The Denver Broncos couldn’t let the first week of free agency expire without another move that caused waves around the NFL. ESPN’s Adam Schefter is reporting the Broncos are expected to sign free-agent wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, formerly of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Broncos have made several splashes already in free agency. Adding guys like strong safety T.J. Ward, cornerback Aqib Talib and defensive end Demarcus Ware is arguably the most impactful group of signings in the NFL.
On Saturday night, the Broncos gave an answer:
Neither team nor player's agent will confirm, but Broncos are expected to sign former Steelers WR Emmauel Sanders, per league sources.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) March 16, 2014
It’s yet another big move for the Broncos, and one that takes care of two problems: wide receiver and return man.
Sanders has played in all 16 regular-season games in each of the last two years, but he’s been slowed down by foot problems his entire career.
His career totals include 161 receptions, 2,030 receiving yards, 11 receiving touchdowns, 16 punt returns, 175 punt return yards, 41 kickoff returns and 1,016 kickoff return yards.
Let’s reflect on Sanders’ football career to this point, while also looking ahead to what is next for the Broncos in free agency.
Sanders went to SMU after a standout prep career. At Bellville High School, Sanders played three different positions (safety, running back and wide receiver). He was voted All-District after his senior season when he recorded seven touchdowns and three interceptions. That year he was also named team MVP and Tri-County offensive player of the year.
He redshirted in his first season with the Mustangs (2005). In 2006, Sanders didn’t take long to showcase his talent. He caught touchdown passes in six consecutive games for the Mustangs, breaking a 29-year-old record at SMU.
He started all 12 games in the 2007 season. He caught 74 passes for 889 yards and nine touchdowns that year. Sanders was named as an honorable mention All-Conference USA by the coaches.
In 2008, he started the first 10 games, catching 67 passes for 958 yards and nine touchdowns. Sanders was suspended for the final two games of the year on minor academic and football violations.
He returned in 2009 for his senior season, and Sanders had his best year ever. His performance helped the Mustangs earn their first bowl appearance in 25 years. Sanders finished his SMU career as the team’s career leader in receptions, touchdown catches and yards.
In his final game, Sanders went out with a bang. He had seven catches for 124 yards and a touchdown, helping SMU to a 45-10 win over the Nevada Wolf Pack in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl.
Sanders was a third-round pick by the Steelers in the 2010 NFL draft. During his time in Pittsburgh he’s started 19 of 56 career games.
His first two seasons in the league were cut short by foot problems. Sanders missed eight games in those first two years, and he only caught 50 passes combined.
He’s stayed healthy the last two seasons, catching 44 and 67 passes, respectfully. Sanders was supposed to have a breakout season in 2013, but his nagging foot injuries slowed him down.
In Week 16, Sanders suffered a minor knee injury that also held him back. He’s a player with great speed and upside, but staying healthy has been a problem as a pro.
Speed is the name of the game with Sanders. He can get open downfield in the blink of an eye, plus Sanders can adeptly track passes that come in over his shoulder.
In addition to stretching the field vertically, Sanders is willing to run routes over the middle. His speed and quickness make him great at running jerk routes out of the slot.
Sanders is quick enough to beat press coverage off the line of scrimmage. He also has the elusiveness after the catch to be considered a threat to score every time he touches the ball.
He has strong hands and can make difficult catches seem routine. Sanders has the body control to work the sidelines and get two feet inbounds.
Lack of durability is the biggest concern with Sanders.
He has a history of foot problems, and there are screws in both feet from previous surgeries. Sanders missed five regular-season games in 2011, but he has not missed a game since then.
However, he dealt with foot problems all of 2013 and was slowed down by a minor knee injury late in the season.
His slight build means he fails to sustain blocks downfield. He does a good job of getting in the way, but don’t expect him to hold up his man for that long.
Once in a while, Sanders will drop an easy pass put on the money. When he does this, it’s usually because he’s thinking about running before securing the ball.
How Does He Fit in Denver?
Sanders can step in and start for the Broncos from day one. He will likely compete to replace Decker with Andre “Bubba” Caldwell and an unknown rookie wide receiver.
Adding Sanders doesn’t mean the Broncos won’t address the position in the draft. In fact, with his history of foot problems, the Broncos would be wise to add a wide receiver with a pick in the first three rounds. This is a talent-rich draft class, but that talent dries up after Round 3.
Sanders has the speed to attack the defense downfield, but he also isn’t afraid of running routes over the middle. He could start for the Broncos as an “X” receiver, or he could play as a slot receiver.
With only 11 career touchdown receptions, it’s not out of the question to think that Sanders could surpass that number in a single season with the Broncos. Manning loves the open guy, and Sanders will get better separation than Decker did underneath and downfield.
Sanders can also help the Broncos as a return man, so long as his foot is not bothering him.
What’s Next for the Broncos?
The Broncos should continue to focus on the defensive side of the ball. This next wave of free agency could see them add a middle linebacker.
With Daryl Smith signing with the Ravens, and Brandon Spikes signing with the Bills, the pickings are slim at the position. Dan Connor (Panthers) might be an option. He was a third-round pick by the Panthers in 2008 when current Broncos head coach John Fox was in Carolina. Connor is only a two-down thumper who struggles in coverage.
In addition to the defensive side of the ball, the Broncos could add another running back to the mix. Players like Justin Forsett (Jacksonville), Bernard Scott (Bengals) or Felix Jones (Steelers) could be an option. With Knowshon Moreno likely to find another home in free agency, the Broncos need to add at least another back.
There’s still a need on the offensive line after left guard Zane Beadles went to the Jaguars in free agency. Former Panthers guard Travelle Wharton could make a lot of sense for Denver if the price was right.
This free-agency season has been full of moves on the defensive side of the ball. The Broncos have seriously improved that side of the ball with only a few moves. The next wave of free agency will see them add bits and pieces to both sides of the ball.
Acquiring Sanders was a bit of a surprise on Saturday night. Here’s what some excited Broncos fans had to say:
@cecillammey I've wanted sanders for a while now. I love that there seems to be zero reports of interest in a guy & then BOOM, they land him— Rodi (@BluenorangeFTW) March 16, 2014
@cecillammey should I be more excited about this deal than I am? MLB seems like such a large hole, not really stoked about Sanders— Joe (@leftbehind33) March 16, 2014
@cecillammey I agree completely he has huge upside if he plays a healthy 16 games this season he works out of the slot so well— Whitley Gilbert (@CardBoardPhene) March 16, 2014
The Broncos are masters of free agency. The fact that Sanders signed with the Broncos even though he never came to Denver shows just how attractive catching passes from Peyton Manning is.
Sanders gives this team another playmaker in the passing game. His speed will help open things up for underneath receivers like Wes Welker and Julius Thomas.
We’re not even a week into free agency, and the Broncos have already filled important positions on the roster. Who knows what’s next for Denver, but whatever the Broncos do should be exciting!
Note: All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record/statistical information provided via email from the Denver Broncos. All contract information for individual players is from Spotrac.com. Cecil Lammey can be followed on Twitter @CecilLammey.