Willie Snead Has a Great Opportunity to Grow in New Orleans

With the departure of Brandin Cooks, the slick third-year receiver could become a major factor for the Saints' offense.

It’s nice to be a receiver in New Orleans. Drew Brees is your quarterback, and you’re on one of the most pass-heavy offenses in the league.

In the past five seasons, the Saints have ranked second in pass attempts four times, while in the other, they ranked fourth. Part of that is the Brees thing. Another part is a defense that’s going to give up a billion yards per game. Either way, playing wideout down on the Bayou is a nice gig.

This dynamic gave us some passing game stars in previous seasons. Jimmy Graham was a top-tier tight end with New Orelans. Marques Colston was a target machine at his peak. Brandin Cooks was a big-play threat. Today, everyone is excited about what Michael Thomas will do in 2017, even if he might have trouble living up to the current hype.

With Cooks now gone, Thomas isn’t the only Saint who stands to gain an advantage in the passing game. The other would be New Orleans’ second-leading returning receiver, Willie Snead.

Breaking Through

Last year Snead was just third on the Saints in targets, but he still saw 104 of them. By raw stats, Thomas was clearly superior to Snead, and that’s likely a big reason why the Ohio State product is viewed so favorably heading into his second season.

Player Targets Receptions Receiving Yards Yds/Game TDs
Michael Thomas 121 92 1137 75.8 9
Willie Snead 104 72 895 59.7 4

But when we compare the two on a per-play basis, there isn't quite as big of a difference in performance. By Net Expected Points (NEP), our signature metric, Snead was slightly better -- and one of the league’s best -- in terms of per-target efficiency.

Player Reception NEP (rank) RNEP/target (rank) Yds/Reception Success Rate
Michael Thomas 88.76 (18) 0.73 (17) 12.4 88.89%
Willie Snead 82.65 (25) 0.79 (8) 12.4 87.00%

Where Snead really falls behind is how much people are talking about him compared to his teammate. A quick Google search of "Michael Thomas" and "New Orleans Saints" yields 140,600 hits, while "Willie Snead" and "New Orleans Saints" brings up 70,900.

Now, it’s likely Thomas will again lead the Saints in targets during the 2017 season, but Snead could be stealing more of Cooks’s vacated 117 passes and play an overall bigger part of the offense than he’s currently getting credit for.

Lining Up

Snead plays the primary slot role for New Orleans, which is an important piece of a Brees-led passing game. Last season, only Colin Kaepernick and Andrew Luck threw a higher percentage of their passes to the slot than Brees. Part of that was also because Cooks saw significant time in the slot, but Snead was the main go-to in that area.

While Cooks was more of the deep threat (13.3 average depth of target, or aDOT), Snead was more involved with the pitch-and-catch type plays (7.8 aDOT). That also allowed him to be the team’s top option on third downs. Snead had the highest target share (19.5%) of passes from Brees on third down, though he trailed Cooks slightly for Reception NEP per target.

Player Third Down Targets Third Down Target Share Third Down Receptions RNEP/Target
Willie Snead 32 19.5% 25 0.91
Michael Thomas 27 16.5% 17 0.87
Brandin Cooks 25 15.2% 15 1.2

This is certainly an area in which Snead’s role can continue to grow and one in which his reception total can get a boost, too. The Saints added Ted Ginn Jr. for the deep threat role, and while he was ninth among all players in Reception NEP per target on third downs (1.32), that was on a small amount of targets (26), receptions (15), and successes (10).

On any down, Snead could become the player Brees relies on most in the middle of the field.

Getting Open

What makes Snead an asset in that area of the field -- especially with Brees as the quarterback -- is his ability to create separation with his route running. Snead isn’t a burner by any means -- he ran just a 4.62 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine in 2014 -- but his lack of speed doesn’t hamper him on the field.

With most of his snaps coming from the slot, Snead has become a master at selling the possibility of the two-way-go. As a slot receiver, he has two possible ways to cut -- inside or outside -- as opposed to an outside wide receiver who is blocked by the sideline on one side.

Take a look what he did to Janoris Jenkins of the New York Giants -- one of the 2016’s best cornerbacks -- in a Week 2 game. Snead started out as the outside receiver on the left side of the formation, but he was still inside the numbers, which gave a slot feel. Then Travaris Cadet motioned to the outside left, and Snead was then a more traditional slot receiver.

At the snap, Snead set up his route by fading to his left. That sold Jenkins, and the corner’s hips were completely pointed to the outside. When Snead broke inside just two yards into his route, Jenkins had to about face and was well behind Snead, who gained 12 yards on the play. (Video courtesy: NFL Game Pass)

Snead had another big gain thanks to his route against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 7. He was again the slot receiver to the left of the formation. At the snap, Snead ran straight down the field, with a slight lean towards the right. This tipped off cornerback Steven Nelson (20) who tried to jump Snead’s break on the route. But while the corner broke, Snead kept the stem of his route straight up the field. That and a subtle head fake cause Nelson to pause just enough for Snead to gain inside leverage and separation on a route the defender had initially sniffed out. It was a gain of 17.

Where this skill also pays off is inside the red zone. In 2016, Snead had the third-most red zone targets (12), second-most touchdowns (four), and second-highest Reception NEP per target (0.88) among Saints players.

Against the Denver Broncos in Week 10, Snead is matched up against Bradley Roby (29). Snead is initially lined up as a slot receiver, but he ended up as the outside receiver in a trips bunch set, although still inside the numbers. At the snap, Snead starts his route to the post, which -- like the Jenkins play -- got Roby’s hips pointed in the opposite direction of Snead’s eventual break. Snead then crossed the front of Roby and got a step on the defender, which is all he needed to get open for Brees in the end zone.

Nothing about Snead at first glance blows you away. But the intricacies of his play on the field give a clear reason why he’s been a big part of the Saints' offense over the past two seasons. With Cooks now gone, that role has the chance to get even bigger in 2017.