Perhaps the concern over who would pick up the production when New Orleans Saints rookie receiver Brandin Cooks was placed on injured reserve was slightly premature and misplaced.
By a few hundred yards.
Remember Kenny Stills? No. 84, wears a frohawk (dyed blonde down the back), led the NFL in yards per reception last season (20 per catch, on 32 grabs), quick study who absorbed the Saints' offense last season like few rookie receivers ever have?
In the two games since Cooks' departure, Stills has reminded everyone why he was expected to have an outstanding season, with 13 catches for 260 yards and a touchdown against Baltimore and Pittsburgh. He had a career-high eight receptions against the Ravens, and a career-high 162 receiving yards against the Steelers.
"Honestly, I'm not trying to focus on the last couple of weeks," he said. "I want to move to the next opponent and hopefully continue to do better."
Still, it's impossible to not notice what he has done. With four games remaining – and having been inactive for the season opener while recovering from an injured quadriceps – Stills has 44 catches for 691 yards and three touchdowns, already bettering his rookie marks in receptions (32) and yards (641). And he's closing in on the touchdowns.
And he has been every bit the deep threat that Cooks was emerging as – a 33-yard grab against the Ravens, and 44- and 69-yard receptions against the Steelers, the latter a perfectly executed double move that resulted in a touchdown.
"The first thing that's helped him is, he's someone that picks things up pretty quickly," Coach Sean Payton said Wednesday. "He's a player that can run. His transition ability is important, the way he's able to get in and out of cuts. So for that first year, his ability to diagnose what we're doing in a pretty short period of time and learn, I think helped him. He's really smart and he's got the skill set you're looking for."
Stills made the most of injuries and surgeries that sidelined or slowed Joe Morgan, Lance Moore and Marques Colston last year, quickly acclimating to the Saints' offense and starting 10 regular-season games as a rookie, and both playoff games.
"The thing about Kenny that I like the most is, he's a problem solver," quarterback Drew Brees said Wednesday. "In most cases, like when we install a new route or maybe a new route concept or just a variation of something we're doing, we usually just kind of tell him and then watch him go out and do it the way that he sees it or feels it. Because he's got a great feel for the game. So he's a guy that you don't have to over-coach.
"He's also a guy who I don't feel like there's any situation that's too big. He can go out there and, with the same demeanor, no matter what the situation, do what's asked of him, make the play and kind of rise to the occasion. We see it every day out here."
Stills said he always has been a fast learner, and always has maintained a level head about his accomplishments.
"I was taught at a young age, 'When I tell you to do something, change something, it's one time and you do it that way,' " he said. "So when they tell me to change something or do something a certain way, I do it and that's the end of it.
"When I was being raised, I've been able to do good things here and there, and it was like, 'Keep an even keel and continue to get better. The sky's the limit, go do it.' "
The limits haven't appeared particularly daunting the last two games, especially. In terms of yards, it's the most productive two-game stretch by a Saints receiver this season.
"I would say his attention to detail and kind of understanding his role has increased with Brandin going down (have been impressive)," Brees said. "I've seen a little bit of an extra swagger to him, or an extra focus. And that's a good thing."
Second gallery of official team photos from the New Orleans Saints at Pittsburgh Steelers game on Sunday, November 30, 2014. Photos by Michael C. Hebert (New Orleans Saints photos)