Written by Tyler Dunne
He’s waiting for a call. Until then? Willie Snead IV details his inner motivation (a murdered friend), why the Ravens’ offense falls short (hello, Roman) and how he’s changing lives in Florida.
This is a strange time of year for so many damn good football players. Hundreds of rookies fill 90-man rosters across the league, forcing proven vets like wide receiver Willie Snead IV to wait.
Teams know what he can do. In ‘15 and ‘16, his first two pro seasons with the New Orleans Saints, Snead caught 141 balls for 1,879 yards with seven touchdowns. Then, things got weird. Swapping Sean Payton for Greg Roman didn’t do wonders for his career. His Baltimore Ravens won plenty of games over his three seasons with the club but — as we know — this is the opposite of a WR-friendly scheme.
Snead spent the 2021 season buried on the Las Vegas Raiders’ depth chart and, now, is waiting for the right situation.
In today’s Q&A, which can also be heard on the Go Long Podcast, we get into…
- That Ravens passing offense. Was future Hall-of-Famer Steve Smith correct to lambast Roman’s scheme as elementary? Is this why Marquise “Hollywood” Brown asked for a trade? Snead sheds light.
- The murder of his best friend, Eric Patterson. They were college teammates at Ball State and Patterson, a cornerback, briefly played in the NFL himself. Then, in June 2019, someone broke into his Florida home and gunned down the 26-year-old. The killer remains unknown.
- How this relationship helped mold Snead’s rugged play style as a wide receiver.
- Changing lives today. Like most all pros out of South Florida, Snead says so much talent never finds a way out. With his dad, he’s trying to change that. Together, they founded Palm Beach Christian Prep School.
- Why we can all benefit from zapping social media apps from our iPhones.
What is this time like for you? You’re proven. We’ve seen it. Imagine you’re putting yourself in different situations, different offenses and you’d like to be choosy. But you want a job, too. What’s the decision-making process like right now?
Snead: Right now, it’s seeing what the right fit is for me. I feel like I’ve been in every type of offense this league can throw at me. And I’ve mastered all of it. Going into another year — I’m turning 30 this year — I’ve got four or five years left in me. I want my next place to be the right place so I’m not getting lost again. I think a lot of people forgot about me when I went to Baltimore because they were so run-oriented vs. New Orleans, which was straight pass. I was able to show my skill-set when it comes to route running, catching, being explosive after catching the football. I just got more chances in a traditional West Coast offense more than an unconventional offense like the Ravens. That’s going into my decision-making — finally get the right team, the right fit for me and just trying to find a team where I see myself helping them get to a Super Bowl. The ultimate goal.
You’re a few catches away from back-to-back, 1,000-yard seasons to start your career right out of the chute, out of Ball State. Then, you get to Baltimore and that’s just how they did it. It was a totally different offense.
Snead: When I first came in with (Michael) Crabtree and John Brown, (Joe) Flacco was the quarterback and it was more West Coast, traditional. But when they made the transition from Joe to Lamar, that’s when they started really leaning on the run and Lamar’s run ability. I still finished that year leading the team in catches, but the two years after that it was overwhelmingly like 70 percent run and 30 percent pass. It wasn’t a slot-friendly offense. So, that’s why I went to the Raiders last year. I wanted to reinvent myself as a pass-catcher. That’s the goal this offseason.
And it’s not just the 70/30, right? We heard Steve Smith’s rant on NFL Network. I’d imagine he was speaking for several Ravens receivers on the route concepts, or lack thereof, with Greg Roman.
Snead: Yeah, it’s tough. When we’re comparing Greg Roman to a Sean Payton offense or Greg Roman to a Jon Gruden offense, it’s like night and day. There’s a lot more creativity in the passing game. If the Ravens had more creativity in the passing game and they put more emphasis on it during the season, I think more receivers would be open to coming. Because Lamar is a great player to play with. He’s all about the team. He’s fun. He brings the energy every single day. You want to play with quarterbacks like that. But the system pushes guys away. That’s why the Ravens are always drafting two receivers every year. They keep them young. They keep them locked in on contracts, but for an older veteran guy coming in, he might get one shot to do this. I don’t know if the Ravens are going to be that one shot for them unless you’re a tight end or a big-bodied receiver who can win those 50/50 balls.
Hollywood Brown knows he’s up for a contract soon, so he says, “Get me the hell out of here.”
Snead: I know. He had to do what was best for him. I don’t blame him. He’s been frustrated the past couple seasons. He has a contract coming up and he wants to put himself in the best position to get paid.
When you say “night and day,” what does that look like as a receiver? What does a Sean Payton offense look like with those route concepts vs. what you had in Baltimore?
Snead: A lot more motion, shifting, trying to create matchups. Get those 1-on-1 matchups in space. I know Sean wasn’t big into play-action off the run game but he’ll get into that empty set and go five wide and start throwing different types of concepts at you that make defenses start to bite and here comes a wide-open hole across the middle. That’s gameplan specific. That’s Sean Payton, Jon Gruden. Those guys are from Bill Parcells all the way down. That’s the tree right there. That’s the offense for them. Greg Roman is just more run-heavy. He’s got misdirection. He’s got play action. He’s got power game. He’ll be a hell of a run-game coordinator in somebody’s offense, but I just think the passing game needs a little bit more juice. It’s kind of been like that for the past couple years. It’s something they do.
It’s tough. The tight ends get more creativity than the receivers. I don’t want to say the playcalling in itself, but when you’re putting in plays vs. certain defenses you know what certain stuff is going to work and what isn’t going to work. So every week has to be a brand-new gameplan for this specific team. Now if you’re just copying and pasting from one week to the other, you see in the NFL, these defensive coordinators are great. So if they see something once or see it twice, they’re going to lock that in and you probably won’t be able to get it that time. You’ve got to be able to shift guys around and have different motions to make it look like one thing and it’s completely different. Those types of coaches take it to the next level, like Sean McVay and Matt LaFleur. Those guys put guys in position. They’ll shift and motion guys to identify that matchup and then exploit it. Those are the offenses I would like to be in and I know Hollywood is in that spot now where you can showcase all of your talent, all of your passing game. Not just the run game.
How do you keep your head? That is the prime of your career. And how do you now get a second wind?
Snead: In it, I was just having fun. We had great teammates. I just maximized my role for what they wanted me to do. I came to work every day, being that professional leading the young guys. And we were winning games at the time. I’m all about the team. It’s one thing to be winning games, and you contribute here and there. It’s another to lose games. It’s a different feeling. When you’re winning, everything’s good. I think that 2019-2020 year, I knew my role in that offense. It wasn’t going to be anything different. I just had to do what I had to do to make it work. When you have great players around you in the run game and the pass game, you just want to find a place to help the team. That’s what Baltimore’s always been about — team, team, team. When I went there, I fit into the mold. I was a vet so guys leaned on me in certain situations. But I just always came to work ready to go. I didn’t really have an attitude, whether I had five catches here or two catches the last game. I just always knew that every week was a new week, a new opportunity coming. That’s how you always have to look at it whatever team you go to. You have to have that mindset that every week is a new week and your opportunity is going to be that next opportunity. That’s what always kept me in it.
To get heavy, when you read about your upbringing and your college career, it seems like you have a different motivation. One of your best friends was Eric Patterson. I had no idea how he passed and how much that really affected you at a really important juncture in your life.
Snead: That was my best friend, man. We got to know each other pretty well at Ball State. We went against each other every single day. He made me sharper. I made him sharper. We maximized our opportunity at Ball State. When he passed three, four years ago, it hit me hard. Four years tomorrow, he passed away. It was right at the end of OTAs. It hit me like a ton of bricks. I really couldn’t believe it at the time. My other best friend called me crying. I didn’t really understand. When he could actually get it all out and told me what was going on, it was a big blow. I tried to use that as motivation. He was a fan of Lamar Jackson before anybody was on the Lamar Jackson bandwagon. He had a Lamar Jackson jersey on. That last game we played in 2018, against the Chargers in the playoffs, he was a Lamar Jackson fan. He was all for Lamar. The next year, he has his MVP season. I dedicated that 2019 season to him because he was a really, really close friend of mine and I have a really tight circle. He was one of those guys. That gave me extra motivation because I use faith, family and then Eric was just that extra motivation I needed to continue to keep striving for better.
How competitive was it between you two in those college practices day-in and day-out? It sounds like that’s how you hit it off.
Snead: We would come to blows sometimes. It got like that. We’re both Florida kids. He’s from Tampa. I’m from Palm Beach. So that fire for football is already built up inside of us. When you’re going against good competition and somebody’s going to make you better, you really want to go at him every day. I wanted to go against him every single day. That’s how it was. He’d win his 1-on-1’s. I’d get mine over the top sometimes on him. He was a hell of an athlete. He challenged me to be the best and I think that’s why I was so good my last two years when I got 1,100 yards and, my last year, 1,500. Those spring practices, those training camps, we used to go at it. I can’t even explain it. They used to have to separate us.
We’re talking fights at practice. It got that intense?
Snead: Talking trash and everything. It gets intense. I carried that into the league. When I was in Baltimore, my last couple years, I was going at DBs like that — Marlon Humphrey, Marcus Peters, I just took that extra emphasis to go after corners. I know if I go at him hard and I win here? They’re going to win in the game. I took that mentality wherever I went. I’ve got to give him the best rep every single time. I don’t care who he is. That’s just that competitor in me. And I think all those years at Ball State with Eric — us going back and forth — that just carried over into the league.
You watch your style of play at wide receiver and it really is an extension of those practices. Those battles with Eric Patterson. You’re physical. You’re violent. You don’t shy from contact. Was it all born there? In those 1-on-1’s at Ball State?
Snead: Pretty much. I always had a nose for the football and going over the middle. I seek contact. I used to play defense in high school so I was already physical by nature. So me catching the ball or taking a hit or taking two hits — I look for that type of stuff. I’ve been smart over the years because you have to know when the journey’s over so to speak. If there’s a goal line in front of me I’m going to run somebody over to get it. If I’m going over the middle and I know I’m going to take a hit or I’m in the end zone and I’m going to take a hit, you have to seek the ball. You have to attack the ball. That carried over. That was always built in me. A lot of guys don’t do that. They see that stuff across the middle, they see bodies flying around. It’s hard in the middle of the field. That’s why everybody stays outside. For me, I’ve always been a natural-born catcher and smooth at the top of my routes. So when I got into the league, they put me more in the slot. So, I was working inside more. That was an adjustment. But I just think the physicality, the toughness of my nature is why they’d put me in there. When you’re going against linebackers and safeties who are bigger than you, you’ve got to have some type of toughness about you. Some grit. That’s what they identified me as: “This kid can run over the middle.”
That can be your edge then. Not everybody is willing to go across the middle. That’s still a Bermuda Triangle. You can still get tagged over the middle. So maybe 20-30 receivers get drafted, but not all of them are able to go into that part of the field like you?
Snead: You’ve got to be ready to go when you go in there. Over the years, I’ve built it up. I’ve built the confidence to do that. Just watching film and studying prepares you for all of that. When you’re going in there, you already know what’s going to happen. You have to be able to catch it and make the play.
So, Eric was gunned down by an intruder in his own home. In Tampa. You’re getting the news from a friend. What is going through your head when you hear that?
Snead: It’s tough, man. The crazy thing is, I had talked to Eric like two days before that. He was talking about coming to minicamp. When that stuff happens, you can’t even control it. You feel helpless in that moment. All I could do was pray for his family and his spirit. I know he was a man of God, so I don’t have anything to worry about with his spirit and the afterlife. But just losing a friend that close, I’m sure anybody can relate who lost somebody. It’s a shock. It takes weeks, months to get over. I think it took that whole year to really understand and come to terms with my best friend who I used to call every week, who used to check in on me every week to make sure I was ready to go, he isn’t going to be making that call anymore. It hurts. I never lost a friend like that before so it challenged me in a different way. It was really unfortunate how it happened to him. To this day, they still haven’t found who is involved or what happened to Eric.
In the moment, (police) said they didn’t think it was random but they were investigating it. His dad begged and pleaded (for the killer) to be a man and come forward — whoever did this — and Eric left behind a six-year-old and a seven-month-old. There’s no leads. Nothing at all?
Snead: No, man. It’s hard. It’s something that will eventually come out. You have a lot of people who are cowards in this world. You just have to be careful. That’s what I try to tell my students I have with me now at our school — “You have to watch who you work with. You have to watch how you move. There’s always somebody out there who’s hating on you.” That’s all that was. Somebody was hating on Eric. He was trying to change his life and trying to do the right things. But you have one or two people who really envy people and they take it to that extreme. It sucks. Gun violence is out of control right now. You always have to be careful and watch who you hang with.
You don’t have any idea yourself? It was just somebody who’s envious?
Snead: Yeah, absolutely.
You mentioned your school. How are you giving back now?
Snead: This offseason has been full of pouring into the youth at our school. Me and my father, we came up with the idea two years ago to open up an all-boys Christian school here in West Palm Beach. At first it was tough. A lot of politics and buying land. You’ve got a lot of hoops to jump through. But once word got out, we had a small group of kids. Like 10 to 12. It started with workouts and we had eight-man a year ago. Now, this offseason, we sprouted up to 25 kids and we just got done with our first school semester and the core GPA for the class, for the 25 kids, was like a 3.4. These are kids coming from high schools where they were low grades or they were in a system that didn’t fit for them. We took these kids from different areas and put them all in one group and we put them to work — both on the field and off the field. They’ve taken it and run with it. We had eight-man football this year and we went undefeated in this league and went all the way to Orlando and won this state championship. That’s a testament to these kids. They put in the work. There’s so much talent down here in South Florida. That’s the whole reason we opened up the school. When I was growing up, I had friends who were so much more talented than me but the reason they didn’t make it out and I did was because I chose to make the right decisions. Or I chose to work hard. Or I chose to do something different from what the norm is. I think that’s what these kids nowadays are getting caught up in. They get caught in the norm. They get caught up in what everybody else is doing in the streets instead of them prioritizing their time and putting school before everything and putting their workouts before everything. When they’re done, staying in the house. Doing something productive. Not being out in the streets and doing nonsense that can get you in trouble. That’s really the emphasis behind it and these kids have blossomed from it.
All of my time has been focused up with that. That’s why this offseason has gone by so quick even though I haven’t been at OTAs or minicamp. I’ve been working football with these kids. I’ve been staying sharp. These workouts themselves, these kids push me because they’re younger and I’m older. So, they push me to another level. It’s really worked out. The school has been awesome. It’s really starting to grow. It’s awesome to see how far it’s come in two years.
We’ve had Lamar Jackson’s private quarterbacks coach, Joshua Harris, on at Go Long and he has talked about adults literally gambling on Pop Warner games. The scene there, you’ve got so much talent and so much speed. And every single NFL player who has come out of there says the same thing — that they weren’t even the best out of their group of friends. Yet those kids couldn’t get out. They get caught up into the streets. Is that what you’re trying to take on with this school?
Snead: With some of the guys who made it out of Palm Beach, one common denominator we’ve all had is a positive influence in our life. Most of the kids nowadays are missing that. When they go to influences — whatever it is — it’s not always positive. You get negative thoughts. It’s all negative, man. And when you’re talking to a kid who’s 14 or 15 years old in that way, you’re not bringing him up. Most of these kids are going to go home and tell themselves, “I’m not good enough.” If they’re not strong-minded to the point of, “No, I don’t believe that. I put in all the work. I’m doing this every single day. I’m doing the right stuff. It’s going to come out of me.” Most kids don’t think like that. These kids need a positive role model that’s going to tell them how to do things the right way and show them how. When you do that? When you did a collective group of kids doing the right things? Now, you’re creating leaders. When those leaders are established in our school like they are now, those 12 or 15 kids we had, I tell them: “You’re the leaders now. You’re the foundation. So whoever comes up in here and pulls up? They need to know this is how we do things. There is no their way. It’s our way. This is what got you a state championship. This is what will give you all a great season.” Most of the guys in Palm Beach don’t have that positive role model. I was always fortunate with my father. Lamar was fortunate with his quarterbacks coach and his mom is such a positive light in his life. You can go down the list to Anquan (Boldin), to Santonio Holmes, all those guys always had a positive person whether it was a parent or a coach that kept them on that straight path instead of veering off to the left or the right when somebody else tells them something.
We don’t talk about that enough. There’s a lot wrong in society, and we can get into policies, but at the end of the day it helps to have a dad around, a parent around, somebody that is being a strong influence in your life.
Snead: Yep, yep. And that’s the thing, too. A lot of kids in our program come from single-parent homes. When that extra element is missing, there’s a void there you have to fill in. I think me and my family have taken on that role to somehow fill that void. Whether it’s a conversation, a workout or school. Just holding kids accountable to the point where they’re telling themselves: “I’ve got to do better. This ain’t acceptable.” When we get to that point? Man, the sky’s the limit for these kids. Because you have to think, I’m almost done with football. That next generation of kids is coming in. Most of them don’t have their head on straight. They’re looking at Twitter and Instagram thinking that stuff is realistic. But back in the day — back in the 2000s — you didn’t have social media to go to. You had to put in that work and those scholarships would roll in. Now, these kids are looking at Instagram and they think all that stuff is real on there. I’m like, “Dude. Look. If you turned off your phone for half the day, you would accomplish so much more than what you’re doing right now.” That’s the thing I’m trying to put in their head now. Social media is not all real. Probably 20 percent of that stuff is real on there. Everything else is clout and for likes. Don’t get caught up in that stuff because then it becomes a distraction. It’s already a distraction. You just don’t want it to continue to be one.
You’re preaching. I’ve got two kids — 2 ½ and 10 months — and am already getting terrified with Instagram, Twitter and Tik Tok. How do we fight against this? It’s something so dominant in kids’ lives. Like you said, shut the phone off and get outside and experience life. That’s what sparks creativity in your brain.
Snead: It’s nothing you can really control for them. You have to teach them how to manage it. You’ve got to be able to know how to manage when to take a break, when to shut it off. Spend time with your family. Read a book. Do some more schoolwork. Go out and workout. There’s so much more you can do instead of just being on your phone for the next 30 minutes to two hours. Because that’s how fast it can go. That’s what we try to tell them. I don’t like to control our kids at all. I try to teach them how to manage things. If you can manage it and have control over it, then you’ll be good. There’s nothing wrong with social media but when it becomes overwhelming or it’s something that’s overtaking your life? If you look to your phone as soon as you wake up and go to social media, you’ve got a problem. If that’s the first thing you’re thinking about getting up, what are you doing? What’s the point of getting up? What’s the purpose for your day? I get caught up in that, too. I’ll get up and go straight to my phone. Twitter. Instagram. Who’s getting signed where. It’s that quick. Before you know it, you’re walking out the door and you haven’t had time to kiss the kids. It becomes a distraction. It’s about trying to manage those things.
There’s a great speaker, I think Simon Sinek, who said what you just did. If your first instinct is to check your phone, that’s an addiction. That’s a problem. So many of us do it.
Snead: It’s crazy. Everybody does it. It is some type of an addiction. People don’t like to say that because everybody does it. But it is the truth. You just have to be able to control that stuff and identify it. If you identify it, you’re trying to change for the good.
What do you like to do then? Any good books that you’ve read lately? Interests and hobbies that help you get away from social media?
Snead: I’ve got two little girls. One is about to be eight. Another just turned five. So they take up a lot of my time. I try to read to them. I’m always working out. Like 7:30 to noon is full of workouts. The rest of my day is with my kids. We go to the pool. I read some books half the time. I’m in the Word most of the time trying to pick pieces from there just to help me with my life. I just try to go to different devotionals. I listen to podcasts all the time, trying to get different messages and peoples’ wisdom to help me in my own walk. That’s what my day is full of. I’ve really taken this time to spend a lot of time with my family. The past seven years, I’d go to OTAs and minicamp and my family doesn’t come with me to those situations. So, I’m usually alone. I’m in football. I’m getting to know my daughters and be a Dad to them. I’ve really appreciated that and cherished that this year. It has really impacted my relationship with them. I got married in March. I’ve gotten to spend time with my wife. We went on a honeymoon. All this stuff I probably wouldn’t have been able to do if I was in OTAs or minicamp. It’s been a blessing in its own way. I try to look at the positive light in that way.
We’re been together nine years and we just tied the knot this offseason. I was like, “Let’s do it. Let’s do it.”
Anything else you want people to know about you, and where you’re taking your life?
Snead: I’m the furthest thing from retiring. Last year just wasn’t the best year for me. I really didn’t get the opportunity I thought I was going to get in Vegas. I’m trying to find that right place to stick so I can show people I can play at a really high level. I still have a lot of juice in the tank, man. It’s just waiting for that right team, that right system to come get me so I can help that team get better. I feel like every team I go to, I find a way to make that team better. Until then, I’ll be here in South Florida pouring some good stuff in these kids’ lives trying to change the direction of their lives and make an impact in another positive light.
Vegas had to be insanity last year with everything that you went through as a team.
Snead: Nobody could’ve written that story. The only reason I went there was because Jon Gruden called my phone personally and told me he wanted me to be a Raider. I didn’t really have any intentions of being a Raider because I felt like they did have a good group of receivers. They did have guys who were there for a couple years. When Gruden calls you and tells you he wants you there — and that you’re going to reinvent your career as a pass catcher — I took the cheese. It sounded like it was too good to be true. And then everything unfolded the way it did. The crazy thing is, I went from 60-plus snaps to getting two snaps a game. I was like, “I’m not that bad of a receiver where I can’t get at least 10 to 12 plays?” Even though Hunter Renfrow and Ruggs are doing well, it’s like, “I’m not an undrafted rookie.” I played seven, eight years in this league. I’ve got playoff experience. It just wasn’t a good situation for me. A lot of GMs and coaches aren’t sure what happened with that. I try to tell them that it just wasn’t the best fit for me. It doesn’t mean my career’s over. I’m in the best shape of my life. It has to be the right situation, the right team, the right offense for me to fit into so I can make an impact for that team and help them win some games like I’ve done in the early part of my career.
That’s like a bait and switch. The head coach is calling you personally and luring you over there and then you’re on the bench.
Snead: I endured it for like five weeks, then the Gruden stuff happened where he got fired. I let it go for like two weeks. After he left, the whole dynamics totally changed. It was basically, “You’re getting nothing. And you have to be happy with getting nothing.” I’m like, “I can’t be here for that. I didn’t sign up for that.” I don’t want people to hold that against me, but I had to do what was best for me at that point in time. I’m ready to go. I’m excited. I’m hungry. I’m ready to play.
Not time to reflect on the career quite yet. You’re still writing it.
Snead: Oh man, I’m still writing it. It’s just a new chapter coming up.