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.