The journey that Kenny Stills took from New Orleans to Miami was an odd one. One moment he was catching deep passes from future Hall of Famer Drew Brees, and the next he's being traded to Miami for a much-maligned linebacker and a third round pick.
Upon arriving, Stills found himself being the almost forgotten member of the Dolphins offense under both Joe Philbin and Dan Campbell, being overlooked in favor of Jarvis Landry, the departed Rishard Matthews and Lamar Miller, and even tight end Jordan Cameron.
Stills was only able to catch 27 passes in 2015 as a member of the Miami Dolphins, for only 440 yards and three touchdowns, all of which were career lows for the young speedster.
But now the offense belongs to new head coach Adam Gase, who has been quoted as saying that he's had plans for Stills dating back as far as the coach's tenure as the Chicago Bears' offensive coordinator, and the Bears were unable to complete a trade with the Saints that would've sent Stills to Chicago instead.
But now that Gase is coaching in Miami, those plans he had are finally becoming a reality, and as a result, Stills' skill set is being featured in places where the average individual wouldn't expect, such as in the red zone.
“I think the speed makes a big difference as far as when he comes off the ball, he comes off with great stride length." said Adam Gase. "He doesn’t really dance around at the line of scrimmage. He’s getting vertical right away. He seems to get DBs that they get turned a lot of times, and he’s very quick at the top of his routes, and he’s catching the ball well.
"When you put all of those things together – and being as detailed as he is in this offense and probably knowing it as good as anybody besides the quarterback – he’s a guy that is really putting himself in position to win a lot of the times. He’s getting open and the quarterback is seeing him.”
The quarterback is indeed seeing him, as he was the recipient of not one, not two, but three game changing plays against the Dallas Cowboys in the second preseason game, which - despite the huge 41-14 loss - shows that the offense can do well with the weapons at Tannehill's disposal, with Stills quickly becoming a favored target who's also beating a stereotype.
“I think he’s an all-around receiver." said Ryan Tannehill. "I think he has put a lot of time into growing his game and to becoming a complete receiver. I think he gets stereotyped a lot into, ‘He’s a pure speed guy. He’s a guy who’s going to take the top off and stretch you down the field.’ Obviously, he can do that. He’s one of the fastest guys in the league – definitely on our team – but he’s a complete receiver."
That complete receiver was the star of the Dolphins offense on Friday against the Cowboys, catching a 55-yard deep pass with Tannehill rolling out to his right, and two tough touchdown catches in the red zone, both of which had him battling it out with a defensive back in very tight coverage.
"The deep ball on the run was a great throw." said Stills. "The first touchdown was a great throw; the second one was a great throw. He was on the money. We’ve just got to continue to build on that and try to come out of these games with some wins. It’s the preseason. We’re all out there working, trying to get on the same page and clean up the little details. It wasn’t perfect but the series that we were in – I thought that we did alright, so we’ve just got to build on that next week."
With Stills starting to get more of the spotlight, teams will start to give a wider berth to guys like Jarvis Landry, who lead the team in receptions by double the amount of the player behind him (Landry's 110 to Lamar Miller's 47), and that will get the offense firing on all cylinders as teams won't be homed in on one specific player.
It's a contract year for Stills, and he's spent the entire offseason working on becoming a more balanced wide receiver, and so far it's paying off, as he's being used in situations where normally he wouldn't.
"He’s comfortable running the inside routes, third downs (and) obviously in the red zone (as) we saw." Tannehill said. "I’m excited about the progress he has made, the effort, the time he has put in over the course of the last year, really focusing on the details of the position and becoming a complete receiver.”
The Dolphins will play their third preseason game (often known as the dress rehearsal game) Thursday night in Orlando against the Atlanta Falcons. There, Stills will get a chance to show that his performance against the Cowboys was not a mere fluke, and there's more to him than just raw speed.
This story was written by Luis Sung. Follow him on Twitter: @FLSportDebater
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