Armando Salguero

Kenny Stills strives to become the Miami Dolphins’ No. 1 receiver

Dolphins receiver Kenny Stills on why he thought he’d play with new QB Josh Rosen one day

Miami Dolphins wide receiver Kenny Stills talks to the media after the Dolphins Organized Team Activities at the Baptist Health Training Facility at Nova Southeastern University on Tuesday, May 21, 2019 in Davie.
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Miami Dolphins wide receiver Kenny Stills talks to the media after the Dolphins Organized Team Activities at the Baptist Health Training Facility at Nova Southeastern University on Tuesday, May 21, 2019 in Davie.

It’s late in Tuesday’s practice and the Miami Dolphins offense, wanting a signature play to cap a very good day of red-zone and goal-line passing, is about 70 yards from the end zone.

First-team quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick stands behind solid protection and finds receiver Kenny Stills streaking diagonally across the defense and down the field.

Stills is supposed to be covered man-to-man on the play, but this coverage isn’t going to work. The space between Stills and an overmatched slot cornerback is at least 2 yards so Fitzpatrick fires a line drive over Stills’ left shoulder.

The anatomy of a 70-yard touchdown play.

Tuesday was a good day for the Miami offense. It was a good day for Fitzpatrick with the first-team offense. It was a good day for Stills who had at least three touchdowns.

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Miami Dolphins wide receiver Kenny Stills (10) catches a pass during the Miami Dolphins Organized Team Activities at the Baptist Health Training Facility at Nova Southeastern University on Thursday, May 21, 2019 in Davie. DAVID SANTIAGO dsantiago@miamiherald.com

And, yes, it’s just a routine practice in May. None of this is happening with the added violence and danger of an NFL regular-season Sunday.

But this is undoubtedly encouraging.

And exciting.

And what happens afterward offers more good news because when the work is complete Stills is talking about improving his game and being a No. 1 receiver and doing things he has not yet done in the NFL.

“I’m just trying to set my game up to that level of anytime the ball comes my way, I make a play, making people miss and getting the yards after the catch,” Stills said as if filling in the critical gaps in his game. “Just being somebody that is counted on, being a No. 1 receiver that we can go to when the game is on the line.”

Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores talks to the media before the start of the Dolphins Organized Team Activities at the Baptist Health Training Facility at Nova Southeastern University on May 21, 2019 in Davie.

Stills has been many things for the Dolphins in his three seasons with the team:

He has been a dangerous deep threat.

He has been a great resource to younger receivers.

He has been the leading scorer among all receivers with 21 touchdowns.

But a player who is great running through traffic after the catch? A winner on a majority of 50-50 balls? A No. 1 receiver?

Not really.

But all that is what Stills is working toward now. That’s where he’s trying to extend his reach.

“There’s always areas of the game you want to improve,” Still said. “For me, specifically, yards after the catch, making those tough, contested catches. Every ball that comes my way, I believe should be caught.

“You watch film of Jerry Rice and Randy Moss and even guys like Odell [Beckham Jr.] and Adam Thielen, whenever the ball comes their way, they make a play — regardless of whether there’s a penalty or they’re being held or whatever.”

Stills wants to raise the level of his game to be included in that company. To be in that last paragraph along with Thielen or even Beckham Jr.

And you have reached the point in this column where the skepticism is supposed to surface. Because Stills is about to start his seventh season and, it could be argued, if he was going to be those things just discussed, he would have done it by now.

But the truth is Stills just turned 27 last month.

So his best football might very well be ahead. His prime might still be on the horizon. Maybe he really is still capable of significant improvement.

There are certainly reasons not to bet against him.

The Dolphins seem intent on maximizing Stills both outside and in the slot.

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Miami Dolphins wide receiver Kenny Stills (10) runs drills during the Miami Dolphins Organized Team Activities at the Baptist Health Training Facility at Nova Southeastern University on Thursday, May 21, 2019 in Davie. DAVID SANTIAGO dsantiago@miamiherald.com

Outside, his speed is as dangerous as it has always been and he still routinely gets behind defenders. But in the slot, which Stills played a lot in 2016 when he caught a career-high nine touchdowns, there seems to be more opportunities in the offing.

Stills can use his 6-1 frame and knowledge of routes and technique to gain an advantage from the slot. So maybe he plays there more than the 22.6 percent the downs he did last year.

“You look at the numbers, I’ve done pretty well in the slot,” Stills said. “So it’s not something I’m too worried about. Wherever they put me right now that’s where I’m at and I’m having fun with it.”

That’s good.

But I like the attitude and approach from Stills much better.

“You can’t play this game without that chip or without thinking of constant growth,” he said. “If you do play this game without that, you’re just out here wasting your time. Me, in all aspects of my life, I’m thinking about how can I maximize my skill set and who I am as a person. That’s part of my job in becoming a better receiver.”

“This game of football, it’s been seven years for me now in the league and I’ve been playing since I was a little kid. So any time you can get a new challenge, you have to learn something new, you’re trying to refine your game, it’s fun.

“That’s what I consider every day coming out here for work. It’s an opportunity for us to get better and to grow and to build on what we’ve done in previous years.”

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Armando Salguero has covered the Miami Dolphins and the NFL since 1990, so longer than many players on the current roster have been alive and since many coaches on the team were in middle school. He was a 2016 APSE Top 3 columnist nationwide. He is one of 48 Pro Football Hall of Fame voters. He is an Associated Press All-Pro and awards voter. He’s covered Dolphins games in London, Berlin, Mexico City and Tokyo. He has covered 25 Super Bowls, the NBA Finals, and the Olympics.
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