Fantasy Football: Kenny Stills Is a Smashing Value

Stills could see a sizable increase in targets this year with the Miami Dolphins, and he's going way too late in early fantasy drafts.

The way the human mind develops as we age is a fascinating bit of science.

As kids, due to the lack of development in our prefrontal cortex (translation: the top layer of the front part of our brains), we make risky decisions. We’ll jump off a tall tree just to see what happens. We’ll speed when we drive because we think we’re untouchable. Yet, when this one small part of our bodies finishes growing in adulthood, it’s the primary reason we prefer to sit on our couches in PJ’s snuggling our cats and watching Netflix instead of going barhopping.

Risk aversion is not a byproduct of being boring; it’s science.

Risk aversion is a mental process that fantasy football players know very well. It’s that nagging voice in the back of your mind that keeps you from drafting even a talented New England Patriots running back too high, since they tend to use multiple backs. It’s your Jiminy Cricket conscience that helps you know that a first-round kicker will get you laughed out of your league.

But it’s also the sinking feeling you’ve gotten every year you drafted Miami Dolphins deep-ball wide receiver Kenny Stills. And in that instance, this year, it’s wrong.

He Blinded Me With Science

Why should you be bullish on Kenny Stills this year? The first and easiest reason is simple opportunity. This year heralds a season in which the Dolphins are returning just 50.5 percent of their targets -- of the 586 targets the Dolphins doled out last year, 290 of them are not accounted for by returning players.

Nearly every year since he entered the league in 2013, Stills has increased his target rate -- the percent of a team’s pass attempts one player is targeted on -- and this is despite a trade from one of the NFL’s most prolific passing attacks (the New Orleans Saints) to an inconsistent and often run-first offense (the Dolphins). The chart below shows his annual target rate over his career.

Simply put, Stills has grown into a larger receiving role every year he’s been in the pros, especially with his current team. For a speedy deep-threat receiver, that’s a big deal. We often think of players like him as marginally-targeted vertical threats, but Stills has continued to earn a large portion of targets. His target share should only continue to improve when we consider how effective he’s been for a deep receiver.

Using's targeted air yards (the average depth a receiver is at when targeted), we can see that Stills turned in a strong 14.5 targeted air yards (TAY) -- 14th-highest among 93 qualifying receivers last year. Despite being targeted this deep, when we compare his catch rate to other receivers averaging this length of target, we can see he’s been quite reliable, which is rare, since deeper throws are more high-variance targets.

The table below shows Stills’ 2017 catch rate, his targeted air yards, his catch rate on catchable passes (no overthrows, under-throws, or throwaways) and rank in these categories among the 14 receivers who last year had TAY marks over 12.0 and saw at least 100 targets.

Year Player Team Tgt Catch % TAY Catchable %
2017 Kenny Stills MIA 105 55.24% (8th) 14.5 (4th) 95.08% (4th)

Among these premier downfield receivers, Stills had both the fourth-best TAY and fourth-best catchable rate (per Pro Football Focus). He has continued to prove that he can impact the game on big plays while still being reliable overall. That explosiveness mixed with reliability is an underrated trait in him, and one that his coaching staff cannot have missed.

Annually, Stills has been better than his peers on his own teams, too. When we compare his effectiveness to other players in the league, we have to understand that there is a team context to this: offenses use different players in different ways, and some higher-octane passing attacks will look inflated compared to more conservative ones. By comparing Stills to the other receivers on his own team, however, we see how good he is compared to wideouts in the same environment.

The table below shows Stills’ percent above or below his teams' positional averages in terms of targets, catch rate, Net Expected Points (or NEP, our in-house metric), and Reception Success Rate (the percent of catches going for positive NEP).

Year Team Targets Rec NEP/Target Catch Rate Rec Success Rate
2013 NO -2.8% 25.8% 0.3% 2.4%
2014 NO 39.0% 22.9% 12.0% 4.8%
2015 MIA 0.0% -8.0% -39.5% 5.5%
2016 MIA 24.2% 18.0% -22.5% 4.6%
2017 MIA 24.2% 21.6% -12.4% 11.1%

Even in catch rate, the one area he hasn’t been above-average consistently, Stills has continued to improve every single year, getting closer to the team average without losing any of his per-play value or consistency. With quarterback Ryan Tannehill reportedly healed up and mobile again, we could be seeing plenty of downfield tosses Stills’ way this year.

But just how many opportunities will there be?

Like a Surgeon

It’s not like the Dolphins sat on their hands after trading away Jarvis Landry this offseason and allowing a few others to walk in free agency. Miami signed wide receivers Danny Amendola and Albert Wilson to help replace Landry’s slot presence, and the 'Fins drafted tight ends Michael Gesicki and Durham Smythe to replace Julius Thomas.

Those are a lot of new mouths to feed; can Stills still get his?

If we assume Amendola stays healthy this coming season (a big assumption), his 5.6 career targets per game at a 16-game pace become roughly 89 targets -- a mark he hasn’t reached since 2012. Still, let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and round up to 90 targets. Wilson was criminally underused during his time in Kansas City, so it might not be fair then to put him at just his 3.6 career targets per game. If we continue his upward trajectory, though, we could assume around 80 targets in 2018.

In offenses that Miami head coach Adam Gase has coordinated, the tight ends average 105 total targets per season, and they have significantly trended downward in recent years. Let’s assume Gesicki and Smythe -- among others -- take up 100 targets between them this season.

All of these new additions (and their upward projections) still leave 20 free targets up for grabs. While that may not seem like a lot, if we add those 20 targets to the also-booming Stills’ totals, that would be an increase of about 20 percent of his workload from last year.

At last year’s yards per target and touchdown rates, that could mean a boost to more than 1,000 receiving yards and 7 touchdowns: 216 PPR fantasy points, a total that would have put him around the 15th-best wide receiver.

Statistical Speculation

That scenario is Stills’ ceiling, though, and we do have to acknowledge that. This doesn’t take into account the fact that DeVante Parker was injured for three games in 2017 and averaged 7.4 targets per game; add those three games to last year’s portfolio and there are our 20 or so missing targets.

This also doesn’t account for the possibility that the Dolphins scale back their passing attack. In his most recent healthy season, Tannehill’s pass attempts per game dropped sizably. The chart below illustrates this.

That said, at his current draft value, you don’t need Stills to be a WR1. He’s currently going as the 52nd wide receiver off the board in PPR leagues (per, while our projections put him at least in the top-45.

A lot has to break right for Stills to break into the upper tiers of fantasy wide receiver value, but even if he doesn’t make another leap this year, he is a much stronger fantasy asset than the market or even our projections show. You just have to be willing to take a risk.