Willie Snead IV spent the past three-plus years with New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees.
Under Brees, who Snead called “arguably the best quarterback to ever pick up the football,” the Saints have perennially been at or near the top of the NFL’s passing leaders.
So Snead knows a thing or two about what a good passing game looks like.
Now, as he kicks off his first training camp with the Ravens after they poached the restricted free agent from New Orleans, Snead is hearing murmurs about how Baltimore’s passing game is shaping up to be much improved this year.
“Everybody tells me that something like this hasn’t been brought to this building in a while,” Snead said. “When people say that and the momentum building behind this team, you can’t help but be excited about that. The change is going to be great.”
Baltimore overhauled its receiving unit this offseason. The addition of Snead, veteran Michael Crabtree and John Brown in free agency gave Baltimore a proven trio of veteran wide receivers to lean on.
In April, the Ravens drafted tight end Hayden Hurst in the first round, doubled down with pass-catching tight end Mark Andrews in the third round, then piled on a pair of rookie wide receivers, Jaleel Scott and Jordan Lasley, in the fourth and fifth rounds, respectively.
The new group, and its connection with quarterback Joe Flacco, looked good during Organized Team Activities (OTAs) and minicamp. It was better than the Ravens looked at the end of training camp last year, when Ryan Mallett was filling in for the hobbled Flacco.
Last week, Flacco got together with his new receivers for two days of extra work before kicking off training camp, and now the group looks to continue building momentum.
“To be honest, I think Joe has a lot of confidence in us,” Snead said. “Just from the little time that we’ve been together, just talking to him in the locker room, to coming out here on the field and making plays while he’s throwing us the ball – I think he has a lot of confidence in our group.”
Of course, it’s all still talk as of now. Last offseason, Baltimore was buzzing with excitement after the late addition of wide receiver Jeremy Maclin in free agency. Maclin, Mike Wallace and Breshad Perriman talked about how they believed they could be one of the best wide receiver trios in the NFL.
That didn’t pan out, as only three teams posted fewer passing yards than the Ravens and Baltimore’s 27th-ranked offense was its third-lowest standing in team history.
The Ravens were the first team to report to training camp, and they had nearly the entire team in attendance.
The Ravens aggressively reshaped this year’s unit while on a budget. They didn’t spend big money on one free-agent receiver such as Jarvis Landry (Cleveland Browns) or Allen Robinson (Chicago Bears), but rather found bargains to get three for the price of one.
Like in the case of Maclin, the Ravens are now counting on bounce back seasons from all three free-agent additions.
Excluding his injury-shortened 2013 season, Crabtree’s 58 catches last year were his lowest since 2010 and his 618 receiving yards were a career low. He still posted eight touchdowns, however.
Snead posted 1,879 receiving yards in his first two seasons on the field, but just eight catches for 92 yards last year. Brown topped 1,000 yards and notched seven touchdowns in 2015, but had 21 grabs for 299 yards and three scores last season.
Each player is motivated to individually get back to their big-time production levels, but what may make them strongest is how they complement each other.
“We just all bring something very different to table,” Snead said. “Crabtree is 10 years in and brings that old vet mentality, that different swagger. Me and ‘J.B.’ [John Brown] came in together in 2014, and he brings that speed down the field. … Me – I work the slot, I work everywhere, blocking, especially.”
It’s not just the top three wideouts that has the Ravens excited.
Hurst has looked the part of an immediate impact rookie who can make plays down the middle of the field and move the chains by making contested catches.
Chris Moore was one of the most impressive practice players over the spring. Lasley opened training camp with a long touchdown, Scott has flashed and Tim White and Perriman have the speed and tools to impress.
“We’ve got some talented receivers in the room – young guys, older guys, even like Chris and those guys, Tim, guys that you sleep on, who can play ball,” Crabtree said.
But Crabtree, who is entering his 10th season, isn’t in the business of over-hyping the unit. It’s still training camp and they’re still working on gelling with each other and Flacco. There’s still a long way to go before the unit can prove itself on Sundays.
“I’m really kind of tired talking about it,” Crabtree said. “Let’s play ball – and win.”