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Reception Perception: Saints’ Snead among NFL’s superstars

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The hype for Willie Snead doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon, and charting of his per-route performance in 2016 just adds more fuel to the fire.

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ: New Orleans Saints receiver Willie Snead (83) catches a 17-yard touchdown against the New York Giants defense at MetLife Stadium.
EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ: New Orleans Saints wide receiver Willie Snead (83) catches a 17-yard touchdown against the New York Giants defense at MetLife Stadium.
Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

I’ve referenced NFL.com fantasy football writer/editor Matt Harmon’s Reception Perception project in previous articles, but this week I’ll be using it to dive deeply into several New Orleans Saints wide receivers: Willie Snead IV, Michael Thomas, and Brandin Cooks. We’ll get to it in time, but Cooks’ results in this project do a lot to explain why he wasn’t as valuable to the offense as many thought - though he should continue to excel with the New England Patriots.

Harmon goes into detail about what Reception Perception is here, but in brief it is objective charting of every route run by a receiver over an eight-game sample size. Harmon tracks an intense amount of data:

  • which routes the receiver runs (comeback, out, corner, nine/go, post, dig, curl, slant, etc)
  • how frequently they separate and against different types of coverage (zone, man, press)
  • where they line up before the snap (on the line of scrimmage, off of it, in the slot)
  • whether or not they reel in contested catches (also known as “50/50 balls”)

Once Harmon has those raw numbers, he compares them against historical data from all the other receivers he’s charted; a number now well over fifty including games going back to the 2014 season. Harmon is also charting these results for college draft prospects, which adds another layer of context to his process. I’m a big fan of his work, and you can find all of his 2016 results in the 2017 Ultimate Draft Kit produced by TheFantasyFootballers.com (purchase required).

Anyway, back to the point. The first receiver I want to discuss is Willie Snead IV. Snead has been reviewed favorably by Reception Perception charting since his first games as a pro, but he has only gotten better over the last two years.

When Snead first entered the Saints’ lineup, he was initially tasked with working as a boundary receiver: he ran a majority of his routes outside on the right (43-percent) and left sides (32-percent) much more frequently than in the slot (24.8-percent).

That ratio of routes run outside versus inside switched last year, with Snead excelling as one of the NFL’s top slot receivers. 77.4-percent of Snead’s routes started while lined up in the slot in 2016, and his work there has been widely praised. In fact, Snead elevated his game to a state comparable to the NFL’s elite receivers.

The top five receivers versus zone coverage were Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Antonio Brown (90.6-percent), Patriots star Julian Edelman (89.6-percent), Oakland Raiders prodigy Amari Cooper (88-percent), and Snead, who tied Green Bay Packers receiver Davante Adams with an 87.2-percent success rate.

But of that group, only Snead and Brown were also effective versus man coverage: Snead got separation on 72.8-percent of his routes versus man coverage, while Brown set the pace for the NFL at 79.1-percent. This highlights Snead’s versatility, and supports the early-career comparisons made between the two (Snead was an undrafted free agent out of the Ball State Cardinals program, while Brown was a sixth round pick from the Central Michigan Chippewas).

Snead’s most-common route was the slant, but his best pattern was the dig, which calls for him to run a few yards downfield and immediately cut inside, running parallel to the line of scrimmage. Snead got open on dig routes 91.3-percent of the time, best in the NFL. The next-highest success rate on dig routes was accomplished by Brown, who beat coverage on 88.9-percent of his dig routes.

But Snead isn’t limited to getting open across the middle of the field. His next-highest success rating came on curl routes, also called hitches. This is a tough route to win consistently because you’re asked to sell it as if running a vertical pattern, then unexpectedly cut back and turn without keying in your opponent on when you’re going to change directions. Despite that difficulty Snead accomplished it on 82.8-percent of his attempts (ranking eleventh among fifty receivers charted). For context, Dallas Cowboys star Dez Bryant got open on 84.4-percent of his curl routes, and Brown was (marginally) less successful than both with an 81.3-percent success rate.

It’s fair to say that Snead has untapped potential as a vertical threat. He got open on post routes (sometimes called go or fly routes) 80-percent of the time, a higher clip than New York Giants superhero Odell Beckham Jr (78.3-percent) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers receiver Mike Evans (76.5-percent). Just eight receivers had higher success rates on go routes than Snead.

Those specific routes illustrate how well-rounded Snead’s overall game has become, but it’s worth noting just how versatile a route-runner he is. Snead doesn’t specialize in any one route. Among the eleven routes charted, he ran just two (screens and comebacks) less than 6.4-percent of the time. And of all those routes, Snead got open on 80-percent or more attempts on all but out routes (76.2-percent) and nine routes (56.7-percent). He graded out with above-average success on every route in the tree.

This snap-by-snap charting proves that Snead is a threat to keep defenders guessing and attack any part of the field, whether it’s just past the line of scrimmage as a safety valve for Drew Brees, out past the first down marker, or make a big gain deep downfield. His contract extension is being actively negotiated with the Saints, and Snead is likely to be worth every penny.

I’ll pick things up later this week with a review of just how sensational Michael Thomas’ rookie season was, and cap it off with Reception Perception’s insight into how limited Brandin Cooks was as a piece to this offense.