Sep 14, 2013; Denton, TX, USA; Ball State Cardinals wide receiver Willie Snead (3) catches a touchdown pass as North Texas Mean Green defensive back Hilbert Jackson (6) defends during the first half at Apogee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Through the small amount of talk about the Cleveland Browns at practice, some names of rookies or younger, less heralded players has come out, including undrafted free agent wide receiver Willie Snead IV from Ball State. Chances are if his name has come up, it has been followed by someone looking at him and not being sure how he is able to succeed. Snead is small, looks ordinary, has slow straight line speed and is not particularly strong, but he keeps finding ways to get open and catch the football. If a person saw him on the street in a jersey, they probably would think he is a fan as opposed to a player. Snead is ordinary in a number of areas physically, but he is remarkable in a few key areas and employs terrific technique that allows him to excel and could enable him to stick on an NFL roster.
A player like Snead ends up going undrafted because he is just 5’11” 195lbs and runs a 4.62 40. On the other hand, Snead does have long arms (33”), huge hands (10 ¼”) and while his speed basically across the board was mediocre, he did exhibit explosiveness in his vertical and broad jump.
Snead is not beating anyone in a foot race and he is not much of a threat in terms of run after the catch, but what he does really well is gets open and catches the football. Since he knows where he is going to run his route and does a pretty good job of reading opposing coverages and being able to anticipate how opponents will play him, his explosion allows him to create separation out of his breaks. For a quarterback like the one he had at Ball State like Keith Wenning, he would anticipate his breaks and put the ball on the spot, enabling them to move the ball down the field.
Snead also has strong legs and displays impressive body control, so his economy of movement going into breaks and changing directions is excellent. He can get in and out of his breaks quickly, making him look faster than his timed speed would indicate. Snead has a great sense of how he needs to execute routes and is able to get in and out of cuts more quickly than defensive backs are able to mirror his movements. This just goes to show how important footwork and route running is as a general concept and how easily it is overlooked when it comes to evaluating receivers.
Snead is not always great about catching the ball with his hands, but he is really impressive when it comes to securing the catch. He is not afraid to reach out and snatch the ball out of the air, which he does really well, but tends to catch it with his body when passes are put on him. Some of this is a matter of Snead going towards the middle of the field and making sure he secures the pass, so it is not the end of the world.
There are two other elements that allow Snead to be a proficient pass catcher. He concentrates on the ball extremely well, even through contact. There are a number of examples in college where he fights through pass interference to come back and secure a catch. Some of this is natural, but much of it comes down to perseverance, practice and will. The result is that while he tends to operate most effectively at around 5-7 yards and in, he can go and fight for the ball in the end zone.
The last element to why Snead is effective is how he positions his body. He does a great job of consistently putting his body between the defender and the football. Snead may not be a big guy, but he plays bigger than his size by always working to box opponents out from the play. Whether the ball is put on him or he has to reach out away from his body to make the catch, he makes it difficult for an opponent to make a play on the football. This is an area where the recently departed Greg Little struggled. In spite of his huge size, he did a poor job of using it to shield opponents from the ball and allowing them to contest the football, causing many of his issues with catching the ball. For anyone that wants to see what Snead does on tape, check out a few of his games over at draftbreakdown.
Snead’s lack of physical gifts will ultimately limit how far he can go in his career, but he takes full advantage of what he does have and combines it with outstanding technique and understanding of the position. Were he taller and faster and still displayed this type of technique, he might be coming to training camp as a highly drafted prospect. As it is, Snead will have to scratch and claw to try making the final roster. Nevertheless, when people watch Snead in practice or preseason, they can at least have some understanding of why such an average athlete is able to make plays in the NFL. It’s not random or luck. Snead just understands how to play the position.