It was third-and-17 and the Ravens were leading by a pair of touchdowns in Tennessee at the start of the second half. They didn’t want to give the Titans even a shred of life.
So the Ravens dialed up their trusty chain-mover, Willie Snead IV.
Snead looped behind a Titans linebacker and Joe Flacco hit him in stride for a 24-yard gain. Safety Kevin Byard walloped Snead, then menacingly lingered over top of him a little too long.
Feisty as ever, Snead shoved Byard off, hopped to his feet and stood toe-to-toe with him before vigorously signaling a first down right in his face. Head Coach John Harbaugh loved it.
“That’s the kind of competitor he is. He’s all ball, all the time,” Harbaugh said Monday. “This is a guy that’s been doubted his whole career – high school, college and the NFL. So I’m fine if they keep doubting him.”
Snead is the unafraid, ultra-prepared underdog who makes plays whenever he's given the chance. The Ravens call the middle of the field, where Snead made that third-and-17 catch, the “blood zone.” And Snead thrives in it.
“He’s one of the toughest guys I’ve played around, just in the six games,” Flacco said. “He really kind of loves to be put in those spots.”
The Ravens scored a touchdown on that drive and Snead finished with seven catches for 60 yards in Tennessee. He’s now tied for the team lead in receptions (30) and is tops in first-down catches (20) – a huge part of Baltimore’s passing attack.
As the Ravens prepare to take on the Saints this Sunday, it’s a special game for Snead, who became an NFL star in New Orleans only to fall from grace last season. After catching 141 passes for 1,879 yards the previous two seasons, Snead hauled in just eight catches for 92 yards last year.
In one season, a guy who worked his butt off just to get to the NFL, then rose from an undrafted free agent to one of Drew Brees’ most trusted targets, was on the outs. It was a tough pill to swallow – especially because it was at least partially his fault.
“You can’t take this for granted, because at any moment it can be gone,” Snead said.
“He’s one of the toughest guys I’ve played around, just in the six games." Joe Flacco
In Search of Home
Snead’s father, Willie Snead III, was also a professional football wide receiver. Selected in the 12th round of the 1989 NFL Draft by the New York Jets, Snead III played two years with the Jets and Houston Oilers before finishing in the Canadian Football League.
He suffered a knee injury, and when his son was born, he hung up his cleats and went into coaching. Snead III moved his family all over the country – Florida, Chicago, San Diego, back to Florida, then to Michigan. It was like Snead IV was a military kid.
“My dad put a football in my hands at a really early age – 4 years old,” Snead IV said. “It just grew on me. Every year, I’ve gotten better. If you can take coaching from your dad, you can take coaching from anybody.”
Because he played in middle-of-nowhere Michigan against sub-par competition in high school, Snead didn’t get the college attention he thought he deserved with gaudy stats and a state championship on his resume. He wanted to go to the University of Florida, just like his dad, but their wide receivers coach didn’t like him. Nick Saban and Alabama was interested, but not enough to offer a scholarship.
“I think if I had stayed in high school in Florida, I could have gone to any college I wanted to,” Snead said.
Instead, he ended up at Ball State in Indiana. It was still Division I, and he would get an opportunity to play early. In his first start, Snead put up 180 receiving yards. As a junior, he posted 106 receptions for 1,516 yards and 15 touchdowns – all school records.
During that season, Snead also learned that his girlfriend was pregnant, so he decided to declare for the NFL Draft early to try to make some money and support his new family. However, scouts thought he should have stayed in school for another year.
Snead went undrafted, quite deflating for a player that was a two-time semifinalist for the Biletnikoff Award, which is given to the nation’s top wide receiver.
“It was frustrating,” Snead said. “You’re at home with your parents, you took a huge risk of leaving college early. With the pressure of having a baby on the way, that builds on top of it. But I don’t regret leaving.”
All Snead wanted was a chance. He got it when the Cleveland Browns signed him (the Ravens also expressed interest), but Snead didn’t make the team. He worked out for the New York Giants, but wasn’t signed.
Suddenly, he was out of football – a cold slap in the face – for about a month. He considered hopping over to Canada, but the Carolina Panthers called with a spot on their practice squad. Then, after another release, the Saints offered the same.
After a phenomenal summer with the Saints in his second year in the NFL, Snead cracked the 53-man roster. Head Coach Sean Payton called to deliver the news. Later, Snead heard from folks in the personnel office that Payton had never done that before for an undrafted free agent.
“You played your ass off and you earned it,” Payton told Snead.
Finally, Snead had a home.
Taking Advantage of the Opportunity
In New Orleans, Snead was surrounded by some of the best offensive minds in the game. He had Payton coaching him, Brees throwing to him, and veteran wide receiver Marques Colston mentoring him.
Snead always had a strong work ethic instilled in him by his father. When you’re a coach’s kid, you know how to grind. When Snead joined forces with a quarterback who is a perfectionist, it was a dream pairing.
Brees taught Snead how to watch film and study defenses. He taught him how much time he should spend at the team facility, before practice, after practice, working on specific routes over and over to perfect the timing.
“The attention to detail is what I learned from Drew,” Snead said.
Snead learned how to be a slot receiver from Colston, another underdog wide receiver (seventh-round pick out of Hofstra). Colston played 10 years in New Orleans and had six 1,000-yard seasons. But Snead didn’t have Colston’s 6-foot-4 height (Snead is 5-foot-11). He didn’t have his speed either (Snead ran the 40-yard dash in 4.62 seconds at the Combine).
So for as much learning from others as Snead did, his emergence was also simply a byproduct of him working his tail off to get better.
“I think the hard work just comes from being doubted a lot in my career – being ‘too slow to separate’ or 'not big enough,'” Snead said. “I don’t have the physical abilities like John Brown to run by everybody, or Michael Crabtree to be big and strong to be able to make those great plays that he makes. I have to work just as hard as anybody else to stand out.”
"He’s a football player. That’s the easiest way to describe it. There’s a toughness element to him you appreciate.” Saints HC Sean Payton
Snead had to become good at everything. He had to have an edge. So he did all the little things right.
“He’s highly intelligent, he has fantastic hands, he’s savvy, he's fantastic when it comes to blocking,” Payton said this week. “He’s a football player. That’s the easiest way to describe it. There’s a toughness element to him you appreciate.”
Once Snead got his chance, it didn’t take long for him to stand out.
After his strong summer, the Saints piled work on Snead’s plate, and he ate it up. He started eight games and caught 69 passes for 984 yards and three touchdowns during his true rookie season in 2015. The following year, he snagged 72 passes for 895 yards and four scores.
“Man, I love Willie,” Brees said this week. “We had developed a great rapport, had a lot of trust, just from the time on task that we had together. ... [He is] one of those guys that I thought I was going to be playing with for a long time.”
Snead IV served as a camp counselor at the Manning Passing Academy outside of New Orleans for four straight years. It wasn’t until 2016 that he was first recognized by the campers. He had become one of the NFL’s young stud receivers.
“That’s what my whole story is about – taking advantages of the opportunities I get,” Snead said. “After that 2016 season … wow, yeah, I felt very confident.”
What a Difference a Year Can Make
It was around 6 a.m. and Snead was driving home from a night out in New Orleans. He had stayed out too late, was awake for 23 hours straight, and was tired. Then he made the worst decision by far by getting behind the wheel of a car.
Being too prideful and macho, he thought he could make it home. Less than a mile away, he fell asleep.
Snead’s Jeep Wrangler crossed the median and into oncoming traffic. He sideswiped a car with two people in it and did a 180-degree spin. The jolt from the crash was what woke him up.
“Where am I?” he thought.
The police came and put him through a field sobriety test. He reportedly measured in at a .125 percent. The legal limit in Louisiana is .08. Arrested. Booked. Mugshot.
“I might have really [messed] this up,” Snead remembers thinking. “If those people would have died, I could’ve been in jail right now.”
Snead called his mom first. She’s helped him out with a lot of stuff over the years, and has a softer touch than his dad. Then he called Jordan Williams, a fellow Saints wide receiver and college teammate at Ball State, to come bail him out.
The incident stayed under wraps for nearly three months, but Snead practiced as he waited for the other shoe to drop. Eventually it did: a three-game suspension from the NFL that included entering the league’s drug and alcohol program, which he's still in.
“I made a bad decision, and it cost me a lot,” Snead said this week. “It cost me my whole season, pretty much.”
With the suspension looming, Snead felt he wasn’t getting as many on-field opportunities as he would’ve otherwise had that summer. Then he suffered a hamstring injury, which only added to his health woes after having toe surgery in January.
Eager to make an impact, Snead rushed back onto the field following his suspension, but he wasn’t totally healthy. He made just one catch for 11 yards over the six games following his return. He wasn't playing well in games or practice because he was basically on one leg. He heard coaches thought he was out of shape.
The Saints, meanwhile, got on a roll with wide receiver Michael Thomas and running back Alvin Kamara emerging as a deadly 1-2 punch with Brees, and they weren’t about to slow down to fold Snead back into the mix, even once he was healthy.
Snead went to Payton’s office a couple times to ask what was up. One time, Payton stood on top of his desk in a demonstrative show of how much he cared about Snead. But things didn’t change. Snead was targeted by just 16 passes all season, down from 104 the year before.
“Their confidence wasn’t really into me anymore,” Snead said. “The season last year was just totally different from the years before. If you don’t have time with Drew, you really get phased out.”
Snead was given one huge chance to make an impact. In the Divisional Playoff game against the Minnesota Vikings, the Saints were down by six points in the fourth quarter and tried a trick play on third-and-1. Brees threw the ball behind the line of scrimmage to Snead, who then launched it to a wide-open Kamara streaking down the other sideline.
But Snead put too much zip on the pass, and it fell just out of Kamara's reach. Snead screamed with frustration as the cameras zoomed in on his tortured face. The Saints eventually lost on an even crazier play that left rookie safety Marcus Williams as the fall guy, but the missed touchdown was haunting.
“To miss by inches … the whole season was there in that one moment,” Snead said. “That emotion was the whole 2017 season right there. What a difference a year can make.”
The Love Is Mutual in Baltimore
Snead was a restricted free agent this offseason, so it wasn’t a good time for the worst year of his football career. Yet when the Saints assigned him a low tender, it was a bit of a relief. It opened the door for a fresh start elsewhere.
The Ravens had always been interested in Snead. It took longer than anyone would’ve liked (Snead had to awkwardly continue working out with the Saints after visiting Baltimore), but eventually the Ravens signed him to a two-year deal in late April.
“I think I was just really excited for something new,” Snead said. “Last year just left a bitter taste in my mouth. I just wanted to go somewhere where I’m wanted."
In Baltimore, Snead found plenty of new and people who had long desired his services.
Wide Receivers Coach Bobby Engram was the person who called Snead to recruit him as an undrafted free agent in 2014. General Manager Ozzie Newsome has also told Snead on multiple occasions how he's wanted him for a while. Harbaugh joked this week that he wants all the credit for bringing Snead to Baltimore.
"We knew him from the draft, loved him at Ball State," Harbaugh said. "He’s always been really one of the favorites around here. Then to have the chance, the way that things fell together, to bring him here was something we were just thrilled about, because he fit us so well."
The Ravens had cleaned out their receiving corps and rebuilt it with Brown, Crabtree and now Snead. He was the final piece, added to be the underneath, move-the-sticks, gritty blocker guy.
“[He’s been] exactly what we were looking for, what we hoped he would be when we signed him,” Harbaugh said. “He can go inside or outside, but man, he makes some – they call them ‘blood-area’ catches. That’s where he thrives.”
Just look at Snead's first touchdown catch as a Raven, which also came in his first game as a Raven. In a steady rain, the barehanded Snead caught a dart on a slant, got sandwiched by two Buffalo Bills defenders and still stretched over the goal line for the score. He's been a steady, reliable spark plug.
Snead's biggest production so far this season was seven catches for 60 yards in Tennessee. His lowest production was three catches for 39 yards versus Denver. He’s been Mr. Consistent.
Brees said he “loves” Willie three times in the course of two questions this week. Now that Snead’s in Baltimore, the Ravens feel the same way, and it's once again mutual.
“I love it here, man,” Snead said. “I just hope I can stay longer than two years.”
So what will the emotions be like this Sunday when Snead faces off against his former team? Snead told the assembled media Wednesday that he has to approach it like it’s just another team, but he’s had it circled on his calendar for a while.
“I have so many relationships in that locker room that it’s kind of an uneasy feeling that I have to play these guys,” Snead said. “But I’m looking forward to it because I want to stick it to them.”