In a year when many New Orleans Saints players failed to back up promises that they’d win Super Bowl rings or produce at All-Pro levels, receiver Kenny Stills was a member of the team who put a personal goal of his on the record in the preseason and ultimately fulfilled it.
Accomplishing that goal — “don’t have a sophomore slump” — didn’t prevent the Saints (6-9) from playoff elimination with their regular-season finale at Tampa Bay (2-13) on Sunday pending. Avoiding a sophomore slump also didn’t seem to impress him too much when he spoke about the matter after a recent practice.
“I was never a person who ... got satisfaction from completing their goals even if they set them,” said Stills, who’s already caught considerably more passes for significantly more yards this season than he did as a rookie last year. “I still have a lot of work to do. I could’ve had a better year.”
Nonetheless, achieving what Stills did the year after the Saints selected him in the fifth round of the 2013 draft was easier said than done. And it is in the small handful of positives to draw from a season that saw New Orleans miss the playoffs for only the third time while being coached by Sean Payton, who arrived in 2006.
The odds were not in Stills’ favor that he’d be able to surpass the 641 yards he registered on his 32 receptions last season. The Saints, for one, used a first-round draft choice in May on Brandin Cooks, who at the time was only months removed from winning the Biletnikoff Award given to the best receiver in college football and naturally was expected to take targets away from Stills.
On top of that, during a private workout in June, Stills sustained a quad injury that caused him to miss much of training camp as well as the first game of the season. He spent the Saints’ first 10 games under tight end Jimmy Graham, Cooks and veteran Marques Colston in the team’s pecking order, averaging 3.1 catches a game, or only one total reception more than what reserve running back Travaris Cadet had.
However, late in the 10th game of the season, Cooks broke his hand returning a punt in a defeat at home to Cincinnati, and he was soon sent to year-ending injured reserve.
Arguably no one responded to that development as strongly as Stills did. He hauled in a career-high eight passes in the game immediately following Cooks’ injury, a loss at home to Baltimore.
Six days after that, in a win at Pittsburgh, he set a career-high with 162 receiving yards. He delivered his third touchdown reception of the campaign, his eighth in the NFL, a 69-yarder that as of Thursday was the longest play from scrimmage this season.
The Saints were foiled in their efforts to win their division for the first time since 2011 and make the playoffs a second consecutive year after going 1-2 over the next three games. But at the end of that stretch, Stills was second on the Saints in both receiving yards and catches, and he had 23 more grabs and 208 more receiving yards than he had as an NFL newbie.
He had averaged 2.3 more catches per game in the five contests after Cooks was hurt and the Saints needed players to step up. Three of those grabs went for two third-down conversions as well as a fourth-down one to provide some of the few highlights in a losing effort at home to the Falcons on Dec. 21.
And so Stills had buried the possibility of a sophomore slump, which was what he described as his own individual main focus at a charity softball game in May.
In the larger picture, all of that might serve little comfort to a young player who wrapped up a brief conversation about his performance in 2014 by saying, “Obviously, if we don’t make the playoffs, what I’m doing isn’t good enough.”
Yet there can be little doubt that Stills is capable of factoring into whatever plans the Saints have to try to become contenders again.
“He picks things up very quickly, and so he can play multiple (receiver) positions,” Payton said of Stills on Thursday. “As we get into next year, there are a lot of different places we can put him.”
Saints quarterback Drew Brees added, “He has all kinds of talent. I like the role that he has taken on ... especially in the absence of Brandin Cooks (lately). ... He’s shown he can handle that mentally.”
If more players had done similarly, the tale of the 2014 Saints may have finished differently.
Saints tackle Zach Strief on Thursday, answering if his team crumbled this year under preseason hype that it had unprecedented talent on the roster and would likely win the Super Bowl: “I’ll tell you this, we won’t have to deal with it next year. We won’t have any questions about, ‘Did you read the press clippings in the offseason going into next season?’ And that’ll probably be a more comfortable situation.”
Zach Strief (neck), and Jamarca Sanford (hamstring) were limited on Thursday, while Pierre Thomas (ribs), Terron Armstead (neck), John Jenkins (abdomen) and Akiem Hicks (ankle) were listed as out.