Mansur Shaheen

Miami Dolphins Wide Receiver Kenny Stills had a breakout year in 2016. He started for a full season for the first time in his four-year career and was a crucial part of the Miami Dolphins team that made the playoffs for the first time in nearly a decade. He had his best season since leaving New Orleans in 2014, and scored a career high 9 touchdowns.

Fellow wide receiver Jarvis Landry gets much of the attention from fans and the media, but Stills role in the offense is irreplaceable. The Dolphins realized this as well, giving him a $32 million contract to hold on to him in free agency.

Stills is most well know around the league for his deep threat potential. He makes highlight plays beating the defense deep for long touchdowns. He brings a lot more to a team than just that, though.

Still excels against zone coverage. His speed and agility forces defenses to give him more room than usual as he sprints down field. He crosses through one quickly, meaning that during one play his assignment will be passes across multiple defenders. Even the slightest miscommunication means letting Stills get behind you.

Week one against the Seattle Seahawks he caught their usually well communicated secondary off guard for a play and nearly burned them for a deep touchdown

Seattle runs cover 3 against the Dolphins. Still starts lined up across the corner back, and runs a vertical route down the left sideline. The Dolphins tight end runs into the left zone, drawing three defenders. The man initially on Stills switched to the tight end, who now has three defenders on him. Stills gets by his man, and safety Earl Thomas is caught looking at the other side of the field. Stills has beaten the entire defense and Ryan Tannehill throws a perfect pass, only for him to drop what was a sure touchdown.

In the end the down is wasted and the Seahawks are spared, but it shows what even the slightest defensive breakdown can allow when a receiver as dangerous as Stills is lining up on the other side of the field.

A few weeks later against Cincinnati, stills managed to slip through another zone defense to get wide open deep.

Stills is lined up as the inside receiver of the left side in a four wide look for the Dolphins. The Bengals drop 6 into zone coverage, including a deep safety. The corner lined up directly across Stills shadows for the beginning of the play, but then leaves him to cover another receiver streaking over the middle. The safety is late to picking up Stills, and out of position. He gets beat deep and Stills makes no mistake catching a well thrown ball by Tannehill for a touchdown.

What Stills does even better than beating zone coverage deep, though, is finding space underneath to get open. His speed and the fear that he will punish you for not being able to keep up with him deep forces corners to play off coverage against him.

It may not create many highlight plays, but can earn chunks of 15-20 yards to help the team drive down field quickly.

Here against the Rams, he picks up an easy 17 yards due the defensive backs giving him way to much room.

Stills is split wide of the right side of the formation. He has a corner lined up in front of him, and off of the snap the Rams drop into cover 3. The opposing defensive back gives him a ten yard cushion at the beginning of the play, and maintains that cushion as he drops back into his zone. None of the linebackers take any of the shallower zones underneath either.

After running 17 yards up field, he comes to a complete stop and quickly turns to catch a wide-open pass. No one can close in on time and he just falls to the ground to avoid taking a hit. The Rams would obviously rather prefer this then letting him slip through the cracks to get open deep, but it is still a harsh price to pay.

Stills does this often. It does not lead to many yards after catch, but it had much to do with the 17 yards per reception he averaged in 2016. His ability to find room underneath coverage, and quickly turn to secure a catch is an extremely underrated skill that could be game changing for any offense in the league. It was the main stay of his game this year, and changed how teams played against the Dolphins.

His agility also helps him create separation when defensive backs decide to play closer to him in coverage. It’s hard enough to match his speed while running backwards. It is even harder to not get caught flat footed when he quickly and fluidly spins around anticipating the ball.

Occasionally a defensive back will try to jump the route when he does whip around, which the Patriots learned can be a bad idea.

On this play, Stills gets picked up early by a corner as he runs a vertical route. After about ten yards, Stills turns to his left slightly making it look like he is about to break towards the sideline. The corner jumps trying to undercut the route. Stills immediately turns right back up field, leaving the defensive back in the dust as he catches a pass and strolls into the end zone for a touchdown.

Although he thrives in against zone coverage, Stills incredible route running ability makes him a threat against man coverage as well.

He beat the Cardinals man coverage twice during their week 13 match up, eventually winning the game for the Dolphins.

On this play he is given a ten yard cushion by the opposing defensive back. He runs a vertical, but he weaves back and forth as he heads down field. He quick changes of direction while maintaining his speed keeps the defensive back from gaining any sort of leverage on him without totally selling out on the play.

Without any safety help over the middle and with a step on his man, Stills is essentially wide open for an easy 20-yard touchdown.

Another well run route in one on one coverage against the Cardinal set up the game winning field goal late in the game.

Stills comes out of the slot and initially shows his route going towards the inside. Once he see the man covering shifting that way, he quickly dekes outside and breaks on his route. This gives him a step or two on his man heading towards the end zone. Again, there is no safety help. A well thrown ball by Tannehill, one further towards the sideline or at least in front of Stills, leads a to a touchdown. Stills still makes an incredible grab despite being wacked in the face as the ball gets to him, and the Dolphins win a few plays later on a short field goal.

Throughout the season, Stills was not as successful against man coverage as he could have been, though. He had issues against press coverage, and his small size made it hard for him to bring down the ball or even get open against more physical corners.

He dealt with press coverage all day against the 49ers in the Dolphins week 11 matchup. He still had a great game, coming down with 3 receptions for a whopping 72 yards, but at times had trouble finding any sort of space against one of the NFL’s worst secondary’s.

On this play he tries his usual comeback route, but hand fighting throughout the route kept the defensive back nearby. He doesn’t get a good break on his route and can not make the catch through contact.

The corner back does a great job keeping Stills in front of him. Although he may have pushed the rules a bit with the amount of contact, no flag was thrown so in the end it was a win for him. He never took his eyes off of Stills, and stayed within throwing lane between Tannehill and Stills the whole way. This leaves him at risk of being beat deep but it isn’t something he had to worry about that close to the end zone.

Here against the Bills, he again can not break his route away from a corner playing press coverage.

Stills gets a step on his man with a nice jab step right at the snap, but the corner quickly recovers. They lock arms as they head down field, and Stills never properly can break off of his route.

Kenny Stills had 100 yards that game though, showing how hard it really is to shut him down.

The Tennessee Titans managed to keep Stills in check in week 5. It was easily his worst game of the season as he was only targeted once and did not catch a single pass. He dealt with press coverage the entire game, and majority of the routes he ran looked something like this.

Just like the play against San Francisco, the corner never turns away from Stills and keeps his back to the ball. He face guards him, making it hard for Tannehill to find any room to squeeze the ball to his man. It also neutralizes his quick turn, as it does not require the Titans defensive back to turn with him to make a play. There is still heavy risk involved, as you still have to be fast enough to keep up with Stills, and if he breaks free deep it’s probably a touchdown. There is not much contact, but the man bearing over Stills the whole way makes him a non-factor.

Tight man coverage removed him from plays all season. He struggles in short yardage situations and was often off the field in the red zone. Managing to fight through contact and make plays when he isn’t giving a large cushion is something Stills will need to work on this offseason.

Stills is a known playmaker when he is running routes, but what about when the ball is not going to go to him. The Dolphins run a lot of screens, usually to either Landry or receiver Devante Parker. Stills is usually not the recipient of a screen pass, but still has the duty to block on majority of these plays.

For a player who is not the best at fighting against contact, Stills is a surprisingly talented blocker. He quickly meets his blocking assignment, and locks their arms. He keeps his hips moving to stay horizontal and push them back for long enough to allow the play to develop.

Sometimes, though, he has issues approaching his assignment. If he miss-anticipates their angle of approach, or if they just don’t approach at all he gets caught in no man’s land. Stills will sometimes through a shoulder at someone as they go by after missing, or at times just fall down.

It is a very minor part of his game, but still very relevant for a team where short passes and screens are so critical.

Kenny Stills is a wide receiver that complements Jarvis Landry perfectly. While Landry draws majority of the attention over the middle with shorter flare routes, Stills can run deeper routes and make plays everywhere. He’s fast and agile, forcing defenses to change their game plan around him at times, which is usual for a WR2. He has carved out a niche in the Dolphins offense, and is one of the key pieces on a team that will be the front runners in the AFC east once Tom Brady FINALLY retires.

 

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