When Oklahoma wide receiver Kenny Stills declared for the NFL Draft a year early some labeled it a mistake, a theory that gained momentum when Stills slid to the fifth round.
Stills, though, is a reminder what round a player is drafted can be trumped by opportunity.
New Orleans usually makes young receivers wait a year or two, but Stills has a shot at being the Saints' No. 3 receiver his rookie season.
“I want to show people that I deserve to be in this league,” Stills said. “A lot of people questioned me leaving early. I feel I can be good. I have a chip on my shoulder. I'm playing with a lot to prove.”
Stills wasn't drafted until the 144th overall selection. But he's made such an impression in offseason workouts and training camp he could be the first Saints rookie receiver to play a key role since Marques Colston in 2007.
Coach Sean Payton is so high on Stills, the San Diego product started last week's preseason opener against Kansas City. Stills filled in for Colston, who was experiencing swelling around his surgically repaired right kneecap.
“(Stills) picked up things well, runs well,” Payton told the New Orleans Time-Picayune. “He's going to have to contribute. He's shown enough early in camp we think he can. He's smart. He's learned quickly.”
Stills' performance was sloppy at times in the preseason opener. His stiffest competition could be veteran Steve Breaston.
Colston hopes to play in the Saints' second preseason game Friday night against the Oakland Raiders, but Stills will play several snaps.
Stills' father, Ken, will be watching. Ken played six years in the NFL. After his son's subpar effort last week he reminded Kenny there are no guarantees, that he better step it up.
Ken played at Wisconsin and was a safety five seasons with the Packers, one with the Vikings. He also coached in Frankfurt and Amsterdam.
“I've been around with my dad playing and coaching,” Stills said. “I knew what I was I was getting into.”
Stills' performance in the opener wasn't awful. The highlight was an acrobatic 22-yard, back-shoulder catch. But earlier in the game he fumbled an exchange on an end-around run. He also failed to haul in a tough catch on a deep ball labeled a drop and was flagged for a questionable pass interference penalty.
Daily practice sessions impact decisions, but Stills knows preseason games are pivotal.
“I've always embraced battles that are a daily occurrence,” Stills said. “There's a lot to it, but the bottom line as a receiver is to run the right route, get open and make plays.”
Making an immediate impact is nothing new for Stills, who was in the limelight the moment he stepped on OU's campus.
A highly touted receiver from California, Stills was the first true freshman coach Bob Stoops made available to the media in years.
His off-the-field antics created a buzz. On the field, Stills was an instant starter. He established freshmen school receiving records for receptions (61) and receiving yards (786). Stills finished his career fourth in school history for receptions (204), third in receiving yards.
But his style, as much as his stats, stood out. Some viewed Stills' “confidence” as swagger. His bleached blonde Mohawk was an attention grabber. Tattoos represented a new generation.
“I was just being myself. I'm not too worried about anything else,” Stills said. “I took care of business in the classroom and on the field. That's all that should have mattered even though I got into a little trouble when I was younger.”
Trouble ranged from taking a shot at OSU receiver Justin Blackmon on twitter to serving a one-game suspension his sophomore season after he was arrested on a misdemeanor DUI charge earlier that year.
“The older I got the more mature I got,” Stills said. “I began to embrace everything and used it to my benefit. It is what it is. There are a lot of people who wish they had that opportunity (to play college football). It was a blessing to play at OU.”
During his OU career he was occasionally matched against Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro, the Saints' first-round pick.
A key addition to try and upgrade the defense, Vaccaro claims he surrendered only one touchdown pass his entire Longhorn career, a 16-yard fade route to Stills in OU's 28-20 win three years ago.
“I can see them putting Kenny in more packages,” Vaccaro told the Times- Picayune. “Kenny is growing every day. He's so fast. People don't realize how fast he is.”
The Saints are looking for a big-play threat to complement Colston and Lance Moore. Stills, 6-foot, 190, showed at OU he can handle any role — slot receiver, deep threat, boundary receiver, over-the-middle threat.
“This organization saw highlights from college, but I know I need to show them every day that I can play at this level,” Stills said. “This is something I embrace.”
Stills still has the Mohawk.
“There are some guys that have given me a hard time about it,” Stills said. “I'm a little surprised they haven't tried to cut it off (since I'm a rookie).”
The rookie is grateful to play on a team with Super Bowl aspirations.
Last season was a mulligan. Payton was suspended the entire season. The Saints started 0-4, made a late charge but faded to 7-9.
Payton is back, leading a team was 13-3 two years ago, a team that won the Super Bowl four years ago. The defense is suspect. But a team with Brees always has a shot. One of Brees' targets could be Stills.
And his response to those that questioned leaving early?
“To come to a place like this, that's all you can ask for,” Stills said. “Where I was drafted is what it is. People can say what they want. I'm happy with my decision. I'm happy where I am.”