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.
“It's not the same things we ran at Oklahoma but there are a lot of similar things,” Stills said. “My football knowledge has helped, but it's also helped to be able to play with guys who have been in this league a long time.”
When training camp opened, Stills already was on the second team after making an impression during offseason workouts. After No. 3 receiver Joseph Morgan suffered a season-ending torn ACL in the preseason, Payton announced Stills was the top candidate to fill the void.
Stills responded and steadily gained more playing time.
“I've been fortunate to have a veteran quarterback and veteran receivers that have helped show me the ropes,” Stills said. “It's a blessing to be given an opportunity to make plays.”
In the past three games, Stills has been targeted a dozen times, hauling in nine catches for 225 yards and three touchdowns.
“He's got crazy potential,” Moore told the Saints' website. “It's great to see him grow. Seeing him every day in practice, we know what he's capable of.”
Stills is focused on the upcoming season.
“My role will grow as much as the coaches allow it to grow,” Stills said. “My job is to make plays when I'm out there. I'm very excited about everything we have going here.”
The Saints (6-2) lead the NFC South with a defense that has shown improvement under first-year defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.
A year after Payton was suspended by the NFL for the entire season because of “Bountygate,” the Saints one again are a viable Super Bowl candidate. Next week, the Saints host the 49ers in a game with tiebreaker implications for home-field advantage in the playoffs.
“We're coming off a loss where we didn't play well but there's a lot of excitement here,” Stills said. “With Coach Payton back, it's like we're playing with a chip on our shoulder. We all understand how big an opportunity we have.
“It's a chance to live out our dreams. Playing in the Super Bowl is something you've dreamed about since you were a little kid. But our focus is to improve week to week.”