Mar 10, 2020
Nick WagonerESPN Staff Writer
- Covered Rams for nine years for stlouisrams.com
- Previously covered University of Missouri football
- Member of Pro Football Writers of America
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — When the San Francisco 49ers dealt a pair of mid-round picks to the Denver Broncos for wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders in October, they believed Sanders could be the piece that pushes them over the top.
At the time, the Niners and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo lacked a consistent, experienced pass-catcher who could be leaned on in key moments. Upon arrival, Sanders immediately provided what San Francisco had sought.
As it turned out, the Niners provided Sanders exactly what he was looking for as well. Which makes Sanders’ forthcoming foray into unrestricted free agency all the more complicated.
“This team is different,” Sanders said in early February. “This organization is different, and it doesn’t start with the players. It starts with the general manager to the head coach and those guys are special guys. They’re going to get a group of guys around here that are going to win a long time around here. I know Niner faithful is upset about the Super Bowl loss, but the people that are controlling the reins of this organization, even from the owners, they’re going to win a long time around here.”
The question now is whether Sanders’ time with the 49ers has come to a close. With free agency set to begin on March 18 and the legal negotiating window opening two days earlier, Sanders is likely about to take his final bite of the apple when it comes to landing a significant contract.
Sanders figures to attract plenty of interest should he hit the open market, as expected. Only Amari Cooper and A.J. Green are as accomplished among receivers slated for free agency. The Jets’ Robby Anderson is the only other wideout who could draw as much attention.
Sanders’ last contract with Denver was a three-year, $33 million extension with $20 million guaranteed. Another deal in that range doesn’t seem too far-fetched but might be more than the 49ers can afford, as they have lucrative, long-term contracts they’d like to do with the likes of defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, tight end George Kittle and others.
Sanders will turn 33 on March 17 but proved that he still has plenty of gas in the tank. While playing a combined 17 regular season games with the Broncos and 49ers, he posted 66 receptions for 869 yards and five touchdowns. In 10 regular season games in San Francisco, he had 36 catches for 502 yards and three touchdowns and threw a touchdown pass. Through all of that, he had just two drops and continued to prove he’s one of the league’s best route runners.
But Sanders’ value to the Niners can be better quantified in the impact he had on the rest of the offense. Sanders immediately embraced the role of veteran leader for a young group of wideouts that includes Deebo Samuel and Kendrick Bourne, serving as a sounding board and offering tips on route running and releases.
Having a reliable target such as Sanders opened things up for Garoppolo’s other targets, and it’s no coincidence that the passing game took off after he became a Niner.
Before Sanders, the 49ers averaged 214.5 passing yards per game (25th in the NFL), 7.92 yards per attempt (10th), 1.17 touchdown passes (tied for 23rd), a 1.17 touchdown to interception ratio (25th) and a 91.1 passer rating (18th). After his arrival, those numbers jumped to 250.5 yards per game (10th), 8.71 yards per attempt (second), 2.1 touchdown passes (tied for fifth), a 3.0 touchdown to interception ratio (12th) and a 109.6 passer rating (fourth) in the regular season.
“You can’t even describe it,” Garoppolo said. “What E did, coming in the way he did, never asking for the ball, never doing too much. He was exactly what we needed on this team, that veteran presence. For the younger receivers, just everyone, myself included, everything he did, he did it with class and I couldn’t ask for a better teammate.
“I would love to have E back. We’ll see what happens. He’s one of a kind. Love that guy.”
On the day Sanders arrived in the Bay Area and met with the media, he made it clear that more things than money will factor into his free-agent decision. Sanders has won a Super Bowl but wants more. Although he’d be the first to say he has plenty of football left, he also knows he won’t go on forever.
Asked after the season if he believed the Niners could offer him what he’s looking for in terms of contending, he offered a simple “of course” in response.
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“At the end of the day, I enjoyed this season,” Sanders said. “I love the Niners organization, so we’re going to see what’s to happen.”
The Niners also have plenty of questions at wide receiver entering the offseason. One of the primary reasons for trading for Sanders was his veteran experience. He delivered on that but without him, the Niners would go back to a receiver room likely to average about 25 years old, with only Samuel and Bourne having any sample size of success. Bourne is also set to become a restricted free agent, meaning the Niners control his rights, but he can field offers from other teams.
All of which makes retaining Sanders a priority, even if it won’t be easy.
“He did everything we hoped for and more,” Shanahan said. “I do not think we would have got to where we got without Emmanuel. And I would love to have Emmanuel back, bad. But we’ve got to see how that plays out, too.”
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