New Buffalo Bills wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders knows an elite quarterback when he sees one. The 34-year old veteran has spent his career catching passes from three Hall of Famers in Ben Roethlisberger, Peyton Manning, and most recently Drew Brees, and decided to play his 12th professional season in Buffalo for the same reason he opted to sign with the New Orleans Saints last year – to play with an elite quarterback on a team with a legitimate chance at a Super Bowl ring.
“I’m here to try to win a Super Bowl just like every team in the NFL is trying to win a Super Bowl,” Sanders said in a video conference shortly after signing with the team. “They were in the AFC championship last year. This is already a great organization, they already have everything Buffalo needs. I just want to come in and just bring positive energy, for one, and bring my work ethic.”
General manager Brandon Beane tried on multiple occasions to bring Sanders to Buffalo, most recently last year, but the veteran opted to play with Drew Brees and the Saints rather than an unproven Josh Allen.
“Yeah, that was the deciding factor,” Sanders said when asked if the quarterback situation played a role in his free agency decision last offseason. “Hearing news that it was probably Drew Brees’ last season and seeing what New Orleans was doing and I wanted to be a part of that. Beane was telling me he tried to get me in a trade in Denver, then he tried to get me last year but he brought over Stefon. And Diggs had over 1,500 yards, had a career year, and here I am now.”
Things didn’t work out as planned in New Orleans, though, as the injury bug struck the team and Brees’ arm simply gave out as the season went on. Ultimately, the Saints were knocked out of the playoffs in the Divisional Round by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
But Sanders played well and led the team in receiving, catching 61 passes for 726 receiving yards and five scores in 14 games, proving that despite being on the wrong side of 30, he still has enough left in the tank to be a contributing piece to an offense.
Things change quickly in the NFL, though, and that Buffalo offense that Sanders shied away from joining just a year ago, is now one of the most exciting in the league. He rounds out arguably the best wide receiver corps in the NFL in a group that boasts two All-Pros in Stefon Diggs and Cole Beasley – his college teammate at SMU – as well as a budding second-year talent in Gabriel Davis. Sanders was captivated by the passing schemes offensive coordinator Brian Daboll dialed up in 2020, explaining that on his off days, he’d fire up Bills film to watch on his iPad for fun.
“On off days on a Tuesday, I’d grab my iPad and I’d watch the Buffalo Bills offense on the coach’s film, just watch the routes they’re running, seeing Josh run around, rip the ball 60 yards down the field, 50 yards down the field, it was exciting to watch,” he said. “It’s a reason why everybody’s starting to talk about the Bills because they’re gaining traction. It’s one of the reasons why I chose them.”
After clearing $8 million of salary cap space by releasing veteran wideout John Brown, many believed that Beane would balance out the depth chart, using that money to add a running back or tight end. Instead, Beane added Sanders on a one-year, $6 million deal in a move that allowed the Bills to keep their “fastball” on offense as coach Sean McDermott explained.
“You never want to lose your fastball, in terms of what we were able to do last season,” McDermott said. “We thought it was important, Brian [Daboll] and I, Brandon [Beane] as well too, to make sure that we didn’t lose our fastball. But with respect to the play at the wide receiver position, obviously, that involves a tough decision as well with John Brown.”
The decision-makers in Buffalo know that they need talented playmakers around Josh Allen in order to continue their offensive success from a year ago, and Sanders figures to be a huge part of the offense. He’s one of the league’s best route runners and while he’s typically lined up outside for the majority of his career (64-percent of snaps), he has the versatility to be effective from the slot as well, where he’s lined up on 36-percent of his career snaps. The versatility to play inside and out gives Daboll a lot of flexibility when dialing up pass concepts and makes finding favorite matchups in the passing game easier, without the need to substitute personnel groupings.
Sanders’ former coach Kyle Shanahan drooled over what Sanders brought to the 49ers after acquiring him at the trade deadline in 2019 to help them push for a Super Bowl.
“He’s got the ability to do all three of them,” Shanahan said regarding the receiver positions. “Regardless of wherever we lock him in what position, he’s a guy who can play outside, can play inside, can play to the tight end, can play on the open edge. He can do it all.
Sanders’ versatility isn’t limited just to where he lines up on the field, though, as he has success against both man and zone coverage. According to Sports Info Solutions, Sanders averaged 10.2 yards-per-target (No. 8 of 45 wide receivers), 74-percent catch rate (No.9), 0.53 EPA (No. 3) and a 68-percent positive play percentage (No. 4) against zone coverage.
Against man coverage, Sanders wasn’t as dominant, but he still performed admirably, ranking fifth in catch rate and fourth in positive play percentage, while his EPA and yards-per-target totals were in the middle of the pack in 2020 (No. 35, No. 43 of 63 qualifying wideouts). It’s that type of ability to defeat multiple defensive schemes that made Beane and Shanahan push so hard to acquire the veteran pass-catcher.
“I think he’s always been very good at separating,” Shanahan added. “He’s wired in a certain way where he can get downfield, he also can break you off inside. Not the biggest guy, but he plays big. He’s hard to get your hands on. He can push through things and he plays very aggressive. The game is not too big for him. He can go over the middle and not flinch. He catches the ball and gets up the field hard. He’s a very good football player plus still a very good talent also.”
Watch Erik Turner’s breakdown of Emmanuel Sanders on the Cover 1 YouTube Channel HERE
Sanders being 34-years old this season has given some fans pause, as most skill position players see a sharp decline in their talent and production once they turn 30. However, Sanders has not only put up solid numbers since turning 30 (245 receptions, 3,018 receiving yards, 16 touchdowns in 53 games over four seasons) but there’s a big pool of data to pull from that shows that pass-catchers can enjoy productive seasons at 34-plus years of age.
According to Pro-Football-Reference, since 2000 there have been 61 seasons in which a pass-catcher had 600-plus receiving yards at, or after his age 34 season. Furthermore, there have been 24 such seasons in which a player at least 34-years old had at least 1,000 receiving yards.
On paper, Sanders will likely be penciled in as the Bills’ No. 2 receiver and line up wide opposite Stefon Diggs. But Buffalo’s heavy usage of four wide receiver sets and varying alignments guarantees that the 5-foot-11, 190-pounder will have his fair share of targets coming from the slot, too.
The Bills feature a roster on offense that’s perfect for where Emmanuel Sanders is at this stage in his career. The team doesn’t need him to be a featured weapon and the coverage that Diggs commands, along with Beasley’s steady presence in the slot should open up a lot of opportunities for him to do what he does best – separate in the short and intermediate depths of the field and make himself an easy target for his quarterback.
Sanders’ combination of short-area quickness, feel for zone coverages and toughness allow him to consistently make some difficult concepts look like “gimmes” as he routinely eats up quick chunks of yards and keeps his offense moving downfield. For a Buffalo team that struggled to consistently run the ball a year ago, using Sanders in the quick passing game as an extension of the running game could prove vital until their rushing attack steps up.
With a quality supporting cast surrounding Josh Allen, the Bills shouldn’t skip a beat as they look ahead to the 2021 NFL season and Emmanuel Sanders’ savvy veteran presence should help elevate the efficiency of the offense as they look to contend for a Super Bowl.