Kenny Stills' primary role in the New Orleans Saints' high-octane offense is to be a deep threat.
Heading into Sunday's showdown with the Dallas Cowboys, the rookie out of Oklahoma has filled his role so well he leads the NFL in yards per catch (22.6) among receivers with 10 or more receptions.
“A lot of people say that's my role but it just so happens those are some of the plays I've been making,” Stills said in a telephone interview with The Oklahoman. “It's not just deep balls. My job is to make plays. I feel blessed just to have the opportunity to be part of this offense.”
But most of Stills' 16 catches have been big plays. Momentum-changing plays.
In the season opener, Stills burned Atlanta for two catches for 86 yards. Against New England, Stills gave the Saints the lead with less than four minutes left on a 34-yard touchdown grab on third-and-20. A Tom Brady miracle rally spoiled the highlight.
Two weeks ago, Stills hauled in three catches for 129 yards against the Buffalo Bills, including touchdown plays of 69 and 42 yards.
“Some guys have a knack for those type of plays,” Saints coach Sean Payton said after the game. “He's very smart. We've seen him get behind defenses but we've also seen him win (one-on-one) matchups.”
Stills stretching the field opens the middle for elite tight end Jimmy Graham, Pro Bowl receiver Marques Colston and veteran possession receiver Lance Moore.
But perhaps most importantly, the fifth-round draft pick has gained Pro Bowl quarterback Drew Brees' trust. That was most evident against Buffalo. On the 42-yard TD pass, Brees threw a deep ball even though Stills was covered. Stills leapt high to make the play.
“He's very mature beyond his years,” Brees said told Saints.com. “He has lived up to the challenge. Wherever we put him, whatever we've asked of him, he's lived up to the challenge.”
Still was the 15th wide receiver selected in the draft last April and signed a four-year, $2.35 million deal. Eight games into the Saints' season, he's fifth among rookie wideouts in receiving yards. He ranks ahead of first-round picks Tavon Austin (St. Louis) and Cordarrelle Patterson (Minnesota) and second-round picks Robert Woods (Buffalo) and Justin Hunter (Tennessee).
“He's been very consistent for a rookie,” Payton said. “Consistency is what's important.”
Despite leaving OU a year early, Stills finished third in school history in receiving yards, fourth all-time with 203 career receptions.
Stills quickly digested the Saints' complicated offense to become the team's most productive rookie wideout since Colston in 2006. He said his father Ken, who played safety for six years with the Packers and Vikings, helped instill a high football IQ. Another benefit was playing with quarterback Landry Jones at OU.