Willie Snead IV is currently the Ravens’ leading receiver with 30 catches on 43 targets. He’s getting yardage-after-catch, too, and picking up some big first downs. The Ravens were lucky to get him after New Orleans decided not to tender an offer to Snead as a restricted free agent—apparently a Sean Payton decision. Snead has made no secret of the bad taste for Payton he has in his mouth heading into this Sunday’s 4:00 PM EST match in Baltimore against his former team.
It’s a special game for Snead, who became an NFL star in New Orleans only to fall from grace last season. After catching 141 passes for 1,879 passes the previous two seasons, Snead hauled in just eight passes for 92 yards last year. In one season, a guy who rose from an undrafted free agent to one of Drew Brees’ most trusted targets, was on the outs.
Snead was signed out of Ball State to New Orleans’ practice squad in 2014 after he was cut from the Carolina Panthers practice squad. After a phenomenal summer with the Saints in his second year in the NFL, Snead cracked the 53-man roster. Head coach Sean Payton called to deliver the news. Later, Snead heard from folks in the personnel office that Payton had never done that before for an undrafted free agent. “You played your ass off and you earned it,” Payton told Snead.
It was Drew Brees who taught Snead how to watch film and study defenses. He taught him how much time he should spend at the team facility, before practice, after practice, working on specific routes over and over to perfect the timing. “The attention to detail is what I learned from Drew,” Snead said.
Snead learned how to be a slot receiver from Marquis Colston, another underdog wide receiver (seventh-round pick out of Hofstra). Colston played 10 years in New Orleans and had six 1,000-yard seasons. But Snead didn’t have Colston’s 6-foot-4 height (Snead is 5-foot-11). He didn’t have his speed either (Snead ran the 40-yard dash in 4.62 seconds at the Combine).
He started eight games and caught 69 passes for 984 yards and three touchdowns during his true rookie season in 2015. The following year, he snagged 72 passes for 895 yards and four scores.
“Man, I love Willie,” Brees said this week. “We had developed a great rapport, had a lot of trust, just from the time on task that we had together. … [He is] one of those guys that I thought I was going to be playing with for a long time.”
But an offseason DUI accident in which his Jeep sideswiped a car with two passengers in it changed everything. Snead blew a .125 (with .080 as the legal limit) and was arrested and booked. Fortunately for all involved, nobody was seriously hurt.
The football result was a 3-game suspension handed down by the NFL, plus mandatory attendance of the league’s alcohol and drug program. In the meantime Snead had injured a hamstring and was rehabbing a toe injury.
The Saints, meanwhile, got on a roll with wide receiver Michael Thomas and running back Alvin Kamara emerging as a deadly 1-2 punch with Brees, and they weren’t about to slow down to fold Snead back into the mix, even once he was healthy.
“Their confidence wasn’t really into me anymore,” Snead said. “The season last year was just totally different from the years before. If you don’t have time with Drew, you really get phased out.”
So what will the emotions be like this Sunday when Snead faces off against his former team? Snead told the assembled media Wednesday that he has to approach it like it’s just another team, but he’s had it circled on his calendar for a while.
“I have so many relationships in that locker room that it’s kind of an uneasy feeling that I have to play these guys,” Snead said. “But I’m looking forward to it because I want to stick it to them.”
“[He’s been] exactly what we were looking for, what we hoped he would be when we signed him,” John Harbaugh said. “He can go inside or outside, but man, he makes some – they call them ‘blood-area’ catches. That’s where he thrives.”