Saints receiver Kenny Stills adding to tool set in second NFL season _lowres

Associated Press photo by MIKE McCARN -- New Orleans Saints receiver Kenny Stills (84) runs past the Carolina Panthers' James Dockery (31) after a catch in the second half of their Oct. 30 game in Charlotte, N.C.

Lance Moore hasn’t been a member of the New Orleans Saints since he was released in the spring, but he remains a prominent part of Kenny Stills’ life.

Stills and Moore — now a Steeler — exchange text messages on a daily basis, mostly about their lives off the football field.

Stills says he’s also spent much of his second year in the NFL mastering some routes that are similar to the ones Moore ran toward the end of his eight seasons in New Orleans.

“The coaches and (Saints quarterback) Drew (Brees) have given me a little bit more responsibility ... just being able to move around on the offense, do some of the things that Lance was doing last year,” said Stills, who’s trying to mix in more underneath routes in 2014 than he did as a rookie, plays similar to the ones Moore used to run. “(I’m) just kind of trying to take over for a guy that we had that did a lot of great things for a long time here.”

Stills admittedly has a way to go before he matches the accomplishments of Moore, who won a Super Bowl with the Saints and has the fifth-most catches (346), fifth-most touchdown grabs (38) and seventh-most receiving yards (4,281) in franchise history.

But a review of Stills’ sophomore season indicates the 22-year-old is evolving in an encouraging manner for the Saints.

Last year, off 46 targets, Stills gained 641 receiving yards, 32 catches, and five lengthy touchdown grabs — all from between 34 and 76 yards — while the Saints won 12 of 18 games to reach the divisional round of the playoffs. The 20 yards he gained per catch were the best among NFL players who averaged at least two receptions per game that their teams played.

Stills this year is on pace for 68 targets, 51 receptions and 799 yards, though he missed one game with a quad injury that sidelined him for most of the preseason. Positioned under tight end Jimmy Graham as well as receivers Brandin Cooks and Marques Colston in the pecking order, he has only one touchdown as the Saints (4-4) prepare to host the 49ers (4-4) on Sunday.

However, it’s continued to pay off for the Saints to target Stills deep, and the results have mostly been positive whenever they’ve directed throws at him underneath.

Brees was 10-of-13 for 253 yards (25.3 yards per reception) and a touchdown midway through this season going to Stills on what the NFL scores as deep passes (for 16 or more yards). The Saints quarterback is 14-of-19 for 120 yards and an interception throwing to Stills what the NFL scores as short passes (for 15 or fewer yards).

Stills insists the quad he hurt earlier has not factored into when he’s been targeted.

“They’re giving me a little more freedom, different assortment of routes and putting me in different places” as the season’s unfolded, Stills said.

While that may be, Brees has aimed deep passes to Stills more frequently in the Saints’ three games since their Week 6 bye.

Stills had four long receptions for 94 yards on five targets in the four games he played before the bye. He’s made six catches on eight targets for 159 yards and a touchdown after the bye.

Brees has also had more success going short to Stills as the season has progressed. Stills caught six passes on 10 short targets. After the bye, he’s hauled in eight of nine short targets.

The sample size isn’t the largest, but the numbers suggest Stills is in his own way nicely growing into the shoes his texting pal once filled.

“Lance is an exceptional route runner; he’s got real strong hands in traffic; he’s got great change of direction; he’s got a real good awareness of man and zone coverage,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “And I think Kenny has got ... similar attributes, so if there’s a play where it was Lance’s play ... it probably would be a play that we’d (now) run with Kenny.”