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Emmanuel Sanders unlocks a new gear to the Saints’ offense

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Buckle up, this is about to be fun.

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Rejoice, Saints fans. All of our prayers have been answered.

The Saints finally went out and acquired a legitimate receiver to pair up with Michael Thomas, by signing 33-year-old former San Francisco 49er Emmanuel Sanders to a two-year, $16 million contract.

This is under projected market value for Sanders, who is coming off a productive season, after helping lead the Niners to a Super Bowl appearance.

This is extremely exciting for many different reasons.

First, he’s a proven and experienced difference-maker. Since entering the league in 2010, Sanders has the ninth-most catches and 10th-most first down catches among all NFL receivers.

He’s had an overall Pro Football Focus grade of at least 70 in every season where he’s garnered a minimum of 70 targets, and three years above 80. And he’s done this despite not having a quarterback with a grade above 67.0 since 2014. Remarkable consistency.

Second, he’s a reliable catcher of the ball (unlike a certain receiver whose name rhymes with Ged Tinn Jr.). Not only did he drop only one pass out of 104 targets last year, but according to PFF, Sanders caught 70 out of 73 catchable targets.

That’s a 95.9 percent catchable pass rate, which led all receivers with at least 50 targets in 2019.

But what I’m most looking forward to seeing is Sanders’s versatility within the Saints’ formation-diverse offense. Commonly tagged as a “slot” receiver, he actually has seen more snaps as an outside receiver over the course of his career.

Over 67 percent of his receiver snaps have come as an outside receiver in his NFL career. In fact, all but three seasons of his career saw more snaps lined up on the outside than in the slot.

This is great news. Why? Because Michael Thomas is the deadliest slot receiver in the world, and this gives Sean Payton another excuse to put him there more often.

“Can’t Guard Mike” has led the league in yards per route run from the slot for three straight seasons, and by a wide margin. Yet he only plays there about 25 percent of his snaps because of the mediocrity the Saints have trotted out to play outside receiver the past few years.

Now, Sean Payton has another no. 1 caliber receiver who can run every route on the route-tree, from inside or out.

So, let’s take a look at Sanders’s work from the outside, and more specifically, his in-breaking routes from there.

I mentioned this play on Twitter yesterday, and it’s a great example of why Sanders had the seventh-most first down catches on in-breaking routes (posts, digs, slants and crossing routes) in 2019. He also caught 33 out of 35 catchable targets on such routes, the best rate among receivers with at least 50 in-breaking routes.

He knows how to set up defenders by stemming and disguising routes, using their own leverage against them.

On this play, Sanders stems inside after the snap and pushes hard vertically against three-time All-Pro Patrick Peterson. The stem allows him a bit of inside leverage, and it appears to Peterson like Sanders is attempting to “stack” and get on top him, so he chases.

Instead, Sanders cuts hard inside after Peterson turns his hips up-field. Peterson’s momentum carries him up-field a bit as Sanders flattens his route, leading to plenty of separation.

Jimmy Garoppolo misses high and behind Sanders, despite the exceptional route.

Sanders’s effectiveness from the outside doesn’t stop with in-breaking routes. Check out the comeback route here. (Sorry to use film from this game, but we knew it was coming)

The Saints’ defense is in a Cover 3 look here, and Eli Apple (have fun, Raiders) is manning his deep third of the zone. Sanders runs a deep comeback route and has Apple right where he wants him.

In another instance of Sanders recognizing and exploiting a corner’s positioning, he uses Apple’s route-recognition against him. Sanders begins his pattern by sprinting right at Apple’s face, as Apple shuffles back waiting for a break.

He then fades toward the sideline to make Apple think he’s going to continue vertical on a deep fade.

As soon as Apple flips his hips and turns his back to Sanders to sprint with the fade, Sanders stops, shuffles and breaks back towards the line of scrimmage for an uncontested catch.

Masterful route-running. It’s hard to even blame Apple here, to be honest.

While Sanders has predominantly been an outside receiver through most of his career, he can more than hold his own in the slot. The last time he had an above-average quarterback for a full season (Peyton Manning in 2014), he had the third-highest yards per route run average in the league.

Just like how he gets a corner’s hips turned when lined up outside and breaking inward, Sanders also does so from the slot on out-breaking routes. The last place a corner wants to be is behind Emmanuel Sanders before he breaks, not knowing which way he’ll cut.

Here is Sanders victimizing poor Patrick Peterson again in Week 9 of last season.

The Niners are running a flood concept to the trips side against a one-high safety, with Sanders running the corner or “seven” route. He takes an outside release and stacks Peterson, then breaks outside.

Peterson is there but is just a tick late. And this time, Garoppolo puts it on the money on a big third down.

The thing I think Drew Brees will like most about Sanders is his quick-twitch ability to get open on short/underneath patterns. Our own Deuce Windham spoke about this ad nauseam on his film study video of Sanders last night:

Another point from this study was that Sanders’s addition to the Saints’ receiving core really helps out the offensive line, by providing Brees with another option who can get open quickly. Quarterbacks often control their own pressure rates by how quickly they can get the ball out, and Brees could save himself from a couple of sacks by getting Sanders the ball in the quick game.

Rev and I may disagree on Andrus Peat, but we sure do both love Emmanuel Sanders.

As we know, Brees’ passing game consists of mostly short-to-intermediate throws.

Tied for the third-lowest average depth of target of any quarterback in 2019 at 6.9, the only QB’s who were lower than Brees were Jimmy Garoppolo and Teddy Bridgewater.

While Garoppolo’s low target depth was due in large part to how many screen passes he threw in Kyle Shanahan’s “rookie mode” offense, Brees’ was more a result of a ton of slants, crossers, hitches, and option routes.

Sanders should fit right in, stylistically.

Look how much separation he gains on a short out-route against P.J. Williams. Now, this is P.J. Williams we’re talking about, but you don’t often see that much space between a corner and receiver when the corner starts that close to the line of scrimmage.

The smoothness in and out of breaks is just beautiful to watch. Brees should take well to having a receiver opposite of Michael Thomas who can get this open this early and often.

It goes both ways too. Sanders now knows when he gets open, there’s a higher chance of him being accurately thrown to than in times past.

While Sanders might not be the same guy with the ball in his hands that he used to be, he can still make something good happen after the catch. The Saints saw this first-hand.

So, we know he can get open. But if he can consistently add over four yards after the catch per reception like he did in 2018, the Saints offense becomes that much more dangerous.

Sanders is a great fit with Brees because of his tendency to work in the short/underneath area of the field—but also the intermediate level. Out his 60 targets in San Francisco, 27 of them came between 10-20 yards downfield.

This is partially due to the fact that he hasn’t had a QB to hit him on deep balls in the last five years or so. While I wouldn’t expect Brees to suddenly start bombing the ball downfield at a consistent rate in 2020, I do believe he’s capable of hitting them when they’re there...sometimes.

Despite his age, when Sanders has been targeted deep, he’s come through. He brought in all 15 of his catchable targets 20 or more yards downfield in 2019, racking up 514 yards and three TDs on such passes.

His longest reception of the year came against, you guessed it, the Saints. The move he puts on Vonn Bell on this play is tough enough to watch, so I edited out the second half of the video where he snags on Marcus Williams and takes it to the house.

You’re welcome.

However, this route is worth watching because it exemplifies Sanders’s exquisite savvy in and out of breaks, as well as his deep speed.

The Saints are in a two-high look and run a Cover 2 zone. Sanders sizes up Vonn Bell, and runs a corner-post.

He cuts and takes three steps toward the sideline. This is enough to get Bell’s hips turned, and as soon as he turns them, Sanders flips back inside.

Bye-bye, Vonn. Nasty stuff.

And... we know what happens next.

Sanders’s deep speed was also on display on the biggest of stages, in Super Bowl LIV. Unfortunately for San Fran, Garoppolo’s deep accuracy was not.

On a third-and-long in the biggest moment of the season, Sanders runs a deep post against Charvarius Ward, and smokes him. The dig route pulls the middle-of-the-field safety down, leaving the deep middle of the field open.

Sanders puts a subtle move on Ward by just barely leaning to his left before his break inside on the post, causing Ward to hesitate a bit. This allows Sanders access past Ward, and he’s running free for a wide open TD!

Just kidding, Jimmy G overthrows him and they lose. Tuff. (But at least now he has, Brees.)

The route here reminds me a lot of the absolutely disgusting corner-post Deonte Harris ran against Xavier Rhodes in the Saints’ Wild Card game (NSFW warning):

All in all, I don’t know how you can spin this as anything but a win for the Saints. They get an objectively solid receiver who is probably a bit undervalued because he’s been thrown to by mediocre-to-average quarterbacks for the past five years.

Here is a list of the ones he’s played with since Peyton Manning: Jimmy G, Joe Flacco, Drew Lock, Case Keenum, Brock Osweiler, Trevor Siemian, and Paxton Lynch.

Not ideal.

Of note, he had a 1,000-yard season with Trevor Siemian as his QB in 2016. Yes, he’s had a significant injury since then, but just imagine him with an above-average quarterback if he can stay healthy.

His stat line the last time he had a Pro Bowler throwing him passes in 2014: 101 catches, 1,404 yards, nine TD’s, 71.6 percent catch rate, 13.9 yards per catch and 10.0 yards per target.

I’m not saying he’ll replicate this in 2020, but I also wouldn’t rule out a 1,000 yard season. Ted Ginn Jr. came in and put up nearly 800 yards in 2017, and Sanders is on a different level than him, even at that point in his career.

This is normally where I’d try to temper expectations, but not this time. Sanders is a complete receiver on a great contract, and is healthy as far as we know.

Go crazy, Saints fans - you got your #2 receiver.