A popular topic of discussion in the spheres of social media dominated by New Orleans Saints fans last spring was what to do about Willie Snead. The second-year receiver broke out in a big way in 2015, playing in 15 games and coming up just shy of a thousand receiving yards. But was he someone the offense could rely on as the second option on pass plays, or could they bump him down in Drew Brees’ progressions?
This question was answered when Michael Thomas was drafted. The electrifying rookie ensured Snead would be New Orleans’ third wideout, and the team is better for it. Snead may be the best “third receiver” in the league and is a crucial piece in the Saints’ offense. For the first time under Sean Payton’s leadership, three Saints receivers finished the year each seeing 100 or more targets.
48 NFL players received 100 or more targets in the 2016 regular season. Among them, Snead ranked ninth in catch percentage, having caught 72 of his 104 targets at a 69.2 percent clip.
Snead has a reputation for seeming to always convert a first down when given the opportunity, and that’s backed up by his production. Of his 72 catches in 2016, 51 established a new set of downs; a rate of 70.8-percent, good for eighth league-wide among all players with 100+ targets.
It wasn’t uncommon to see the “third and long” rebranded as “third and Snead”, and for good reason. Snead was money on third down, converting 19 of his 33 targets for a conversion rate on third down of 57.6 percent. As a team, the Saints converted just 48.6 percent of third downs.
So why isn’t Snead hyped up more than he is?
Simply put, Snead hasn’t finished developing his overall game. 2016 was his third year in the NFL and just his second year on an active roster. Snead has shown he can go out and compete with almost any defense (though athletic linebackers the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Kwon Alexander gave him problems), but he’s still got areas to polish. His rate of chunk plays of 20+ yards (16.7 percent) ranks well behind Cooks (19.2 percent) and Thomas (19.6 percent).
One aspect of his play style that Snead could improve is his ability to gain yards after the catch. Learning to efficiently run those option routes like New England Patriots receiver Julian Edelman or Pittsburgh Steelers wideout Antonio Brown would open up a whole new section of the Saints’ playbook and create new opportunities for Snead. For what it’s worth, Snead’s yards gained after the catch per catch (4.4) was tied with Cincinnati Bengals star A.J. Green and the Detroit Lions’ Marvin Jones.
Snead is an exclusive rights free agent in 2017, which means he can be tendered a low-value contract that will make a restricted free agent in 2018. Snead could be tendered again next year before the Saints could risk letting him see the open market in 2019, but they should just go ahead and pay him.
He’s proven to be a key part in the offense, playing like a suped-up Lance Moore of teams past, and will be a cornerstone of the receiving corps of the future. Whether Drew Brees or a quarterback we don’t know yet is commanding the huddle in the next few years, they should be able to trust Snead whenever looking his way.