GREEN BAY, Wis. — Until Thursday night’s preseason finale against Green Bay, the two breakout stars of the New Orleans Saints’ wide-open competition for wide receiver jobs had been on very different paths.
Willie Snead, the out-of-nowhere player who rocketed up the depth chart at The Greenbrier, has been just as good in the preseason; he tied for the team lead in catches and trailed only Brandin Cooks for yardage. Brandon Coleman, the favorite for the No. 3 job, had caught everything thrown his way in practice, but he had just one catch in the preseason.
But Snead and Coleman both capped off their preseasons by backing up their reputations early in a game that turned into a 38-10 loss at Lambeau Field.
“We wanted them to get some early work in that first portion of the game,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “We think those guys have been pretty consistent.
Coleman, who has established himself as the Saints’ No. 3 receiver with what he’s done on the practice field, had missed a few opportunities, especially on a red-zone chance against the Patriots.
Not this time. Coleman hauled in four passes for 82 yards, announcing his game-readiness on the Saints’ first offensive snap.
Facing off against Green Bay’s first-round pick, Damarious Randall, Coleman used his size to get off the line and out-raced Randall down the field, hauling in a perfect deep ball from Luke McCown for 45 yards.
A little later, in the second quarter, Coleman stretched out to grab a ball on a slant from Ryan Griffin. He finished his performance by doing what he does best, getting free over the middle of the field for a 21-yard gain from a scrambling Garrett Grayson.
At 6-foot-6, Coleman’s height tends to draw most of the attention. The undrafted free agent from Rutgers towers above most defensive backs, but he’s proven his game is about more than just height.
Coleman excels at working over the middle, making the kind of catches that can move the chains in the regular season.
“Brandon made some good plays tonight,” Payton said. “Kind of almost to a tee what we’ve been seeing. The progress he’s made has been good.”
Snead, on the other hand, has been a revelation. At 5-foot-11, 195 pounds, Snead doesn’t appear to have an elite advantage in size or speed.
What Snead provides is sure hands, toughness and a knack for getting open. Fresh off a four-catch performance against Houston, Snead finished off the first drive by catching a 7-yard quick out from McCown for a touchdown.
“That was one of my goals, was to score a touchdown in the preseason, and it happened for me,” Snead said.
Snead finished with three catches for 31 yards and the score, including a tough 16-yard grab on a throw from Griffin that forced him to absorb a hit over the middle.
By what he’s done, Snead seems to have locked up a roster spot.
“I’m not sure,” Snead said. “I had a good camp, I’ve produced, I’ve put good stuff on tape. Hopefully the coaches like what I’ve done and they keep me around.”
Snead may no longer have to worry, and neither should Coleman.
As good as those two have been, the wide-open race for receiver may now boil down to just the fifth and final spot for receiver, and it’s hard to imagine either player ending up on the wrong side of that battle.