Willie Snead and the elusive undrafted starter

Willie Snead IV is making his presence felt in training camp with the Cleveland Browns. On Monday the wide receiver had a short catch that he turned into a long touchdown after making an adjustment at the line and getting on the same page with quarterback Brian Hoyer. As he exploded into the end zone, Snead couldn’t stop bouncing all the way back to the huddle. Not bad for a so-called slow, undersized, undrafted rookie from Ball State. Make no mistake: Willie Snead still has a ways to go to make his NFL dream a reality, and the story of guys like Snead is over-told this time of year. For the Browns, it’s a story that never reaches the heights it seems to in other cities. Maybe a guy like Snead can be Ray Farmer’s first.

Willie Snead may just be another young guy who broke out at a smaller school with a wide open offense, but didn’t stick out in combine settings. He wasn’t fast enough, big enough or any “enough” enough to hear his name called on draft day, but a combination of factors led him to Cleveland.

His father is a coach, who played college football at the University of Virginia with Mike Pettine. The elder Snead also played a few years of pro ball as a receiver. Eventually Willie Snead III found his way to football coaching. His son ended up being his dad’s star pupil first as a receiver and then as a dual-threat quarterback. Then, he moved on to college where he exploded for nearly 1,200 yards in 2012 and just over 1,500 in 2013. But being, you know, a productive football player, isn’t nearly good enough to get drafted, especially in a purportedly receiver-rich draft class.

Snead didn’t shine at the combine. He’s a fairly thick five-foot eleven-inch receiver. He runs professional, disciplined routes and is very physical with corners, but that doesn’t show up in his 40-yard dash time. Neither does the fact that his head coach Mike Pettine talked about how much defenders “hate” to go up against him because he plays such a physical style.

QUOTEDon’t believe Pettine? Joe Haden talked about him yesterday as well. “I like him a lot,” said Haden. “He was doing OTAs and mini-camp and even out here now, I was saying as a rookie, he’s doing the best as a receiver. He runs really good routes. He catches the ball. He’s strong with his hands, and at the same time he blocks well. He’s just not afraid. He comes out here and does what he has to do and he’s physical.”

It’s astonishing how bad the Browns have been at identifying wide receivers since 1999. The biggest punchline of all Eric Mangini’s infamous second round where he grabbed Mohamed Massaquoi and Brian Robiskie in the 2009 NFL draft.  Not only were those players taken before the likes of Pro Bowl running back LeSean McCoy and safety William Moore, they were also selected before Pro Bowl wide receiver Mike Wallace and Kent State’s Julian Edelman. Since 1999 it’s basically a two-horse race between Kevin Johnson and Josh Gordon for best receiver. Considering we’re going on ten years since Kevin Johnson played in the NFL, it’s pretty offensive. You might wonder if it’s the lack of quarterbacking over the years, but name the plethora of Browns receivers that have left the team and gone on to huge productivity.

Again, Snead is just the guy who has impressed so far. Maybe it’s Charles Johnson or Jonathan Krause or some player the Browns don’t even have on the roster yet, but I’m hoping this is another bad streak that Ray Farmer and his staff can help break. The hallmark of a great football organization isn’t just hitting on first round draft picks. It’s finding football players in unlikely places.

There’s a financial reward to finding those guys, sure, but in the realm of roster construction it’s more than that. If a below-average NFL personnel team has two or three major talent acquisition opportunities per year, a really great one has double that as they recognize players that other teams try to sneak onto injured reserve or practice squads throughout the year.

For every Michael Bowie that the Browns hit on and every Willie Snead that could become a productive starting-caliber NFL player, the Browns have mitigated the huge stakes that seem to follow the Browns to every draft day every year. If early camp results continue to play out for Willie Snead and the Browns, it will pay obvious dividends on the field, but it could also finally herald a new day of competent talent acquisition that Browns fans haven’t seen in Berea since 1999.

  • Sam Gold

    The Ray Farmer legacy begins.

  • snead is 5-11 with 10.25″ hands. it’s like he has hands proportionate to a 7-footer.

    only one WR at the combine (jordan matthews) had larger hands.

    it’s a big deal. especially for a possession receiver.

  • maxfnmloans

    so he’s Brian Robiskie, except he can catch, and didnt cost a second round pick? Cool

  • Harv 21

    “It’s astonishing how bad the Browns have been at identifying wide receivers since 1999.”

    Yep, like the Tribe in drafting outfielders, it’s like their analysis has been so bad they can’t even stumble on one despite the sheer numbers of players that have wandered through Berea. Maybe part of it is the constant FO turnover. Or the thought process that has led them to use significant picks on Robiskie, MoMass, Travis Wilson and Andre Davis (which has helped lead to the constant FO turnover). In the end, the most important guy to a NFL team is the guy in charge of identifying amateur talent.

    If Farmer is competent at that, all the position battles and angst over schemes will work themselves out just fine.

  • mgbode

    I have heard he might be able to get open as well. We’ll see.

  • mgbode

    I really enjoy how Farmer has seemingly setup his draft board and identified and targeted the players that he has. It is so in line with the guys that I tend to like (or were all-out wanting) that it is eery. I feel even more desire for this FO to be the correct one than usual. (along with saggy and others who also were strong on some of these guys)

  • maxfnmloans

    well, in Robiskie’s defense, he was playing most of his snaps with Chips McCoy and Captain Checkdown, and it’s tough when the defense can just sit on the three yard out pattern (two yards on third and three, naturally)

  • CB Everett

    Fear not, in the Pixar movie about the Browns, Chips McCoy and Captain Checkdown will shine.

  • Ezzie Goldish

    Yes, they seemed to know exactly who they wanted, period. The striking anecdote to me were the coaches who’d been in Towson wearing their shirts to Day 2 and then getting up and chanting the fight song once they picked West.

  • mgbode

    if only he didn’t go to JAX & ATL and have the same issues there too 😉

  • Garry_Owen

    Meh. The first depth chart was released today, and Snead is last (maybe second-to-last). Could be the learning curve, could be a motiviational message, could be just where the rookies end up in camp, but . . . he’s at the bottom of the chart.

  • Garry_Owen

    [Enjoyed the article, though. More of these, please.]

  • RGB

    Ya know.
    There was an exceptional WR within our grasp in the draft.

  • Harv 21

    hey, I don’t remember anything wrong with Robiskie’s hands. [and then Robiskie’s defense counsel, unable to think of another line of questioning, sighed and sat down].

  • CB Everett

    Agreed. Think there’s something of a rookie message. Kirksey is beyong Robertson, Gilbert behind Skrine, and Gilkey (2nd year) behind Greco. I think they want to make sure the unseating of veterans is “earned” over time in some meaningful way.

  • mgbode
  • The_Real_Shamrock
  • mgbode

    Thanks. Only a few minor surprises.

    Sheard and Taylor backups to Mingo and Winn.
    McQuistan listed as an OG (we still have Reid Fragel?)
    Ogbannaya listed as RB
    Edwin Baker listed ahead of Crowell and Dion Lewis
    Leon McFadden may be among first cuts (buried on depth chart)

    and, I am pleased to see Leonhard listed at SS and Poyer still the backup SS.

    All the other things I could be surprised with are the rookies needing to make their way up the chart. Bitonio has apparently bypassed all such hurdles though putting his stamp on the OG position.

  • Harv 21

    so there’s at least one benefit to changing regimes annually: no endless chances to last year’s draft busts. Hey Leon, coach wants to see you. Bring your playbook.

  • RGB

    Maybe we could trade Wiggins for him.

  • mgbode

    too bad Bennett dropped the weight, he could have been a TE

  • RGB

    Assuming Crowell has his mind right, he should easily pass Baker.
    I expect Kirksey will move up in time.

  • sumnomeaztim

    I found out about Willie Snead watching QB’s in this years draft. I found out about Snead watching Keith Wenning and I thought Snead would easily be a 6th or 7th round pick.

    He probably went un-drafted because of his combine numbers but all the guy does is catch the ball and make plays. Kind of like Anquan Boldin when he came out.

    And it’s not a comparison between the two but a study of how a lot of people miss the obvious. Willie Snead might only play in the NFL for a few years or he could be in the league for a long time but again all he does is catch the ball and make plays. We haven’t had that gritty type of receiver in a while so I hope he becomes that.

    And if we cut him I hope he catches on somewhere else and has a productive career. And personally I think he will…

  • mgbode

    Boldin was a 2nd round pick. How is that people missing on him?

  • Dan_L79

    I think there’s also the the fact that scouting departments still don’t know how to rank receivers that come from a pass heavy spread attack. It’s not that they underrate the group, more that they choose the wrong guys highly.

    It’s clear at this point that some can fit in very well in an NFL scheme (Wes Welker, Antonio Brown, TY Hilton), but there are plenty of early round picks (Brian Quick, Arrelius Benn, Ryan Broyles, possibly Tavon Austin) that do not work in the NFL for some reason.

    Perhaps a good value in the late rounds is to pick highly productive small school WR’s, and see which ones “just get open” in the pros as well as they did in college.