OWINGS MILLS, Md. (AP) — Willie Snead has a knack for weaving through a row of linebackers in the middle of the field before making a clutch catch for the Baltimore Ravens.
Such was the case last Sunday against Tennessee, when Snead squeezed between two defenders for a 24-yard gain on a third-and-17 from the Baltimore 15.
“He’s on the ground, he makes the catch, he’s getting pushed back to the ground, stepped all over, and he just gets up and gives the first-down signal right there in the guy’s face,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “That’s the kind of competitor he is. He’s all ball, all the time.”
Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome rarely chases restricted free agents, but he made an exception with Snead this past offseason after it became apparent that the receiver’s three-year run in New Orleans was done.
One of Drew Brees’ favorite targets in 2015 and 2016, Snead began last season with a three-game suspension for violating the NFL personal conduct policy. He then fought a hamstring injury and finished with just eight catches for 92 yards and no touchdowns.
Armed with a two-year, $10.4 million contract, Snead was delighted to arrive in Baltimore last April.
“Last year just left a really bitter taste in my mouth, the organization and how everything was handled,” Snead said Tuesday. “To be a part of this organization was just a breath of fresh air. I wanted to go somewhere where I’m wanted.”
It couldn’t have worked out better for Snead — and the Ravens.
“To see that you were right, to see all that come together and him play so well, being exactly what you thought you were going to get, is very rewarding,” Harbaugh said.
Snead was one of three free agent receivers signed by Newsome in an effort to enhance a passing game that sputtered in 2017. Snead is the possession receiver, Michael Crabtree provides an outside threat and John Brown is the speedster.
Snead and Crabtree are tied for the team lead with 30 catches. Brown has 21 receptions for a team-high 424 yards and three touchdowns.
“I don’t have the physical ability like John Brown to run by you, and I’m not big and strong like Michael Crabtree,” Snead observed, “so I have to work harder than everybody else just to stand out.”
That’s how it’s always been for Snead, who finally finds himself in a place where his talent is acknowledged and appreciated.
“This is a guy that’s been doubted his whole career — high school, college and the NFL,” Harbaugh said. “So I’m fine if they keep doubting him.”
After starring as a quarterback at Muskegon Heights in Michigan, Snead played three years as a receiver at Ball State before going undrafted in 2014. He finally made it to the NFL the following year.
“Coming out of college, (people said) I left too early, I wasn’t ready to play in the NFL,” Snead recalled. “And in the NFL, it was, ‘Is he fast enough to separate? Can he make those plays in clutch situations?’ I’ve always been doubted.”
“I’ll tell you one thing, Willie comes Sunday ready to play,” Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said. “He’s one of the toughest guys I’ve been around.”
This Sunday, the Ravens (4-2) host the Saints (4-1). Snead insists this wasn’t one of those games that he circled on the calendar.
“This is another team. I have to approach it that way just to stay focused,” Snead said.
New Orleans coach Sean Payton has seen enough of Snead this season to know he’s a threat with the ball, and without it.
“He has a tremendous amount of grit. You see him making plays on third down,” Payton said. “He’s an outstanding blocker. He’ll come across in motion, he’ll get to the point of attack in the run game, but he’ll also find the holes in the zone and man-to-man coverages.”
The 5-foot-11, 205-pound Snead has no problem mixing it up with anyone, large or small, at any spot on the field.
“He can go inside or outside, but man, he makes some — scouts call them blood area — catches,” Harbaugh said. “In the middle, that’s where he thrives.”
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