METAIRIE, La. – Saints rookie receiver Kenny Stills Jr. has already earned enough respect from Sean Payton to see some first-team snaps, and enough trust from Drew Brees to see some deep passes come his way.
If he can earn a few compliments from his father, a former NFL safety, then he'll know he's really getting somewhere.
Stills talks with his father a couple times a week, and when they spoke after the rookie's preseason debut against Kansas City, the focus wasn't on his leaping 22-yard catch or the pass-interference penalty he drew by outracing his defender deep down field.
It was on a deep pass from Brees that he dropped.
"He wasn't very pleased with my performance," Stills said of his father. "That's just him being tough on me and I wasn't very pleased with it, either, so you can see where that comes from."
The elder Kenny Stills told his son that "it's unacceptable to drop a ball and I'm lucky I still have a few more opportunities to continue to prove myself — and make sure I'm catching everything," the younger Stills recalled.
"I feel like my parents did a good job just raising me," Stills added. "My dad was pretty tough on me — same with my mom. We made a mistake one time and that was kind of your learning curve, and after that it's unacceptable. So I just kind of carried that with me the rest of my life."
The Saints selected Stills out of Oklahoma in the fifth round of the draft. Stills said he wasn't surprised he was drafted in that round, only because the feedback he'd gotten from analysts told him he could expect to go between the third and fifth rounds.
Still, he hoped he would be drafted higher.
"I could definitely say I have a chip on my shoulder," Stills said.
Stills has numerous tattoos on his arms and torso symbolic of his life experiences, including a life guard tower on his right arm that reminds him of a childhood on the beaches of San Diego. He wears his dark hair close cut on the sides and thick on top, similar to a Mohawk, with a dyed-blond sliver on the top and back of his head.
It's certainly not a conservative look, but Saints coaches have referred to Stills as a quick study and mature for his age.
"He still has to learn the detail and the nuances of what we're trying to get done, but the calmness and ... his demeanor, I love," receivers coach Henry Ellard said. "When he makes a mistake, he locks it into memory and makes sure he doesn't repeat it. And that's a big part of the game, especially for a young guy because your mind is racing 100 miles per hour. It's not easy, but he has done a good job of adjusting."
Based on Stills' recollection of his conversations with Brees, the young receiver does not lack confidence.
"Whenever we talk after and work after practice, it's just, 'throw the ball and I'll go make a play on it,'" Stills said. "He trusts me to do that."
Coming into the season, Joseph Morgan was the leading candidate to be the Saints' primary deep threat and No. 3 receiver behind Marques Colston and Lance Moore. Morgan is now out of the season with a knee injury, and now Stills — who ran a blazing 4.38 40-yard dash at the NFL combine — is among the top candidates to fill that role.
"He has all the tools," Brees said. "He is a smart guy who has a great feel for the game. You can see a lot of things come naturally for him and it hasn't felt too big for him."
Notes: LB Jon Vilma sat out practice and has now missed numerous sessions in the past week. He has dealt with recurring knee problems the past two years, but the Saints have not said what is bothering Vilma this time. ... WR Marques Colston (foot), WR Courtney Roby (toe), C Eric Olsen (foot), LB Chris Chamberlain (undisclosed) and OLB Junior Galette (left knee) also missed practice. ... OLB Martez Wilson took part in some drills with a brace on his left elbow. He also wore a red jersey, meaning he was not to be hit.