How the Saints kept Willie Snead from slipping through the cracks

Willie Snead is on pace to record 983 receiving yards this season. Not bad for a guy who went undrafted last year, his speed a concern for NFL teams. Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY Sports

METAIRIE, La. -- Terry Fontenot laughed at the memory of Willie Snead's workout last December.

The New Orleans Saints' pro scouting director said Snead came in and looked great. He was catching the ball and running crisp routes. And as he worked out, coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis were being debriefed on Snead's background.

"Obviously they know the player and remember him from the draft meetings and the preseason meeting. But there's a lot of players that go through their heads," Fontenot said. "So you start reading him: 'Coach's kid, smart, tough, athletic, film-room and weight-room junkie.'

"And Coach Payton's looking at you, like, 'Why isn't he here already?'"

A lot of NFL teams must be asking themselves that same question now that Snead is a starting receiver, on pace for 983 yards this season.

Snead went undrafted last year out of Ball State and was cut by two teams -- the Cleveland Browns and the Carolina Panthers -- before landing on New Orleans' practice squad.

His story is a great example of everything that's right and wrong about the NFL scouting process.

Many teams -- the Saints included, at first -- dismissed Snead because he is 5-foot-11 and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.6 seconds. Such numbers often supersede stats like Snead's 223 catches and 2,991 receiving yards in college, which rank second in Ball State history.

But he got that critical third chance because teams like the Saints never stop mining for talent.

"I definitely had to fight that [stigma]," Snead said of his size and speed and undrafted status. "It wasn't looking good for me. But I was always confident in myself. I just needed an opportunity at the time. And I ended up getting it with the Saints."

New Orleans has a history of giving such opportunities to unheralded receivers, including Marques Colston and Lance Moore. Snead particularly draws comparisons to Moore, another undersized, undrafted MAC receiver.

But even Fontenot admits the Saints passed over Snead more than once in favor of a couple bigger, faster guys. They signed undrafted receivers Brandon Coleman and Seantavius Jones last spring and kept both on their practice squad.

"We had decent grades on Snead coming out and really liked him," Fontenot said, adding that Snead was graded highly by area scouts Dwaune Jones and Jason Mitchell. "I remember the guys kind of raving about his background and his makeup. ... I specifically remember Jason Mitchell talking about his character and his makeup and how he'd be a great fit.

"But yet he's 5-11, runs a 4.6. And then you've got Brandon Coleman, who's freakin' 6-6, runs a 4.5. Seantavius Jones is 6-3. So it's not like we didn't know [Snead] or didn't like him, but at that point we had those guys maybe a little ahead of him."

Snead continued to catch the Saints' eye during the 2014 preseason. Although the time frame is much more condensed, the scouting process for NFL teams is nearly as exhaustive during the preseason as it is in the college season.

Fontenot said the Saints' four pro scouts are each assigned three or four NFL teams to monitor, while the college-area scouts will generally be assigned two teams each. They grade everyone who was drafted in the fifth round or lower, including some second- or third-year players. If the player grades high enough, he'll get a cross-check, as Snead did.

"The same thing, [pro scout Ryan Powell] gave him a really good grade and said, 'Man, he's smart, he's tough. He might not be the fastest guy, might not be the biggest guy, but he runs really good routes, he catches the ball really well. He competes in the kicking game, he's a physical blocker.'" Fontenot said. "But yet, we keep Brandon Coleman and Seantavius Jones. We're excited about our guys, too."

Things changed in early December when the Saints promoted Jones to their active roster and had an opening on the practice squad. Snead was the Saints' highest-graded developmental receiver at the time, so they brought him in for a workout.

Teams will typically have one "ready list" for veterans who can step in and play on Sundays and another list for developmental guys.

"He has an awesome workout, he just fits in really well, everybody loves him, and we sign him and it's history," Fontenot said.

Coleman and Jones remain with the Saints, but Coleman has played sparingly as the fourth receiver, while Jones is back on the practice squad.

Snead said he was "very surprised" he didn't make it in Cleveland, where he signed after the draft and lasted through training camp. He finished the preseason strong and thought the offensive coaching staff really wanted him there.

Snead later spent six weeks on the Panthers' practice squad. He said he was surprised but "not shocked" when Carolina let him go because he had been signed as an injury fill-in. Snead's agent, Jim Miller, said the Panthers pursued Snead again when it came time to sign players to futures contracts after the season, but Snead felt better about the opportunity in New Orleans.

"He's a bright young football player, just getting better, just needed somewhere to have an opportunity," Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula told ESPN.com's David Newton. "You kind of sensed that when he was here."

When asked why Snead didn't stick even with Carolina needing receiver help, Shula said, "Those were tough decisions. We feel like we've got some smart guys, hungry, good hands. But, yeah, you'd like to have them all and develop them all."

Snead could have met the same fate in New Orleans this year.

Throughout the offseason, Payton and quarterback Drew Brees talked up the potential of Coleman and Jones. Snead didn't really register on the radar publicly until he started making plays throughout camp.

Still, it was hard to tell from the outside if Snead was the next Moore or the next Andy Tanner -- a former Saints camp sensation who was loved by coaches and teammates but never found a role on the active roster.

Fontenot said the Tanner comparison was brought up during internal discussions. But even if Snead didn't earn a top receiver role, the special-teams coaches loved him.

Snead had pretty much every intangible going for him -- including unique measurables like 10¼-inch hands and 33-inch arms, both of which ranked near the top the 2014 draft class. He has a wider catch radius than his size suggests.

Snead was also a star quarterback in high school, where he threw for more than 2,000 yards and ran for more than 1,000 as a senior and was named Michigan's Division 5-6 Player of the Year. He played for his dad in high school, and he even joined him to work as a camp counselor at the Manning Passing Academy with Archie, Peyton and Eli in Southern Louisiana one summer.

Snead's knowledge of the game helps him run precise routes.

"I take a lot of pride in my route running because I'm not the fastest guy on the field, so I have to separate somehow," Snead said.

Snead's route running earned him the trust of his quarterback. Brees agreed with the Moore comparison and said Snead's body language and decision-making make him "an easy guy to read."

That allowed Snead to vault into the Saints' fourth-receiver role by Week 1, secure the No. 3 job by Week 2 and claim a starting job for most of the season (ahead of Colston).

"As soon as he got on campus and as soon as he got in the building, you see everything coming out," Fontenot said. "He's the first one in, he's the last one out. He's an extremely hard worker. All those things that were identified back in college.

"He came in and just absolutely took off."