Every NFL season features at least one player who has worked to overcome long odds, going from unknown to star, in just a few short weeks. Dave Archibald looks at one of this year’s emerging fantasy stars, New Orleans Saints wide receiver Willie Snead, the pass-catching accountant.
Twenty-seven wideouts have at least 500 receiving yards through nine weeks of the 2015 season, but none of the names are more surprising than Willie Snead. Undrafted out of Ball State in 2014, he signed with the Cleveland Browns before being cut and spending time on the practice squads of the Carolina Panthers and New Orleans. In 2015, Snead made the Saints roster out of camp and made his mark early, scoring his first NFL touchdown in Week 2 and tallying 141 yards in Week 5. Through nine games he leads the Saints with 626 yards, on pace to rack up more than 1100.
Can You Dig It?
Snead’s first career catch showed some of the qualities he possesses as a receiver, as well as how the Saints offense creates opportunities for him. Snead is lined up wide right in a compressed formation, attacking the Arizona Cardinals defense with a deep dig route:
Snead runs up field, angling his route to the sideline, forcing cornerback Jerraud Powers (#25) to open his hips in reaction. At the top of his stem, Snead cuts in across the field. Powers is playing outside Snead in Cover 3 and the angle earlier in the route leaves him in poor position to drive on the ball.
The play design is key in springing Snead open. Three underneath receivers run short hitches, keeping the underneath defenders shallow, just five yards off the line of scrimmage. Meanwhile, free safety Rashad Johnson (#26) plays deep centerfield, 25 yards past the line of scrimmage. That opens a wide area at 15 yards, where Snead makes his cut. Saints quarterback Drew Brees hits the receiver in stride, whereupon he outraces Powers’s angle and shrugs off Johnson’s tackle attempt, coasting to a 63-yard gain.
Snead shows off some of his best traits here: Using subtle variations in his vertical stem to make his cuts more effective, and leveraging his play strength against defenders, who have a tough time hauling him down after the catch. He doesn’t have elite physical traits, however, so New Orleans needs to scheme to get him open, as in this Cover 3 beater.
Even Better Than the Wheel Thing
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers show press man coverage in the secondary, and the Saints dial up a common response to press – a rub, or pick route. Snead lines up in the slot right, while outside receiver Brandin Cooks (#10) runs a quick in-breaking route aimed at cornerback Alterraun Verner (#21), who is lined up on Snead.
Cooks bumps the corner, springing Snead open. He cuts to the flat and then cuts upfield in a wheel route. Brees lofts the pass in and Snead grabs his first career touchdown. The referees deem Cooks’s contact to be within one yard of the line of scrimmage and therefore legal.
A Failure to Communicate
Snead has claimed a larger role as the season has gone on, leading Saints wide receivers in snaps played in Weeks 8 and 9, after ranking fourth in the first two weeks. His other statistics also reflect his increasing role in the offense:
Snead is one of three second-year receivers playing a big role in the New Orleans offense, and while he may not have the 4.3 speed of Cooks or Brandon Coleman’s 6’6” frame, he is rapidly developing into Brees’s favorite target.
That doesn’t mean everything has gone perfectly, however. Snead is catching an impressive 66% of the throws his way, but many of the incompletions suggest he and Brees are still figuring each other out to some degree:
In the Week 9 loss to the Tennessee Titans, Snead runs a simple out route and Brees targets him for a quick pass. But the throw is way behind the receiver, as if the quarterback expected the cut a bit later and a bit deeper downfield. It is not always easy to tell what is a miscommunication and what is merely an off-target throw, but Brees is the NFL’s all-time leader in completion percentage and there are similar examples on film throughout the season. This may mean that, despite just average tools on paper, Snead may possess additional upside as he and Brees perfect their chemistry on the field.
It is easy to look at Snead’s undrafted background, tape that shows mostly schemed receptions, and his middling (or worse) Combine results and assume that he is a flash in the pan. If a team decided to put their best cover corner on Snead and take him out of the game, they could do that. Saints head coach Sean Payton is a master of varying formations and personnel to prevent opponents from locking down one receiver in that fashion, however. If a team wants to take out Snead, they will have to contend with Cooks’s speed, Coleman’s size, the reliability of veterans Ben Watson and Marques Colston, and a solid running back tandem in Mark Ingram and C.J. Spiller.
It seems unlikely defenses are going to devote lots of energy and attention to stopping Snead, which means the 23-year-old will continue to put up nice reception and yardage totals the rest of the way. One warning: Snead is at his best with space to operate, limiting his value as a red zone threat. Without impressive touchdown numbers, he’s more of a flex play than a strong WR1 / WR2 option in fantasy football. Snead is not an elite talent and would not put up big numbers on most other teams, but he fits in perfectly with Brees, Payton, and the rest of the Saints as they push for a playoff berth down the stretch.
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Dave Archibald knows pass defense, specifically how coverage, the pass rush, excellent cornerbacks, versatile safeties and in-game adjustments can make a big difference.
All video and images courtesy NFL Game Pass.