Mohamed Sanu was off to a hot start after the New England Patriots acquired him for a second-round draft pick ahead of last year’s trade deadline. After being used in a rotational capacity in his first game and catching a pair of passes for 23 yards, the former Atlanta Falcons wide receiver 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 going against one of the NFL’s best defenses.
It was not meant to last, however. In the very next game, he suffered a high-ankle sprain that would require offseason surgery and change his trajectory with the club. Sanu did eventually return to the practice field when New England started its new-look training camp, but he never quite returned to the form that made him an exciting member of the team’s passing offense in 2019 — if only for one short week. Accordingly, his stint with the organization will now come to an end.
As was first reported on Wednesday night, the Patriots and Sanu will part ways after just eight games together. What does this move mean for the team, though? Let’s break it down.
Sanu’s roster spot was not as safe as was believed...
Heading towards training camp, only two of the Patriots’ wide receivers were locks to make the team: veteran Julian Edelman and former first-round draft pick N’Keal Harry. While he may not have fallen in that same category, Sanu was also considered to be fairly safe based on his pre-injury performance last year and the strides he had seemingly taken over the course of the offseason. Add the impressive technique he displayed during individual training camp drills and you can see why he was seen as a solid bet to make the team.
Once again, however, pre-camp projection and real-life perception turn out to be two different entities.
...with his potential simply not justifying his cap hit
Bill Belichick and the New England coaching staff apparently have a different vision of their offense — one in which Sanu does not line up as a top-three wide receiver. The fact that he was pretty unspectacular in team drills and inconsistent when it came to creating separation against the Patriots’ defensive backs worked against him, as did his contract: the 31-year-old hit the team’s books with a salary cap number of $6.5 million. For comparison, only four players have a higher cap number than that.
As opposed to Stephon Gilmore ($18.7 million), Joe Thuney ($14.8 million), Julian Edelman ($9.7 million) and Shaq Mason ($8.7 million), however, Sanu was not projected to be an every-down wide receiver heading into the 2020 season. Given that the Patriots are operating based on principles of value, having a role player take up 3.1 percent of its available cap was therefore simply not worth the investment. Sanu’s potential within the system after a quiet training camp did not justify keeping him on that deal.
New England is officially in the wide receiver market
With Sanu soon to be released, the Patriots will have nine true wide receivers remaining on their active roster. Only a few of them will obviously be on the 53-man roster following Saturday’s roster cutdowns, but for the time being the position looks as follows:
X receiver: N’Keal Harry, Damiere Byrd, Devin Ross
Z/slot receiver: Julian Edelman, Gunner Olszewski, Jakobi Meyers, Jeff Thomas, Isaiah Zuber, Andre Baccellia
As noted above, Edelman and Harry are locks to make the roster. Gunner Olszewski and Damiere Byrd, meanwhile, appear to have favorable odds after being heavily featured during team and individual drills over the course of training camp. While this might leave only one or two open spots on the roster — with Jakobi Meyers being the frontrunner to fill it — the Patriots very much appear to be in the market for more talent at the position.
What does this mean?
Don’t be surprised if New England adds outside talent to the room between now and Week 1 (and maybe even later). Whether this means acquiring players via trade or the post-cutdown day waiver wire remains to be seen, but the Patriots keeping their current core of wide receivers heading into the regular season would be a surprise unless they are very confident in their young players’ development. And even then, exploring outside talent would make sense given that Edelman is the only established wideout under contract.
The Patriots create $6.5 million in cap space
Sanu’s contract with the Patriots was pretty straight-forward: he was due a $6.5 million salary this season, with no guarantees left remaining in the deal. Accordingly, cutting ties with the eight-year veteran adds just that sum to the club’s available financial resources with no dead money being added to the salary cap. As a result, New England now has $37.09 million available in cap space, per Miguel Benzan — second most in the NFL behind only the Cleveland Browns’ $40.07 million.
What will the Patriots do with all their cap space?
The most realistic scenario is rolling it over into a 2021 offseason that could see the salary cap stay flat at $198.2 million or even slightly decrease depending on the league’s revenue development over the course of the 2020 regular season. That said, New England could use part of its resources to — as noted above — bring outside talent on board to bolster the weakest parts of the roster. The wide receiver position, even before Sanu’s release, certainly could be seen as just that.
Another second-round investment bites the dust
The New England Patriots certainly have had some success when it comes to second-round picks. For every Rob Gronkowski, Sebastian Vollmer, Deion Branch, Jamie Collins and Shane Vereen, however, there are the Ras-I Dowlings, Jordan Richards, Duke Dawsons and Chad Jacksons of this world. Sanu can now be added to the second list of second-round failures. He did look good before his ankle injury, but his release is still a disappointing outcome relative to the capital that was used to bring him aboard.
No last-second trade involving Sanu should be expected
While Sanu’s release has been reported, it is not yet official: neither the team nor the NFL’s official waiver wire have the move listed. This means that there is still a chance that New England could swing a last-second trade with an interested club — the San Francisco 49ers, for example — that wants to get ahead of its possible competition to secure an experienced pass catcher ahead of cutdowns. That being said, Sanu’s $6.5 million cap hit makes it unlikely that this happens. The expected outcome is that he will be straight-up cut.
26 more players will have to be released before Saturday’s deadline
The team will likely take its time before making any definitive decisions, but Sanu’s release puts the Patriots one spot closer to the 53-man deadline they will have to be under on Saturday at 4 pm ET. This means that 26 others will have to follow him — either by being let go as well or by being moved to injured reserve (Beau Allen appears to be a candidate for this fate). A busy few days are upon the NFL, and New England has apparently started early to make its first moves.