Rookie Stills proves his worth with Saints

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTONSaints receiver Kenny Stills scores a touchdown against Tampa Bay on Sunday. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTONSaints receiver Kenny Stills scores a touchdown against Tampa Bay on Sunday.

On the Saints’ longest play from scrimmage during the 2013 regular season, wide receiver Kenny Stills sprinted by Tampa Bay cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Jonathan Banks as well as safety Dashon Goldson.

All three defenders gravitated toward Saints tight end Jimmy Graham, who earlier in the game Sunday, caught his NFL-leading 16th touchdown. By the time Revis realized no one had accounted for Stills, the Saints’ rookie was 12 feet clear of the secondary.

Stills hauled in a 29-yard throw from Brees at Tampa Bay’s 47. Five seconds later, he stormed across the goal-line and handed the ball to a woman sitting in the front row of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, toting a sign that read, “Wrap it up with a win.”

Stills’ electrifying play — his only catch of the day — not only wrapped up a win, helping the Saints take a 28-14 first-half lead that gave way to a final score of 42-17. It not only atoned for his participating earlier in the celebration of a Lance Moore touchdown, which copied the thrusting Hingle McCringleberry “Excessive Celebration” sketch from the Comedy Central show Key & Peele and got the Saints hit with a penalty.

It not only helped the Saints (11-5) secure a wild card showdown on Saturday night at NFC East champion Philadelphia (10-6). It also concluded a season in which Stills proved to be the Saints rookie that most exceeded the expectations placed upon him.

Don’t take that to mean Stills has meant more to New Orleans than rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro, who was No. 3 on the Saints in tackles (79) and also racked up a sack, an interception and six pass breakups while lining up at all kinds of positions before he fractured his fibula on Dec. 22 and landed on season-ending injured reserve.

But the Saints have repeatedly said they always knew Vaccaro would be a key component of coordinator Rob Ryan’s defense. That explains why they picked him 14th overall in the draft in April.

Such was not the case for Stills, whom the Saints selected out of Oklahoma in the fifth round of the draft. He was available so late because of off-field issues in college, notably a driving-under-the-influence arrest from January 2011.

Stills was among several receivers tapped to battle for a spot under veterans Marques Colston and Lance Moore, and even under Joseph Morgan, who joined the Saints as an undrafted rookie in 2011 and a year later amassed a staggering 379 yards and three TDs on a mere 10 catches.

Morgan, however, suffered a year-ending knee injury at a preseason scrimmage. Colston missed some time in the preseason with a foot injury. Stills spent time running with the first-team offense.

“He ... benefitted from a lot of reps in the preseason with the first group because of some injuries to the veteran players, ... but most importantly (they were) reps with Drew (Brees),” coach Sean Payton said.

Moore then missed Weeks 4, 5 and 6 with a hand injury. And from there, though it certainly wasn’t initially scripted that way, Stills established himself as both a long-ball threat and the Saints’ most productive receiver not named Colston or Graham.

He finished third on the team with 641 receiving yards. He carved out that yardage on just 32 catches — that’s more than 20 yards per grab.

And there’s been no mention of Stills’ TD receptions. The shortest of those were 34 and 42 yards in a loss at New England and a victory against Buffalo, respectively. Both were on third-and-20, the most obvious of passing situations, but Stills nonetheless managed to free himself of the coverage.

Another score against Buffalo — a 69-yard catch-and-run — was the Saints’ second-longest play from scrimmage. It was his only TD that didn’t occur on third down — a 52-yard catch-and-run in a win against Dallas and Sunday’s score were each on third-and-6.

On Sunday, Stills didn’t hide his excitement about spending his first year in the NFL with Brees, who topped the 5,000-yard mark passing for the fourth time in his career this season when no one else has ever done that more than once.

“Every once in a while, I have to take a step back and really realize how great of a quarterback he is,” Stills said. “That’s something special for us to have.”

But listening to Payton, it’s clear Stills is far from the only one who’s excited that he’s in New Orleans.

“We just have to keep looking for ways to get him the football,” Payton said.