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The statistics used in this column are those acquired from the Reception Perception methodology for evaluating wide receivers. To see full results of the project’s first full offseason, check out the tables at Backyard Banter. Additionally, use the #ReceptionPerception tag on Twitter to follow all the analysis from the series. Every week at Footballguys I'll profile one receiver whose recent numbers stand out as interesting. If you have a suggestion for the column, file it on Twitter.
One of the concepts I harped on repeatedly this offseason was that the Saints offense would be taking a step back. In my view, you couldn’t honestly project Drew Brees and this passing offense as currently constructed to produce at the levels we saw in years past.
Reception Perception clearly showed that Brandin Cooks wasn’t up the task of assuming the role of this passing game’s number-one receiver job. That’s played out in the early going of the season. Marques Colston looked close to finish throughout 2014, and it was unclear (at best) if any of the ancillary pieces of this offense could possibly fill even a slight bit of the void left behind by Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills. All that was damning enough without even taking into account that Drew Brees is clearly in a full-on regression, something that could get you tarred and feathered in some circles for even hinting at.
Five weeks into the NFL season, and it’s clear that this Saints offense isn’t what it used to be. None of their pass catchers rank inside the top 25 of their respective fantasy positions, and Mark Ingram has been the only consistent player for them. Even when Brees has been on the field, before and after missing Week 3 with a shoulder injury, he’s been a lesser player than in year’s past; don’t let the volume and numbers fool you. However, there’s been one passing game player who has far exceeded public expectations for him. 2014 undrafted free agent receiver, Willie Snead, has seemingly emerged out of nowhere to lead this team in receiving yards over the course of the season, and receptions over the last three games. No one saw that coming.
Snead was among the undrafted ranks of the historically great wide receiver class of 2014. He spent time with the Browns in training camp, and garnered some strong reviews, but didn’t make the final roster. The Giants worked him out, but never offered a contract. The Panthers signed him to their practice squad, but he didn’t stick. All those teams have varying degrees of a wide receiver need, but all three teams allowed him to leave their building. The Saints scooped him up, developed him, and now he’s playing a major role for an offense that lost a ton of pieces in the offseason.
While he’s been a nice fill-in for savvy fantasy owners, and a godsend for a Saints team lacking consistent weapons, is Willie Snead here to stay? Just how is this player producing, what does he do well and what can we expect going forward? In order to answer these questions, we’ll look at his Reception Perception sample from the last two games.
One thing that’s made the Saints such a fun team to watch over the Sean Payton/Drew Brees era is the diversity with which they align their personnel. Of course, players like Lance Moore, Devery Henderson, Colston and others in that lot all have widely different skill sets as players. However, the offense always shifted and moved players around, while asking that they play multiple receiver positions.
Snead is following that path as well, wearing multiple different hats for the Saints. He primarily splits his time between flanker and slot receiver. His skillset best fits these positions, but he does have the ability to function in short spurts as the X-receiver. No one on that roster profiles as a true X, and it shows.
The time and dedication put into inundating this player into the system is paying dividends. Much like players from New Orleans past, Snead is displaying the alignment versatility often asked of Saints’ receivers.
What drew many to assume that Brandin Cooks was in for a big year was the targets made available in this offense due to some stalwarts’ departures. With Cooks disappointing, and the Saints not showing an inclination to force passes to him no matter the situation or coverage, Willie Snead has been getting more run. Over the last few games, he’s approached the team lead in passing targets.
In a pass heavy offense that spreads the ball around, a 26.2 percent target per route rate is a healthy level of involvement. Timing and trust have long been one of the crucial aspects in making this pass offense go. Drew Brees demands it of his supporting cast. In picking up the slack for his teammates, and earning a steadily increasing snap share, Willie Snead is earning that trust from his quarterback. As such, over the last two games, Brees looked for Snead.
Reliability is the central theme we’ll see in multiple facets of Snead’s game. He’s been generally efficient with his opportunities and making good on his increased playing time. He caught a pass on 18.5 percent of the 65 routes run over this two game sample. That’s an above average mark, and speaks to both his high-involvement with the offense, and efficiency in converting opportunity into production. He did drop one pass against the Eagles, resulting in a 5.9 drop rate out of 17 passing targets.
Success Rate Versus Coverage and Route Analysis
One of my biggest hang-ups with Brandin Cooks meeting his perceived value coming into this season was his route running. There was little evidence from his 2014 rookie tape that he could run reliable routes, flash open at key points, or separate consistently from tight coverage. As Drew Brees enters the twilight of his career, more of an emphasis must be place on his accuracy and anticipation, with his already less than elite physical skills eroding. He needs his top receiver to possess those qualities, if they aren’t a physically dominating beast as Jimmy Graham was. While no one else has stepped up to assume the former mentioned role, it’s been Willie Snead who is.
Snead has two main routes highly represented on his route percentage chart, the nine and the curl. While we’ve harped on Brees diminishing arm strength, the Saints still call for their receivers to run a lot of deep routes. These serve to stretch the field and keep the defense honest, but also clears space out for the underneath pass catchers, including the highly targeted running backs. Also, Brees has some gunslinger mindset in him, and will still try to cash in on a deep ball no matter what his body is still him it can or cannot do.
The curl route is an interesting one here as well, and is more indicative of the underneath portion of this offense. Snead’s amount of curl routes run is inordinately high with a 24.6 percent frequency rate. Not every curl route is created the same. Some receivers us the curl to flash back to the quarterback, and get in position to box out the defender covering them, think a Mike Evans-type. Other players, Michael Crabtree is a great example, know how to time to break back to the line of scrimmage almost to perfect. If it’s man coverage, they sell the route, and then dust the defender on the turn around. Should the defense employ a zone, they have the intelligence to find the holes and sit in them. Both brands of execution require a great amount of timing and precision in the receiver’s route running. Snead is clearly more the latter type of player.
All throughout Snead’s SRVC scores, we see that type of ability. His route running, especially for a second year undrafted free agent, is quite impeccable.
(SRVC denotes success rate versus coverage for each route. PTS indicates how many PPR fantasy points a receiver earned on each particular route)
We’ll examine those two most frequently run routes first. Snead’s nine route score is nothing of note. His 47.1 percent SRVC on the pattern isn’t in the Jarvis Landry basement of poor, but it’s below the 2014 charted average. Snead isn’t a vertical threat, despite running a fair amount of go routes. Those called plays have more to do with the system than the player. However, Snead blew the doors off the other route he ran often. His SRVC on curl routes of 93.8 percent is outstanding. The timing and precision mentioned earlier is the specialty of his game. Snead is creating ample separation on these routes, and presenting a reliable target for a quarterback in search of one.
Snead also managed several other impressive scores, including 100 percent SRVC on slants and flats. These patterns, along with the curl score, sum up his performance in the underneath game. Using noticeable nuance for an inexperienced player, Snead is finding holes in the defense and get free from coverage. Again, this is something the other receivers aren’t doing. Snead’s performance on these underneath routes is what’s earned him more playing time, the trust of his quarterback and a larger share of the passing game pie. He also posted a positive score on out routes, a pattern Reception Perception often notes is one of the more difficult ones for receivers to perform. Small glimpses like this give hope that Snead may someday evolve another step in his route running, and potentially join a higher-tier of player quality because of it.
The most noticeable conclusion from Snead’s route results chart, and I’m not sure I recall another “bit player” having this, was that he recorded PTS on all the routes he was targeted. Snead ran every pass pattern, outside of the screen, and caught at least one pass on each. That is rather remarkable, especially when you consider this is only a two game sample size. Being able to run the entire route tree, and flashing versatility in execution, is huge. We’ve seen Snead’s strength is in the underneath game, but his PTS scores show he’s at least flashed the ability to threaten the defense at every level.
Snead has also been able to free himself from multiple brands of coverage. He faced two very different styles of defense in Weeks 4 and 5, but combated both well.
Red indicates the figure is below the NFL average, Green is above and Yellow is within one percentage point.
No matter the coverage, Snead posted an above league average SRVC score. He has the nuance and toughness to get away from man coverage, and is timing things well to find holes in zones. The most important score is his 77.8 SRVC against press. One of the big reasons Reception Perception was so down on Brandin Cooks was his performance against press as a rookie. His 49.3 percent SRVC was by far the worst among the crop of 2014 rookie receivers. While Snead isn’t much bigger than Cooks, although there’s enough of an advantage to make a difference, he has a better release technique and is just generally more combative. Matt Waldman has detailed going back to college that Cooks has an inconsistent response to physical play, and it shows at the NFL level. Snead, on the other hand, doesn’t back down from the clash, as evidenced by his press coverage score. If anything, this may be the biggest reason he’s stolen a big role out of this passing game.
Is Willie Snead the best pass catcher on the Saints? If you’re just judging based off the 2015 game tape, it’s not even a discussion. Make no mistake; this isn’t just Snead taking advantage of favorable matchups while defenses sell out to stop Cooks. One player is just getting open and executing their assignments and getting open, while the other just isn’t. In an offense where the quarterback demands consistency, good fit and timing, that’s all it takes to earn the top spot in the pecking order.
We’ve seen countless unheralded players come through New Orleans, slide into this offense and produce. Cooks is a better player than Robert Meachem, but it’s interesting that the highly-drafted players don’t take off in this offense, while third round picks (Graham and Stills) and undrafted players (Colston and Snead) seem to fit right in. Willie Snead appears to be the next in line of that surprising aforementioned group.
We’re five weeks into the NFL season, and at the point where it’s time to trust what the game is revealing to us. What Willie Snead’s story is telling is us is that there’s a receiver breaking out in New Orleans, it’s just not the one we expected. Snead may not lap Cooks in production this season, but he’ll at worst keep level with him. Not bad for a waiver add versus a third round pick.
Willie Snead worked hard for an opportunity, and is making the most of it. He’s an impressive route runner for a player who caught his first NFL pass just a few weeks ago, can run the entire route tree, and is improving while earning the trust of his team. Best of all, in an offense with a quarterback that will continue to chuck the ball around regardless of any individual decline, we can expect his play to keep resulting in production.