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Arming up at Midseason: Why the Emmanuel Sanders trade was a brilliant move

Don Atkinson
Oct 25, 2019 at 5:36 PM4

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Former Broncos wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders has already donned his fresh number 17 jersey, gotten a few practices under his belt, studied some playbook, and is settling into his new life as a San Francisco 49er. Judging from both his demeanor and his smile, he seems genuinely happy to be here.

While everything is looking good within Niner City itself, there is still an element of second-guessing, and even some outward media criticism, over the team sending its third- and fourth-round selections in the 2020 draft in exchange for the veteran Sanders and Denver's fifth-round pick. Some are saying two mid-draft picks was too great a price to pay for what they deem to functionally be a "rental player," in that Sanders plays out his contract at the end of this season.

But a quick look at the risk-benefit aspect of the deal tells us all we need to know about its value.

Denver and San Francisco are teams heading in opposite directions approaching the midway point of the season. It doesn't take a fortuneteller to see that the difference between the 49ers' fourth-round pick and the Broncos' fifth-rounder is going to be negligible. The 49ers are headed for a very late fourth, and Denver could be picking in the first handful of teams in the fifth. In effect, that part of the deal is a straight swap.

That leaves just the one pick then, and grabbing the veteran Sanders at the cost of what amounts to a third-round roll of the dice in next year's draft isn't just a bargain. It's an absolute steal.

Clearly, a third-round selection isn't something to throw away. 49ers linebacker Fred Warner was a third-round pick in 2018, as was cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon in 2017. It's hard to argue those aren't important picks, as both are not only starters but key players in the 49ers' elite defense. But that doesn't mean this is the value of every third- or fourth-round pick the team has in 2020, or any other year for that matter.

The 49ers' other third and fourth rounders over the last few years have included defensive ends Corey Lemonier and Eli Harold, running backs Marcus Lattimore and Joe Williams, offensive linemen Marcus Martin and Brandon Thomas, wide receiver DeAndre Smelter, tight end Blake Bell, and cornerbacks Will Redmond and Rashard Robinson. This isn't to deride the talent of any of those players, but the facts are that all were drafted in the early rounds within the past six years, yet none are much more than answers to obscure trivia questions here in 2019.

The 49ers (excepting the years that former 49ers General Manager Trent Baalke spent trying to steer the team's draft-time ship into a coral reef) have been adept at getting the most out of their later picks, a talent that originated with Coach Bill Walsh. Plenty of past 49er standouts have come in the late rounds of the draft, including Punter Andy Lee (sixth round), DB Merton Hanks (fifth), DT Michael Carter (fifth), OL Jesse Sapolu (eleventh), and WR Dwight Clark (tenth) – all Pro-Bowlers.

More recently, the 49ers have snatched up players like defensive ends Ronald Blair and Jullian Taylor, offensive guard Mike Person and receiver Richie James, Jr. beyond the fourth round. Blair was a fifth-round pick; Taylor, Person and James were all seventh rounders. And don't forget another recent fifth-rounder: tight end George Kittle.

The point is this: there is no guarantee, in fact statistically there isn't even a likelihood, that a player taken in the 3rd or 4th round of the NFL draft will become a starter, let alone be an impact player. And there's just as strong a possibility that a player drafted in the fifth, sixth or seventh round will still be on a team's roster after three years as there is one drafted in the third or fourth rounds.

Accordingly, the idea that the 49ers gave away too much in a single third-round selection is ludicrous.

In the NFL today, the very best teams are assembled more quickly than in years past, and fade into obscurity just as fast. Dynasties lasting decades are nearly impossible to create. Certainly, the days of New England's Super Bowl domination are coming to an end soon. It's just how the league is now, and there's little time to sit around pondering the effects of a third- or fourth-round pick that may help your team "one day."

The 49ers are a very young team, and have their future already mapped out. And there's plenty of work they can do with what picks they do have remaining in 2020. What they needed was some "right now" talent at the wide receiver position, and in Sanders they got just that.

Emmanuel Sanders isn't a marquee player like Odell Beckham, Jr. or Julio Jones. But he's fast, agile and smart. He's a superior route runner and he's an expert at exploiting weaknesses in pass coverage. Once the ball is in the air, Sanders is skilled at getting separation from defenders and he's got truly great hands. Sanders simply doesn't drop passes.

The 49ers receivers to date have dropped their share, which have been drive killers each time. Aggressive pass catching hasn't exactly been a characteristic of the 49ers' wide receivers thus far, and that's another feature that Sanders brings. He always fights for the ball and frequently comes away with it.

Plucking Sanders out of a rather hopeless situation in Denver, where the team sits at 2-5 and seems to be tanking, is a win for all parties involved. The Broncos get another draft pick that will help them feed some obvious needs, Sanders gets the chance to lock into a team clearly headed for the post-season, and the 49ers get the offensive puzzle piece they have really been missing for the last seven weeks.

Sanders may not be a 49er beyond this season (he is a free agent next year), but that shouldn't even be a key discussion right now. 49ers Head Coach Kyle Shanahan and GM John Lynch are smart, and there's every possibility that they will find a way to get Sanders signed if he stays healthy and turns out to be an impact player here.

But that really was not even the point of making this trade.

Sanders helps right now, and in a big way — certainly on the field, but in the locker room as well. Like 49ers captains Richard Sherman and Joe Staley, Sanders brings the presence of a seasoned veteran with real post-season experience into the 49ers' house. The effect that will have on the young 49ers receiving corps will prove to be significant as the team moves into the back half of the season.

Sanders will play to a higher level than perhaps the 49ers' opponents have seen from the offense so far, and in turn, he will inspire and lead the younger receivers around him to elevate their own play. It's a formula that has worked with many winning teams before, and it has the look of success here for the 49ers.

You can add to this another key effect of having Sanders on the field: His presence forces defenses to have to account for more than the one consistent, big-play threat presented by Kittle. We've seen what happens to teams when they are forced to focus on pass coverage and away from the run. This is the landscape in which Tevin Coleman, Matt Breida and Raheem Mostert tear teams to shreds with the run. Add fullback Kyle Juszczyk back into that mix and it's going to get ugly for some teams in the 49ers' way coming up.

Dialing Emmanuel Sanders in and getting him on the field with the existing components of the 49ers' offense isn't just good football. It's brilliant strategy. And it's sending a message, not only to the rest of the NFL but also the team itself: the drive to the playoffs is real and it's happening now.

The 49ers aren't waiting until next year to get this thing done.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


  • MW
    Agreed - an extremely well-written article. Top-notch stuff all the way around.
    Oct 26, 2019 at 8:59 AM
  • Hack
    Nice analysis, in perfect synch with Shanahan's attack every blade of grass scheme. I think the extended loss of Trent Taylor, coupled with the tackles going down occasioned this trade. Garoppolo needs a reliable quick release guy or it's just math before he gets sent to the sideline. Sanders is also a legitimate end zone threat. That stutter step is lethal
    Oct 26, 2019 at 6:03 AM
  • Albert C
    Not to mention if he walks, we'll probably get a comp pick out of it (or at the very least be a benefit to the mystery formula). My guess is somewhere between a 4th and 6th rounder.
    Oct 25, 2019 at 11:01 PM
  • Bill Bird
    This author rocks. I wish we could see a lot more from him. He really puts things into perspective and pulls from past experiences to make well-rounded and rational points. He is my favorite Webzone contributor by far.
    Oct 25, 2019 at 7:09 PM

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