With the Super Bowl in the rear-view mirror, the focus is now entirely on 2020. The next important point on the offseason agenda will be free agency, which starts on March 18 and projects to be a big one for the New England Patriots: not only does the team have 19 players whose current contracts will expire — including quarterback Tom Brady — it also will need to use its limited resources to build a foundation for the upcoming season.
Up until the start of free agency, we will therefore take a look at some players who might interest the Patriots. Today, the series continues with wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders.
Position: Wide receiver
Opening day age: 33
Size: 5’11, 180 lbs
Experience: A third-round draft pick by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2010, Sanders immediately carved out a role on the team’s offense which caused the Patriots to extend a restricted free agent offer sheet in 2013. Pittsburgh matched the deal and Sanders returned for another season before ultimately joining the Denver Broncos the following offseason. In Denver, he had the most productive stretch of his career and averaged over 73 receptions during his five-and-a-half seasons before getting traded to the San Francisco 49ers last October.
2019 statistics: 20 games (7 Denver, 13 San Francisco); 104 targets, 71 receptions, 940 receiving yards, 5 receiving touchdowns
2019 salary cap hit: $5.97 million
Free agency status: Unrestricted
View from San Francisco
We asked Kyle Posey from Niners Nation to share his thoughts on Sanders:
Emmanuel Sanders was great for the 49ers on and off the field. He hit the ground running and produced the second he stepped on the field, but he also showed the young Niners wideouts what it took to succeed at receiver, and their games blossomed as well. Sanders played inside and outside for San Francisco and proved that he could get open on any level of the field. There isn’t much bad to say about Sanders, who thrives after the catch but can create separation with his routes. The only question is if you’re getting the same guy for the next two-three seasons — he’s 32-years-old — and will injuries mount with age.
While Sanders is getting up there in age, he has shown no signs of slowing down and was productive in both Denver and San Francisco last year. The Patriots could therefore very well have him on their radar for 2020 even though he will turn 33 years old next month. He would, after all, undeniably fit in well with a New England offense that struggled to consistently move the football through the air during the 2019 season.
What would he bring to the table? Sanders is still a premier route runner and capable of winning one-on-one matchups against press-man coverage — something the Patriots’ receivers had trouble with in 2019 — by using his experience and short-area quickness to create leverage against defensive backs. He also has the versatility to be moved all over the formation and attack defenses not just from the perimeter but the slot as well.
As such, he would likely be used as a Z-receiver in the mold of Mohamed Sanu but possibly at not just a lower cost but a higher upside as well (although admittedly Sanu’s ankle injury last year skews the picture a bit). While Sanders would not become a focal point in New England’s offensive attack, he would be a nice complementary option alongside former first-round draft pick N’Keal Harry and veteran wideout Julian Edelman.
The Patriots already have one of the oldest rosters in the NFL, and are a team that would greatly benefit from the influx of young talent on manageable rookie contracts. However, Sanders might simply be too good to pass on if the chance presented itself: he is a savvy veteran that could help not just the development of young pass catchers like Harry and Jakobi Meyers but also the offense from the first day he stepped into the building. While he would not be a long-term fix for the offense, he would help lift some pressure off the youngsters while also providing Tom Brady (or another quarterback) with a reliable option.