to learn and grow. I feel like when the coaches and my teammates have taken the time and we’ve gotten the chance to hang around each other, they realize all the things that are said about me aren’t usually true.”
Fair or not, the character questions were exacerbated by his appearance. He sports a bleach blond mohawk and has large tattoos on both arms and his chest.
“From what everybody told me, he kind of had this rebel reputation, and maybe people steered clear of him for that reason or whatever,” Brees said. “But the fact is he’s been great here. He fits in perfectly, and I’m glad that we got him.”
Stills’ big plays against Atlanta hardly came out of nowhere. He led the team with 170 receiving yards on nine catches in the preseason.
“He’s got all kinds of ability and talent,” Moore said. “The more reps he gets, the better he’ll be out there.”
He also needs to hydrate better. His long gain against Atlanta could have been a 76-yard touchdown if his legs hadn’t cramped right after he made his cut. Stills, who ran a 4.38 40 at the NFL combine, labored as he ran across the field. Falcons cornerback Robert Alford caught him from behind and pushed him out of bounds at the 9.
The razzing from teammates has not stopped since. Moore said wide receivers coach Henry Ellard joked that Stills’ back and butt gave out on him.
“My legs locked up with my calves,” Stills said. “That’s the last thing I’d expect, to be in the open field and finally have a chance to showcase my speed and then cramp up. It’s frustrating, and I’ll be better prepared the next time.
“I’ll make sure I have the right salt intake.”
He’s taken care of everything else. While Stills looked comfortable and confident in his regular-season debut, eight of the nine receivers picked directly in front him had 0 yards on opening weekend.
“The situation I fell into is great,” he said. “Like I said, I’m a chippy person. Getting drafted where I did, for my personality, it worked out even better.”