After Willie Snead steps to the line of scrimmage, gets his feet set and leans slightly forward. He balls his fists and begins rotating his hands in circles back toward his body and keeps doing so until the ball is snapped and he takes off on his next route.
He said this is to remind himself to be in ready position to fight off a jam, which, to this point, seems to be a successful strategy. There haven’t been many plays this season where he’s been snuffed out before the quarterback even takes his drop.
But what you can’t see is that Snead’s mind is spinning in the same fashion as his hands before each snap.
He could just follow the lines as they’re drawn in the playbook and go about his job that way. But he wouldn’t be here if that were the case. Snead readily admits he isn’t a top athlete. Just look at his combine numbers. He ran a 4.62 40-yard dash and was mediocre in the three-cone drill, 20- and 60-yard shuttles.
To be blunt, he has few standout athletic traits in a field where he competes against some of the best athletes in the world. Yet he gets open. Consistently and constantly. It’s not because he blows guys off the line of scrimmage or runs by them. He sets them up and attacks each route with a plan of how to get open.
He’s a tactician and wins with his mind as much — or more — than he does with his body. So when he steps to the line of scrimmage and his hands are spinning, he’s constantly thinking about how to set up this move or disguise this route or how to attack a cornerback or zone coverage within the parameters of what he’s supposed to be doing.
“I just make sure my routes are detailed,” Snead said. “Technician, that’s what people say. I work hard at my craft. That’s what’s put me over the edge. I don’t have the best speed in the world, but I get open.”
It would be inaccurate to call Snead the Saints’ top receiver this season. He doesn’t command the same kind of attention as Brandin Cooks, who consistently draws double coverage or safety help. And Snead benefits from being viewed as the second option in the offense. It isn’t inaccurate to call him the team’s most productive receiver. The facts bear that out.
Snead has caught 26 passes for a team-leading 436 yards this season and is on pace to eclipse 1,100 yards. And while he’s caught six passes for 20 or more yards, including two that exceeded 50 yards, he’s predominately made his living in the intermediate area of the field. The thing is, though, is he doesn’t have a best or favorite route, like many receivers do. Snead likes them all.
He’s been targeted 11 times on out-routes, five times on crossing routes, four times each on curls, in-routes and screens, three times each on post and go-routes, and twice on slants and comeback routes. If it’s part of the program, Snead is running it and running it well.
“He has good feet, and his strong lower body allows him to sink his hips and get out of a cut quick,” coach Sean Payton said. “I would say above the shoulders he is very smart and has very good football instincts. Rarely does he do something on the field that surprises you.”
It’s Snead’s ability to disguise his intentions that impresses Drew Brees the most and what makes defending Snead difficult. When a cornerback is preparing to face a receiver, he’ll spend hours looking over his film for tells on what route he’s going to run. Most receivers have them. But even Brees hasn’t seen many from Snead.
Whether it’s a go, slant or out-route, Snead runs it the same way until it’s time to make a break. Snead calls this “mirroring,” and Brees said that’s a common hallmark among the best receivers he’s worked with.
“He’s one of those guys that can make things look the same, that short area that is important to being a good route runner,” Brees said. “Obviously quickness and ability to transition in and out of a break is something he’s very good at as well.”
But precise and detailed routes alone would get Snead only so far. After joining the practice squad in December, Snead developed quick chemistry with Brees. It allowed him to excel in camp and has carried over into the season.
On many of the routes Snead runs, he has the option to break a certain way based on how the defense is covering him. The ability to properly diagnose those scenarios has helped Snead get off to a fast start and, as Payton joked, the Saints “are not interested in guys who are going to run into coverage.”
But more important, Brees trusts that Snead will see things the same so he can anticipate where the receiver is going before he makes his break.
“I find that he’s a very good decision-maker, and his body language tells me what he’s doing,” Brees said. “That’s what we’d consider chemistry.”
“It’s just that work after practice that people don’t see,” Snead added.
What people can see is the rapid elevation from camp body to one of the more productive players in this offense. And maybe the best part is that few saw it coming, much like the cornerbacks who try to anticipate one of Snead’s breaks.