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Pro Football Focus: Willie Snead is NFL’s fifth-best slot receiver

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The crafty slot receiver is getting his due praise.

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NEW ORLEANS, LA - New Orleans Saints receiver Willie Snead (#83) celebrates a touchdown scored against the New York Giants at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
NEW ORLEANS, LA - New Orleans Saints receiver Willie Snead (#83) celebrates a touchdown scored against the New York Giants at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

There’s been some worry among New Orleans Saints fans that this year’s receiving corps will be less than reliable after Brandin Cooks was traded away, but the passing offense is still in good hands. Second-year pro Michael Thomas is already knocking on the door of stardom after being drafted from the Ohio State Buckeyes, and alert analysts around the NFL community have picked out another impressive player in Willie Snead IV. Former Carolina Panthers receiver Ted Ginn Jr might be some competition for Snead, but he’s never seen 100+ pass targets in a year while Snead has managed that each of his first two years as a starter.

Here’s what Pro Football Focus analyst Bryson Vesnaver had to say about Snead’s 2016 season:

Snead had a very solid under-the-radar season for the Saints out of the slot last year, providing quarterback Drew Brees with a solid security-blanket receiver. Snead’s 56 receptions out of the slot tied for seventh among slot receivers, but his 707 yards ranked fourth. He averaged a fourth-best 1.89 yards per route run, as well, and his catch rate of 74.7 percent ranked sixth. He did drop four passes last year, which led to a below-average 6.67 percent drop rate, but that wasn’t enough to knock him off this list. With the loss of WR Brandin Cooks (traded to Patriots) from the offense, Snead has the chance to have a breakout season this year in a Saints offense that will have no shortage of passes for him to snag.

Vesnaver ranked Snead as the fifth-best slot specialist in the NFL, placing not far behind some other household names:

But he’s not alone in promoting Snead’s brand. NFL.com fantasy football editor Matt Harmon has an ongoing project dedicated to charting and analyzing wide receiver success called Reception Perception, which gives the most-complete insight to the position that you’re going to find online. Harmon picked up on Snead’s production as early as November 2015 and suggested the Ball State Cardinals grad as a candidate to be the next Antonio Brown, later writing in a 2015 season review:

When Snead began his emergence early in the year it was apparent his reliability and versatility were like catnip for Drew Brees. Another undrafted utility-man, Lance Moore finished with at least eight touchdowns or 1,000 yards in four of five seasons in New Orleans from 2008 to 2012. [FootballGuys.com co-owner] Sigmund Bloom asserted that Willie Snead struck him as a “souped-up version of Moore”.

In the eight games sampled for Reception Perception Snead lined up in the slot on 24.8 percent of his snaps. He split time between the left (32 percent) and right (43 percent) wide receiver positions. In a brief early-season look, Reception Perception noted that Snead recorded a catch on every route on the tree, excluding the screen, against the Cowboys and Eagles. At that point in the season, Snead was outplaying Brandin Cooks who struggled to win against press coverage as the clear No. 1 receiver.

When a team’s hopeful star falters it often paves the way for a more nuanced and consistent, albeit less flashy, option to emerge. Willie Snead certainly fits that mold as a detailed technician at the craft of route-running.

Now, Harmon fully disclosed at the time that comparing Snead to the Pittsburgh Steelers All-Pro was a bullish projection. But so far Snead has done little to quiet down that discussion. With more targets available in Cooks’ absence, we should soon get an idea of just how productive Snead can really be when reeling in passes from Drew Brees.

This couldn’t come at a better time for Snead, whose reps are negotiating a contract extension with the Saints this summer. The longer they wait, the more yards Snead will put up, and his asking price will continue to rise.