Why Trading for Kenny Stills Is a Great Move for the Miami Dolphins
The Miami Dolphins are undergoing a pretty serious personnel overhaul.
Ndamukong Suh joined the team, which should bolster the defense significantly despite its cost. Brian Hartline, whose role was diminished this year, is now with the Cleveland Browns. Jordan Cameron left the Browns and gives the team a nice red zone threat. Most recently, the team shockingly traded for former New Orleans Saints receiver Kenny Stills.
Based on the advanced analytics, though, New Orleans' loss is Miami's gain.
Stills by the Numbers
This year, Stills posted an average yards per catch of 14.8, which ranked 22nd in the NFL among qualified players. This was a significant decline from his 20.0 yards per catch average in 2013, which led the NFL. That's a big drop, yeah, but Stills basically doubled up his reception total from 32 to 63 despite a not-as-drastic increase in targets, from 50 targets to 83.
But, wait, Stills actually saw a dip in touchdowns -- from five to three -- so he clearly took a step back efficiency-wise, right? But by how much?
Well, in terms of our signature metric, Net Expected Points (NEP), he was still really good. If you're new here, NEP works to add a more accurate description of on-field production by factoring in game variables -- such as score, field position, down-and-distance, and the like -- and the number itself indicates how many points above or below expectation a player adds to his team's expected point total.
In 2014, Stills netted a Reception NEP of 86.87, up from 57.99 in 2013. On a per-target basis, Stills dipped a little, from 1.16 to 1.05 Reception NEP per target. One key piece of information to those per-target numbers: Stills has led the NFL in Reception NEP per target for the past two years among receivers with at least 40 targets.
Stills, who was more heavily-targeted in 2014, saw his lead decline. This year, he led by 0.10 points per target over Martavis Bryant (0.95) -- again, roughly the same distance between second and 14th (Antonio Brown finished at 0.84).
I actually did a study during the 2014 season to try to determine who the most dangerous receiver in the NFL was, and it's really hard to make a case against Kenny Stills.
A Product of the Bayou?
So Stills clearly has been performing as the most efficient per-target wideout in the NFL. He had Drew Brees throwing him the ball. Can we really expect this efficiency to carry over to Miami? It's a fair question.
In 2013, Stills had a Reception Success Rate, which measures the rate at which receptions turn into positive NEP gains for a team, of 96.88 percent, which ranked fifth among 104 receivers who saw at least 40 targets that year. Teammates Marques Colston (94.67 percent) ranked ninth and Lance Moore (91.89 percent) ranked 20th. That's three top-20 receivers out of a subset bigger than 100. Clearly, the Saints offense was efficient in moving the ball forward.
In 2014, Colston ranked fourth among 99 receivers (96.61 percent), and Stills ranked sixth (95.24 percent). Brandin Cooks, who was no stranger to passes near the line of scrimmage, was at just 75.47 percent, which ranked 87th. Still, the Saints' offense was keen on efficient passes to wide receivers.
How did Miami do this year?
On a Reception NEP basis, though, the Saints were unsurprisingly better in Reception NEP, Reception NEP per target, and Catch Rate (targets divided by receptions).
|Saints||Rec NEP||Rec NEP/Tar||Catch Rate||Dolphins||Rec NEP||Rec NEP/Tar||Catch Rate|
|Marques Colston||80.64||0.81||59.60%||Brandon Gibson||22.40||0.44||56.86%|
|Kenny Stills||86.87||1.05||75.90%||Mike Wallace||77.23||0.67||58.26%|
|Brandin Cooks||41.58||0.60||76.81%||Brian Hartline||44.95||0.71||61.90%|
Take particular note of Stills' metrics against Wallace's. While Wallace has struggled to realize his potential in Miami, Stills is performing like Miami hoped Wallace could. The more promising metrics suggest that the Saints receivers were just better off with Drew Brees than the Dolphins were with Ryan Tannehill.
Still, receivers don't necessarily need elite quarterbacks to produce solid metrics, and based on how good Stills has been in his career this far, it's worth a shot to see if he can do it in Miami.
It's very possible that Stills had the ideal role in New Orleans and that he's now moving into a less desirable one in Miami, but his per-target efficiency has been unprecedented during the last two NFL seasons.
Further, there were reasons to believe that Tannehill could improve his metrics in 2014, and that's exactly what he did. His Passing NEP has jumped from -22.63 to -2.44 to 46.72 between 2012 and 2014. Sure, he ranked just 16th among the 37 passers with at least 200 drop backs in 2014, and his Passing NEP per drop back (0.07) ranked just 19th, but Tannehill is clearly trending upward, and the Dolphins are making moves to bring in some better weapons.
In swapping for Stills, the Dolphins were able to cut ties with Dannell Ellerbe (and also gave up a third-rounder) for Stills' modest contract. Stills is currently under contract for just $585,000 for 2015 and $675,000 for 2016 (compared to $9.9 million for Wallace in 2015 and $11.5 million in 2016 and 2017), so he could be a key piece for Miami if they are able to move Wallace. .
Even if the Dolphins can't move or restructure Wallace's deal, Stills gives them the flexibility and upside to have a young, dynamic receiver under contract for the next two seasons to play alongside Landry, a possession receiver, and Cameron, a legitimate red zone threat -- and Wallace if he stays put. Combined with the Suh's monstrous signing, this low-budget move should help the team be back in the playoff hunt in 2015 while Tannehill continues to progress in the right direction.