The New England Patriots tried their best to field a competitive wide receiver group alongside Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelman in 2019. They tendered Josh Gordon while he was still suspended, brought in numerous free agents including Demaryius Thomas and Maurice Harris, selected N’Keal Harry in the first round of the draft, and even picked up Antonio Brown after his unceremonious release from the Oakland Raiders.
One way or another, however, none of the additions made by the Patriots had worked out by the time the NFL’s trade deadline came along in late October. In a last-ditch effort to add some more talent to a group decimated by injury as well as performance and off-field issues, New England therefore decided to send a second-round 2020 draft choice to the Atlanta Falcons to acquire veteran pass catcher Mohamed Sanu via trade.
Sanu started his tenure with the Patriots well, and after a relatively quiet two-catch, 23-yard performance in his debut registered 10 receptions for 81 yards and a score the following week. It would remain the high-point of his season, though, as the 30-year-old went on to injure his ankle after New England’s bye and was limited for the remainder of the season. In the end, he appeared in nine games and finished with 27 catches for 218 yards and one score.
With that all being said, let’s dig a little deeper into Sanu’s performance in 2019 and why he can still become a contributor for the Patriots moving forward.
Size and physicality
Given his 6-foot-2, 215-pound frame, Sanu added considerable size to the Patriots’ receiving corps after the team decided to move on from Josh Gordon. While not the same type of receiver both when it comes to usage and skill set, Sanu did bring size and toughness to the perimeter whenever used that way by the Patriots. In general, he was competitive when having to battle against defensive backs in his routes or being challenged physically.
The big-bodied WR added size, physicality, and toughness to the "X" spot that was missed after Gordon was traded.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) January 21, 2020
He was unphased when defenders got rough in routes or laid him out over the middle. His stiff-arm during vs the Titans provided a spark on the team's only TD drive. pic.twitter.com/rKtn043kHX
As the clips above and below show, Sanu’s physicality was on display before and after the ankle injury he suffered in Week 11: the veteran pass catcher was able to stay in position against press-man coverage due to his upper-body strength, did not try to avoid contact even after hurting his ankle, and knew how to use his skill-set to get open when being jammed at the line of scrimmage or challenged at his breaks.
Those traits helped Sanu get open and made him tough to jam.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) January 21, 2020
He often initiated contact before pushing off/swiping at defenders' arms to separate and got CBs on their heels with well-paced routes. When he didn’t earn a ton of breathing room, his long arms gave 12 a larger window pic.twitter.com/5LY7RvIjiu
As can be seen, Sanu often initiated contact before placing well-timed push-offs and/or swipes to separate from defenders’ arms engaged onto him. He also was able to get cornerbacks on their heels with some well-paced routes, and by being able to accelerate into a second gear when getting into the open field out of his breaks. His build also helped him do all this: while he often did not earn a ton of breathing room, his long arms gave quarterback Tom Brady a bigger window to throw into.
All in all, Sanu’s physical playing style allowed him to win his fair share of battles against defensive backs trying to jam him into his release. That being said, he still had his troubles when it came to getting open on a regular basis — in part due to his ankle, which appeared to limit his short-area quickness, but also because of inconsistent communication with his quarterback. Speaking of which...
Adapting to a new system midway through the season is difficult, and Sanu learned this. While he brought plenty of experience to the table as an eight-year NFL veteran, he did not immediately get onto the same page as Brady and needed time to develop a rapport with his quarterback. The pair got better as the year progressed, but communication remains a core issue that it needs to work through during the offseason (if Brady returns, of course).
It is hard to tell when exactly Sanu was squarely to blame for miscommunications, but there are some plays that seemed off from the wide receiver’s perspective:
Though the communication issues seemed to improve as the year went on, it took longer than I (naively) expected for Brady and Sanu to get on the same page.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) January 21, 2020
Tough to know when exactly it was squarely on Sanu, but these were some of the plays that seemed off pic.twitter.com/MgzAZeO7nq
One of the most visible issues for Sanu in 2019 was untimely drops, with two of them resulting in the Patriots turning the football over on downs. Each drop has its own story, of course, as the following collection of clips shows:
Despite having physically strong hands, Sanu did have some bad drops, including two drive-enders. It’s been years since he had a real problem in that area, so we’ll see how 2020 fares for the veteran pic.twitter.com/WJDup8A1OI— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) January 21, 2020
The first drop shown here came against the Miami Dolphins in Week 17 and is a clear concentration error: New England executed its double-crosser concept with Sanu and tight end Matt LaCosse well to get the receiver open, but he took his eyes of the ball and in turn was unable to come up with the easy reception. His drops against the Houston Texans and Cincinnati Bengals, meanwhile, were difficult catches simply not being hauled in.
While the numbers don’t look good for Sanu in terms of letting the football go through his fingers — especially on fourth down — he has not had a real issue with drops since the 2014 season, when he was credited with 15 by advanced analytics website Pro Football Focus. Since then, he averaged just three per season so hitting the panic button on his 2019 performance in this area is not yet necessary.
As bad as some of his drops looked, Sanu also made some impressive catches after joining the Patriots. Showing strong ball skills despite his bigger frame, he was able to go low and snatch a pair of passes off his shoelaces. His athleticism and strong hands in those situations made the receptions look nearly effortless and show that the 30-year-old is capable of making grabs even when the football is not placed right in the chest.
Sanu showed impressive ball skills when he needed to. Not easy for a big 6’2” guy to go low and snatch a ball at his shoelaces, but his athleticism and strong hands made it look effortless pic.twitter.com/ul9dFURCgD— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) January 21, 2020
Not all of his comparatively limited production was per se Sanu’s fault, and there is not enough talk about how many big plays or touchdown opportunities he missed in his first half-season with the Patriots because of factors outside of his control. Be it inaccurate throws or extraordinary defensive efforts, Sanu could certainly have had a bigger statistical impact and at least three additional touchdowns on the season:
It isn’t talked about nearly enough how many big play or TD opportunities Sanu missed out on because of factors outside of his control, namely inaccurate throws or extraordinary defensive efforts.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) January 21, 2020
Could’ve had at least three more TDs on the season. pic.twitter.com/MLbJh9OSyB
While it is once again hard to pin the blame exclusively on Brady or Sanu on these plays, there were moments when he was open but still did not come up with the football. Just look at his game against the Cincinnati Bengals (0:18 in the clip above): in a second-and-eight situation, Sanu got behind the defense on a seam route off a play-action concept. However, Brady did put a little too much air under the ball when he could have had six points instead of an incomplete pass.
Moments like this one are a good example where Sanu’s growth can happen from year one in New England to year two: if he and Brady can get a better feel for each other, the veteran wide receiver could certainly play a bigger role in the Patriots’ offense in 2020. As is the case with the aforementioned N’Keal Harry, a full offseason with the team and its quarterback — let alone getting back to full strength — might do wonders for Sanu’s comfort level and production within the system.
Taylor Kyles is working as a film analyst at Pats Pulpit and also co-hosts the Patriots Perspective podcast. Click here for more information.
Bernd Buchmasser is serving as Pats Pulpit’s managing editor.