Life after Landry, at least in Week 1, wasn’t as woeful for the Dolphins as many predicted. Miami’s receivers made as big an impact as any other position group in their 27-20 victory over Tennessee.
Let’s be real: We’re not ready to proclaim the combination of newcomers Albert Wilson and Danny Amendola as an upgrade over Landry. But glimpses of coach Adam Gase’s creativity are showing now that the offense is more open and filled with versatile weapons instead of a central star.
The biggest beneficiary of a Landry-less offense might be Kenny Stills, a receiver the Dolphins believe can evolve from an elite deep-ball threat to a complete No. 1 option.
“We know he’s a vertical threat. He showed that again, that he’s still able to do that,” coach Adam Gase said. “There’s [going to be] more underneath and there’s [going to be] more as far as receptions per game go, to where maybe instead of four catches for 100 yards, it might end up being like seven or eight catches, where there might be a couple of shorter throws in there.”
Stills has never had more than 63 catches in a NFL season, an average of about four per game, and that was with the New Orleans Saints in 2014. So Gase's projections would allow Stills to eat into the target-share that Landry (112 catches in 2017) owned last season.
Stills, who had four catches for 106 yards and two touchdowns against the Titans, including a 75-yarder on a deep post route, became the first Dolphins player with multiple receiving touchdowns in a season opener since Chris Chambers in 2003.
“We know that we can go out there and make plays,” Stills said. “We’ve seen what we’re capable of doing when Ryan is back there at quarterback.”
Ryan Tannehill sees Stills as his most trusted receiver. Trust has been a huge factor this offseason for Tannehill and this offense. Stills, who was traded to Miami in 2015, is the veteran of the group.
“He knows exactly what to do. He helps get the other guys lined up. He’s able to kind of lead that room,” Tannehill said. “There’s the intangible part of it, and then also physically he’s very talented, fast, smooth, good hands, able to get downfield.”
Gase added: “A lot of trust there.”
It’s no secret that Stills is one of the NFL's best deep-ball receivers. Stills leads the NFL with 13 touchdowns of 20-plus yards since the start of 2016. Three of Tannehill's six career touchdown passes over 60 yards were to Stills.
Those splash plays are why people often believe Stills is just an outside deep-ball receiver. Gase plans to change that this year.
“He’s been the most productive slot receiver the last two years in the NFL. That’s nothing new to us,” Gase said. “We’ve talked about it as far as trying to make sure that teams can’t just say he’s only going to do this. He can move all over the place.”
When Landry was in Miami, he lived in the slot. Landry led the NFL in receptions and receiving yards out of the slot in Gase's two seasons as coach, but Stills has caught 12 touchdowns out of the slot during that period, the most in the NFL. Now that Landry is gone, Miami plans to feature more speed, variety and versatility at receiver. DeVante Parker, their 2015 first-round pick who is out with a broken finger and has largely been a disappointment thus far, should return in another week or two.
Expect to see plenty of Stills in the slot and outside, short and long.
Those 12 TD catches out of the slot are most in the NFL during that period, and Stills achieved that despite having less than half the catches out of the slot as the Giants' Sterling Shepard, who is tied for second with 10 touchdowns.
Among receivers with at least 30 catches out of the slot since 2016, Stills ranked third in yards per reception (16.57), trailing just the Steelers' JuJu Smith-Schuster (20.87) and the Bucs' Mike Evans (17.47). Stills ran 44.1 percent of his routes out of the slot in that period.
“We do have a lot of speed, and I think that’s an asset our offense has. It’s going to create problems for defenses throughout the year,” Tannehill said. “We have probably three, four guys that are burners. It’s a lot of fun to play with them. We can do a lot of things with them. You saw Kenny Stills stretch the field.”
We’ll see a lot more of Stills stretching the field. But maybe the newest revelation is that Stills is stepping into the No. 1 receiver spot that Landry vacated.