METAIRIE, La. -- Rookie receiver Kenny Stills ended his first NFL regular season in style, catching a 76-yard touchdown pass in the New Orleans Saints’ 42-17 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That catch also vaulted him into first place in the league in yards per catch this season (20.0).
Stills finished with 32 catches for 641 yards and five touchdowns. Not bad at all for a fifth-round draft pick out of Oklahoma, who was expected to be more of a long-term developmental prospect.
Stills earned a much more significant role than expected with his standout performance in training camp – taking advantage of an opportunity that came when projected No. 3 receiver Joe Morgan suffered a season-ending knee injury in the summer.
It would be fair to describe Stills as a supporting cast member in the Saints’ deep offense, since he averaged just two catches per game. But the 6-foot, 194-pounder is more than just a deep threat. In fact, he wound up playing more snaps as a primary starter than veteran nickel receiver Lance Moore in most games this season.
"It's hard as a rookie to say that that was our plan to begin with,” Saints coach Sean Payton admitted this week. “But to his credit, he came in right away in the rookie camps and training camp and very quickly picked up what we were doing. I think he and [second-year receiver] Nick Toon benefitted from a lot of reps in the preseason with the first group because of some injuries to the veteran players, so they got maybe an inordinate amount of reps, but most importantly reps with Drew [Brees].
“He's somebody that studies and picks the game up very quickly. He can run exceptionally well, and we just have to keep looking for ways to get him the football."
The Saints like Stills’ combination of size, speed, route running and blocking ability. And, of course, they did like to throw deep to him at times.
Stills became the latest in a long line of Saints receivers to put up a monster number in that yards-per-catch category while stretching the field deep. It’s hard for defenses to cover everybody in this offense that’s loaded with short- and mid-range targets like Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston, Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas and Moore.
In fact, fellow receiver Robert Meachem also averaged 20.3 yards per catch this season, but he didn’t qualify for the league lead since he only caught 16 passes. Last season, Morgan averaged a whopping 37.9 yards per catch on just 10 catches. In the past, Devery Henderson also passed the 20-yard threshold on multiple occasions, including a league-high 24.8 yards per catch in 2008.