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All-22 Analysis: Buffalo Bills wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders

The first splash addition of the year goes under the microscope (sorry Matt Haack)

After a couple years of easing Josh Allen into the NFL, the Buffalo Bills unleashed the passing game in 2020. It’s expected this will continue next season, meaning the better the talent catching the ball the better for the Bills. The loss of John Brown added a question mark to this group heading into 2021. With the signing of Emmanuel Sanders, it’s likely most of that question has been answered. Let’s see what he added to the New Orleans Saints in 2020.


Play 1

It wasn’t that long ago that this would have been the most important consideration for a new addition at wide receiver. The good news is that Emmanuel Sanders is a willing blocker and shows off his veteran status consistently. Specifically I’m referring to body positioning and cutting off pursuit angles by existing in the right spot. That sounds like sarcasm but it’s sincerely a great trait to have. At 5’11” and 180 lbs per pro-football-reference.com, what you see at the end of the play happens consistently too. Physics matter and Sanders isn’t always on the right side of it.

Play 2

A few points on this play selection. The first is that Sanders deals with contact well and returns to his route often without missing a beat. The turn at the top of the route is also pretty nice. However the main point is that players used to spread the defense vertically need excellent conditioning. Sanders is covering a lot of ground for someone who didn’t get the ball. And yeah, Drew Brees was sacked here so it’s possible the ball might have gone deep but more often than not players like Brown and Sanders are left sucking air for “nothing.”

The Saints had Sanders run looooooots of deep routes like this and weren’t shy about giving him high snap counts in many games. Sanders showed excellent conditioning to be able to keep going.

Play 3

Sanders’s time in Buffalo will be season number 11 for the receiver and he shows veteran traits in his route running as well. A small step to his right makes the defender crossing right to left hesitate, which would have been helpful if the ball headed to the left sideline on this pass. It may have also helped freeze the two closest defenders to Sanders for a split second, which can be significant when the windows are as tight as this play shows. Moves such as this one and changes in speed in the middle of a route are common for Sanders and help to generate space.

Play 4

The change of direction for a 34-year-old player is great to see. When you think “route running,” the next phrase in the word association game should generally be “change of direction.” Without it, route trees are more like route logs. Another veteran touch as Sanders waits until he’s nearly parallel with the defender before making the cut, which makes it very tough to read.

Play 5

If you weren’t sure, I’m pointing out the spray of rubber pellets as Emmanuel Sanders puts on the brakes. The man can stop on a dime and you see the result. This is NOT his best either—more like baseline.

Play 6

Another positive to see is the ability to make tough catches. Whether it’s making a catch while getting hit, or making a play while falling, Sanders was pretty good at it with Drew Brees throwing the ball. The Drew Brees comment is important because Sanders’s catch rate has fluctuated wildly in his career.

With Brees he caught over 74 percent of the passes that came his way. He’s broken 70 percent with Peyton Manning and...Case Keenum somehow. Sanders has dipped as low as 51 percent (Roethlisberger and the Siemian/Osweiler experiment). That said, his last three years were all 68 percent or higher and his career average is about 10 percent higher than John Brown (since we won’t escape that comparison). I should also add that Brown’s best years came in Buffalo.

Play 7

One thing that stood out is that Sanders often had poor YAC. With the Saints this was often due to play design. The move to get into space in the first place is the kind of wading through traffic that’s usually associated with decent YAC, but the swarm of defenders makes it tough. A lot of passes to Sanders also came with him working back to the ball, meaning momentum was in the wrong direction for extra yards.

Play 8

To hammer home that last thought, there’s no shortage of motivation to gain extra yards. He’ll go flying to gain a couple more if need be. This play also has another look at him shrugging off an early attempt to disrupt his route.


Summary

I’m excited to see what happens with Emmanuel Sanders though I think I should tap the brakes a bit. Based on his latest film, his best attributes seem to be well-suited for a timing-based offense where his ability to stop and turn at the right spot lead to easy chunks. While he is a great route runner, I don’t know if he replicates the deep stuff quite as well as Brown. I’m also less confident in what he does when a play breaks down.

Ultimately I consider this a “lateral but different” move. There’s a good amount of overlap in skills between Sanders and Brown but the differences are significant enough to be notable. Add in that Josh Allen and the Bills’ offense will need to develop chemistry and there’s a chance we’re left missing Brown.

There’s also a chance this ends up looking genius. Allen has worked very well with Cole Beasley on timing routes so we know he can do it. And Sanders isn’t a one-trick pony by any means. If they develop the chemistry Allen found with Brown...and Beasley...and Stefon Diggs, the passing game is in excellent shape for 2021.