The loss of former New Orleans Saints wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders was necessary for the young team to move forward in building a new supporting cast around a younger quarterback. But he undoubtedly leaves a hole of production behind that won’t be a cake walk to replace.
This isn’t the only quality player the Saints had to let go of to save money, as Malcom Brown, Janoris Jenkins and Kwon Alexander were both cut this offseason. But Sanders was versatile and reliable when it came to stepping up in times of need.
When Michael Thomas got hurt, Sanders carried the receiving load and was a major factor in getting some tight wins early in the season.
It’s obvious that this is a good player the Saints are losing to the Bills. But what exact skills and contributions will need to be filled to replicate his production at an important position next season?
Here’s my two cents on the most vital ingredients he added to the team:
This is perhaps an underrated skill, as the most sought-after ability from the WR position is obviously being able to win one-on-one matchups consistently. However, this awareness and recognition of where to be and how to find holes in zones will be missed from Sanders.
Not only is the awareness important when it comes to running routes against zone coverage, but timing is everything. If you aren’t well-versed with your QB on when to break or when to sit in a hole in the zone, then the QB might be preparing to let the ball rip before your head is turned.
The play above encapsulates this awareness and timing needed to exploit zone coverage, which most teams run some variation of the majority of the time.
He’s got a seam route from the right slot position, and the defense is in a two-high coverage. If they rotate to one-high, then he stays up the seam. If they stay in two-high, which they do, he bends it behind the linebacker and in front of the safety.
Here, he does the latter and ducks right behind the backer just as Brees turns back to his right and hits him for a nice gain.
It may not seem like much, but these are those savvy routes that Sanders brought to the table night in and night out, taking what the defense gives you from a zone look.
In addition to hardly ever dropping passes (only one season in his career with more than five drops despite having over 1,000 targets), Sanders always seemed to make a play when it was needed most. Whether it be this play above when they were trailing to the Eagles, his deep grab against the Chiefs down 14-0 or his touchdown snag right before halftime against the Packers when the offense was sputtering, he doesn’t shrink when things are getting tough.
He also just had big games when the offense was short on receivers.
After taking two weeks to adjust to the offense, he caught his stride in Week 3 against the Packers, with four catches on five targets for 56 yards and a huge TD right before the half.
Then as the Saints were in a 1-2 hole going into Week 4 vs. the Lions, he went off.
In Weeks 4 and 5, as the number one receiver on the offense, he caught 18 of 22 targets for 215 yards (and a should’ve been TD that was called an inch short after review in the Chargers game) — in two close wins where the offense was in catch-up mode.
In these two weeks alone, his 83.6 PFF grade was the 8th-highest among 51 qualifying receivers, his 81.8% catch rate was 5th and he recorded zero drops.
That’s what you call stepping up to the plate.
And the only thing that could slow him down was COVID-19, as he tested positive and missed the following two weeks just as he caught his rhythm.
Replacing what Sanders brought to the table is doable, through free agency or the draft, but it definitely won’t be easy.
What did you think of these guys, and how easily do you think they can be replaced? Let us know in the comments. Make sure you follow Canal Street Chronicles on Twitter at @SaintsCSC, “Like” us on Facebook at Canal Street Chronicles, follow us on Instagram at @SaintsCSC and make sure you’re subscribed to our new YouTube channel. As always, you can follow me on Twitter @AndrewBell_98.