Arguably the biggest New Orleans Saints signing this was their two-year deal with wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. After Ted Ginn Jr. wasn’t re-signed, man had wondered if Mickey Loomis and the Saints staff could find a way to land the Super Bowl champion wideout and add a welcomed boost to the pass-catching group outside of Michael Thomas.
In 2017, it felt like every piece was falling into place. New Orleans had shipped off Brandin Cooks and signed veteran speedster Ted Ginn Jr. who had a more than decent first season catching passes from Drew Brees.
That season, Ginn racked up 53 catches, 787 yards and four touchdowns while putting up career highs (when targeted more than twice) in season catch percentage, yards per target, and yards per game. After that, however, his production fell off. In 2018, he only appeared in five regular season games, but there was certainly hope when he returned against the Steelers in a huge Week 15 matchup. He showed up big in that game catching five balls for 74 yards including a crucial third down. But in 2019, his numbers continued to fall despite being available 16 games posting his worst catch percentage since 2015 and worst yards per game average since 2014.
It’s no wonder why Saints fans rejoiced when Emmanuel Sanders agreed to terms with the Saints before Ginn ultimately ended up in Chicago. Fans, and one must imagine the organization itself, feel like there is finally a viable WR2 in the building to pair with the best wide receiver in the NFL, Michael Thomas.
But what specifically does Sanders bring to the Saints that Ginn could not? I took a look at each of the 56 targets Ginn received with the Saints last season and the 53 Sanders was thrown after being traded to the San Francisco 49ers. Bear in mind with all of the information below the context that this is a breakdown of 16 games for Ginn, but only 10 for Sanders. After charting each route they ran, their targets, separation, and more it becomes a littler clearer exactly what elements of the game Sanders can bring to the Saints offense.
It’s worth first mentioning that the Saints coaching staff has repeatedly stated that Sanders’ usage in San Francisco is less comparable to what the Saints will do with him. For that, we would have to go further back his Denver days playing with Peyton Manning, according to wide receivers coach Ronald Curry. I will be doing that soon as a second part to this piece in the coming days.
First, it is important to look at the charge Sanders gave the 49ers offense upon arrival. We can do that by simply looking at Jimmy Garopolo’s numbers before and after the trade sent Sanders to the Bay Area.
Before Sanders arrived: Seven games, 187.7 y/g, seven touchdowns, and six interceptions.
After Sanders arrived: 10 games, 266.4 y/g, 20 touchdowns, and seven interceptions
That’s a 42% increase in yards per game, twice the per game touchdown production, and a drop in interceptions per attempt. No coincidence, Sanders helped boost production and gave an offense founded on the run game more confidence to throw the ball. Even benefitting the team when he wasn’t targeted, drawing attention away from other options. Helps to have a George Kittle around, too.
So how did Sanders create production in ways that will benefit New Orleans? That’s where our route-by-route comparison comes in.
Ginn received most of his targets running the routes you’d expect from him in his flanker role. A lot of in-breaking and deep routes combined with outside-breaking routes from the tight end on his same side. Ginn received the heaviest amount of targets running curl routes at 13, fly/9 routes at 11, and post routes at 6. On those targets he caught a combined 15 passes for 287 yards. Those routes alone accounted for 68.2 percent of 421 receiving yards and exactly half of his 30 receptions. One big plus to Ginn’s game is that 20 of those 30 catches resulted in a first down.
Sanders saw similar success on two of these routes throughout his time in the Bay. He was targeted nine times on curl routes for 84 yards and three times on posts for 136 yards on posts, including 75 on a single play against the Saints in Week 14. On fly routes, however, Sanders did not receive a target in San Francisco.
While that latter point may shock some, it actually works for the Saints offense to know that Sanders can produce without relying on the deep ball and home run plays. On those curl and post routes, Sanders caught 100% of his targets while only accounting for 25% of his catches and 43.8% of his yardage while with the Niners.
As for those first down numbers his predecessor put up, Sanders’ 66.7% first down rate is right on par.
An added bonus to Sanders’ production came from creating separation with double moves. Something that Ginn has struggled to do later in his career. Sanders pulled three targets off of double moves in the back half of 2019. He only caught one, but all three passes where off target from Jimmy G. With Brees throwing more catchable passes, those should find their way into the catch margin.
Sanders looks more than well-equipped to hold up where Ginn was most productive while providing his own value elsewhere.
The former SMU Mustang showed a couple of areas where he can offer improvement from the Saints 2019 passing attack. The first route that jumps off the page is his work in the slant game. Michael Thomas haters thought they were furious before that he continues to win close to the line of scrimmage, wait until they get a load of both of these guys in the same offense. Sanders was targeted 11 times on slants catching eight for 130 yards. That total is very good production and came with some stellar yards after catch work.
Winning that close to the line also means that the Saints could see more production opposite Michael Thomas is press man situations. Nick Underhill recently wrote a piece on Sanders showing that he performed much better than Ginn when facing press.
WR Emmanuel Sanders — Averaged 13.94 YPC with SF in ‘19.— Matt Bowen (@MattBowen41) March 20, 2020
Veteran route runner. Slot ability. Sets-up man defenders to separate/create leverage. Can find open windows vs. zone coverage.
Best FA fits — SF, NO, DAL, TAM@NFLMatchup pic.twitter.com/odOB1q4zew
The former 49er also brings some additional production in/dig and out routes. Ginn had shown a penchant for digs in particular over the 2017 and 2018 season, but in 2019 he caught only two passes for 18 yards on the route. He also saw some production on over and drag routes as well which are in-breaking but require a less crisp route-running technique. On the other hand, Sanders grabbed four passes for 37 yards, essentially doubling Ginn’s production, again over 16 games for Ginn, 10 for Sanders. He also added another three receptions for 36 yards on out routes.
The out routes will be something we dig into further in the next piece because of Sanders’ experience running routes in a more precise, timing-reliant offense with the Broncos. Much like what he’ll experience with the Saints in 2020.
The bottom line is that with Sanders, you add just about every element of Ginn back into this offense, with several quantifiable improvements as well. This all goes without even mentioning his versatility and championship experience.
Expect to see Sanders serve a role much more expansive than that vacated by Ginn, but more time on the field. Sanders seems poised to take on more than Ginn’s 607 offensive snaps from 2019 and should almost certainly surpass Ginn’s 9.6% target share.
More targets, better production underneath, more reliable hands, veteran savvy, and a more diverse route tree are all a part of the new package lining up opposite Michael Thomas. Saints fans can learn a lot about what Sanders can bring to New Orleans after boosting the San Francisco passing game. Now, that same charge is on his way to the Big Easy. Up next, we’ll dive deep into some 2014 film to find specific plays, concepts, and schemes we might see for the wideout in 2020.
What type of production do you hope to see from Emmanuel Sanders in 2020? Let us know in the comments below. Make sure you follow Canal Street Chronicles on Twitter at @SaintsCSC, “Like” us on Facebook at Canal Street Chronicles, and make sure you’re subscribed to our new YouTube channel. As always, you can follow me on Twitter @RossJacksonNOLA and subscribe to my daily Saints podcast, Locked On Saints.