Miami Dolphins’ Kenny Stills blossoms as player; team and community leader

Dolphins players Kenny Stills (and Michael Thomas discuss social issues with students at their town hall meeting at Nova Southeastern University. (Hal Habib / The Palm Beach Post)

DAVIE — Each week, Matt Burke, the Miami Dolphins defensive coordinator, enters the media work room around the time offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen is wrapping up his weekly press conference.

On this particular Friday, Burke took the unusual step of opening his press conference with comments about a wide receiver that Christensen had just been praising, Kenny Stills.

“Before you guys bombard me, I want to follow up at the end of Clyde’s comments, just something about Kenny Stills,” Burke said. “For me, on the defensive side of the ball, he’s the most into us playing defense in the game of anybody on offense, for whatever that’s worth. Every single game, that kid gets his corrections and comes up and stands on the sideline and is either talking trash to the other team or cheering our guys on. I’m bumping into him half the time telling him to get out of the way to make my calls.”

Two week ago, Burke pulled Stills aside and told him how much he and the defensive players notice. And how they appreciate Stills’ positive energy and his passion for team success and his desire to be a team leader. That Burke opened his availability speaking about Stills speaks volumes.

There has been so much focus on how Jay Cutler is doing (or not doing) in succeeding Ryan Tannehill; how Kenyan Drake is doing (he’s doing) in replacing Jay Ajayi; how much Jarvis Landry should be paid and if he’ll be back or depart as a free agent next year and how DeVante Parker has disappointed. Almost completely lost in the shuffle has been Stills, who leads the Dolphins with 733 receiving yards and 15.3 yards per catch.

As the Dolphins attempt to pull a monumental home upset against the Patriots on Monday Night Football (8:30 p.m, ESPN), not enough has been said or written about how Stills is living up to his 4-year, $32 million contract, as a consistent receiver as well as emerging team leader.

Much has been said and written about how Stills is part of a social movement in the NFL that includes kneeling during the national anthem. But did you know that Stills was nominated this week for the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, because he participates in every, or nearly every single charity event the Dolphins have done since his arrival in South Florida?

“Just his heart,” Dolphins receiver Jarvis Landry said, when asked about Stills. “(Kenny) being here and taking as much criticism as he does for standing up for what he believes in, and still having the opportunity and the heart to go out into society and give back the way that he does, regardless of gender, regardless of color. He still loves everybody the same and that’s probably what is more the reason why he is nominated and deserves to be recognized for his actions and his works in the community.”

Stills has made two circus-like catches this season. When he came to the Dolphins in a trade from the Saints, he was known as a one-trick pony, a deep threat. And Stills is Miami’s best deep threat. But he’s refined his skills to become a more complete receiver.

“When I got here, he was in this building,” offensive coordinator Christensen said. “(Kenny) made the conscious decision, ‘Hey, I’m going to be a consistent football player.’ His words to me were, ‘I’ve been good at times but I’ve been up and down,’ and I think two years ago he made a commitment that I’m going to be a consistent, steady, upper-echelon receiver in this league. I really think the sky is the limit. He’s a fast guy but he’s not just a big-play guy. His technique is good. He’s running good routes.”

Stills is all about team success, but to his credit, he did not fib this week about how great it would be to top 1,000 yards for the first time (he’s on pace) or to be a Pro Bowler (the club has promoted him). Stills also concedes he needed to improve after he arrived in Miami.

“Honestly, just taking the coaching and trusting in the technique that they’re trying to teach us and going out there and working on it,” Still said. “Just being able to make the intermediate catches, being able to make the short catches, getting off the press, understanding defenses, coverages, all of the little things that are part of being a receiver, not just catching the ball down field. I really appreciate the coaching staff and everyone that we have here for helping me grow as a player.”

Gase rightly compared stills to Emmanuel Sanders, who Gase coached in Denver. Sanders has three 1,000-yard seasons, and two Pro Bowl bids. Gase said Stills arrives early, leaves late and is meticulous about going over every detail of the offense.

“Now he really helps other guys and you constantly see him working with the younger guys,” Gase said. “I think that helps him too, because it makes him really think of the details of every little thing in the offense.”

Stills has especially tried to help youngsters such as DeVante Parker and Leonte Carroo, though he can’t force Parker to fight harder for balls, as Stills does. With their failure to emerge, it has made the Stills deal appear even more favorable.

Very good player. Very good leader. Very good in the community.

“We’re dying for guys who you can say ‘Hey, do it like him. Work like him. Act like him.’” Christensen said. “That’s what we’re dying for leadership-wise offensively. Just some guy that (you say) ‘Hey, he’s turning into a heck of pro,’ and where you say, ‘Hey, do you want to get better? Watch Kenny Stills. Watch how he works. Watch how he takes care of his body. Watch what he does on Tuesday on off days. Watch what he does after practice. Watch him during practice.’ He’s becoming that kind of guy, so that’s been great. It’s been fun to watch and he’s turning into a really, really fine receiver.”

Stills has been consistent, on and off the field. When can he be seen smiling broadest? That’s easy.

During a charity event.

“I think just seeing the faces on the kids, the expression, the happiness that they get from us being around,” Stills said. “It’s just a good feeling to serve others. I encourage other people to get out and do some community service. There’s so many people that need help and that could use it, so I really encourage people to get out in the community and serve others.”

When can you best see Stills’ ultra-competitive nature at work? Easy. When Miami’s defense is on the field.

Hilariously, Stills was seen shouting toward Tom Brady during Miami’s last game against New England.

“I’m just into the game,” Stills said. “I want to win and I know what this team is capable of. I love watching the guys on defense. We have so many playmakers on defense, guys that fly to the ball, guys that can change the game with one play. I just want to win. We work hard. We spend so much time together, so I really root for the defense and I know that, in turn, they’ll do the same thing for us.”

Burke said, at times, Stills can get a bit in his way as he’s trying to make a call.

“I want to know the call,” Stills said, smiling. “I want to be able to help the guys. I feel like knowing and being on offense and knowing football and understanding, I can help them as much as I can. Sometimes I’m a little bit too close to him or on the field or what have you. I’m just excited to be out there. I love playing ball. I know that at any point in time, the game can be taken away from me, so I’m just enjoying myself.”

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