Following the NFL draft and subsequent free agency period, the New England Patriots currently have 89 of a possible 90 players under contract. However, only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns on September 5 and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer, just like we have in years past, we will take a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots keep their dynasty alive in Year One after Tom Brady.
Today, the series continues with one of New England’s wide receivers.
Name: Mohamed Sanu
Position: Wide receiver
Jersey number: 14
Opening day age: 31
Size: 6-foot-2, 210 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2020 (2021 UFA)
What is his experience? Sanu’s career in the NFL started in the third round of the 2012 draft, when the Cincinnati Bengals invested the 83rd overall selection in him. The Rutgers product went on to spend the first four years of his career with the club, establishing himself as a reliable rotational second/third wide receiver option alongside A.J. Green and Marvin Jones: Sanu appeared in 57 regular season games and three playoff contests for the Bengals, catching a combined 159 passes for 1,854 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Even though he entered the 2016 free agency period coming off a down-season, the Atlanta Falcons still decided to sign Sanu to a five-year, $32.5 million contract — a sizable investment, but one that did pay dividends early on. Sanu was instrumental in getting the team to the Super Bowl in his first year, while playing some of the best football of his career and serving as the number two behind Julio Jones. He continued to perform well in this role the following two seasons, but by 2019 eventually found himself on the trade block.
When Sanu was finally moved to the Patriots in mid-October, he had an impressive tenure with the Falcons to look back on: he had appeared in 53 regular season contests and five additional playoff games in three-and-a-half seasons with the club, and caught a total of 243 passes for 2,753 yards and 16 touchdowns.
What did his 2019 season look like? Sanu’s 2019 campaign is a tale of two cities. As noted above, he started the season in Atlanta and again saw prominent playing time. Despite the Falcons having added Calvin Ridley in the first round of the draft earlier that year, the veteran still posted some solid numbers as a WR2: serving as a versatile Z-receiver who saw most of his snaps from the slot over the first seven weeks of the season, Sanu caught 33 of the 40 catchable passes thrown his way, for a combined 313 yards and a touchdown.
On October 22, however, the team pulled the plug on his tenure and traded him to New England in return for a second-round selection in the 2020 draft. While the Patriots paid a hefty price for the 30-year-old pass catcher, Sanu made an immediate impact upon his arrival. After being used in a rotational capacity in his first game and catching a pair of passes for 23 yards, he had one of his most productive game of the season the following week: against the Baltimore Ravens, Sanu caught 10 passes for 81 yards and a score.
There was optimism surrounding the new Patriots pass catcher coming out of the team’s subsequent bye, but it did not last long. In just his third game in New England, versus the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 11, Sanu suffered a high-ankle sprain that forced him to miss one game and limited him through the rest of the season. As a result, he failed to build on his promising start as the number two wideout alongside Julian Edelman and had only a limited impact on the Patriots’ struggling aerial attack.
All in all, Sanu’s first half-season with his new team ended with him having played 424 of a possible 692 offensive snaps (61.3%) between his arrival in Week 8 and the Patriots’ playoff departure on wild card weekend. Along the way, he caught 26 regular season passes for 207 yards and a touchdown as well as one 11-yarder in his team’s lone postseason contest. Furthermore, Sanu also registered one 8-yard carry and returned a combined 10 punts for 77 yards.
What is his projected role? When Sanu joined the Patriots midway through the 2019 regular season, he immediately filled the number two wide receiver role alongside Julian Edelman — one held held on even after his ankle injury and despite of first-round rookie N’Keal Harry returning off temporary injured reserve. Heading into 2020, the veteran is therefore again projected to play a notable role within the Patriots’ attack. While Harry and Edelman will ideally serve as the one-two punch at wide receiver, Sanu appears to be the frontrunner for the WR3 role as a Z/slot hybrid.
What is his special teams value? Before he arrived in New England, Sanu saw only irregular special teams action and had returned a mere three kicks over the first seven-and-a-half years in the NFL. The Patriots, however, opted to use him as their primary punt returner following Gunner Olszewski’s season-ending ankle and hamstring injuries. While his success was limited, his experience does at least give him some value as an emergency option in the returngame.
Does he have positional versatility? Whereas the Falcons opted to employ Sanu primarily in the slot over the first half of the 2019 season, the Patriots opted to use him as a true Z-receiver and move him around a bit more. In fact, he played more snaps split out wide (278) than inside the formation (146). His versatility does not end at the wide receiver position, however. Sanu also has a combined 42 rushing attempts on his résumé, and also has proven himself a successful situational quarterback: through his career, he has attempted eight passes, of which seven were caught for 233 yards and four touchdowns.
What is his salary cap situation? Sanu is entering the final year of the five-year free agency contract he signed with the Falcons back in 2016. As a result, he is on the Patriots’ books with a salary cap hit of $6.5 million that does not include any remaining guarantees. New England could therefore easily decide to release the veteran to gain financial flexibility without taking on additional dead money. However, a contract extension or other restructure could also be on the table if the team feels it needs to lower Sanu’s cap impact without wanting to necessarily move on from him.
What is his roster outlook? Based on his disappointing 2019 campaign and the fact that he is currently rehabbing from offseason ankle surgery, Sanu’s outlook heading into 2020 is one of uncertainty. While he could easily be released in a cost-cutting move once healthy again, it seems more plausible that he will be give a chance to prove his value and return to the form that made him an intriguing addition to the Patriots’ passing attack before his sprained ankle effectively derailed his first half-season with the club. If he can do that, Sanu should be expected to find a role on the 53-man roster this fall.