Rutgers WR Sanu looks to prove he can run with the best of them
INDIANAPOLIS -- You would have thought a school- and conference-record 115-catch performance as a junior last season would have done the trick quite nicely, but Rutgers receiver Mohamed Sanu arrives at the NFL Scouting Combine on Thursday in need of showing he can separate himself. Everybody's got something to prove here at the NFL's winter job fair, and Sanu's task is to make it clear he deserves to be seen through more than the dreaded "possession receiver'' prism, as if keeping possession of the ball is a lesser skill in the game of football.
"I don't feel like I have an issue with [getting separation from defenders], but a lot of people seem to think that and that's their opinion,'' Sanu said this week in a phone interview. "Everybody has their own opinion. But in the end, they'll have to see for themselves when my opportunity presents itself. I'm going to go out there and show that I can separate. I know I'll be able to change a lot of people's minds, just because I know who I am and I know what I can do. I know that the perceptions of my game aren't true perceptions.''
Sanu strikes me as one of the most intriguing prospects in this year's draft. Considered a borderline first-round/mid-second-round selection by many draft analysts, he has a lot at stake here in Indy, a city somewhat synonymous with speed. If he can run in the 4.4s, the rest of his game, a winning personality and a track record of football intelligence and leadership will easily sell itself. If his 40 time is on the slow side, the doubters will consider themselves validated and he'll become another potential victim in a scouting process that seems to make everything else secondary to the need for speed.
Sanu might be one of those receivers who plays faster than he does when timed, but his lack of elite straight-line speed has made some NFL personnel men skeptical of his ability to shed defenders at the line of scrimmage, or lose them downfield in coverage. They love his size (6-2, 215 pounds) and his ability to consistently come down with the ball in a crowd, but they want to see him do his thing in the wide-open spaces that dominate today's NFL passing games.
"I know some people compare him to Anquan Boldin, but I don't see Boldin's suddenness in him,'' one longtime club personnel executive said this week. "I don't think he can really run, get open, or get off the press [coverage]. He's physical, but everything in a clinch. It's like watching two boxers that never get out of the clinch. I just don't see the quick twitch to be a real good receiver. He's built like Boldin or Hakeem Nicks, but they can both separate.''
In a draft that is top-heavy on bigger receivers, Sanu faces the same size and speed challenge that South Carolina's Alshon Jeffrey does: They can run themselves into the first round in Indianapolis with a better-than-expected time, or they can almost assuredly assign themselves a second-round grade with a comparatively slow 40.
"I don't have Alshon Jeffrey or Mohammed Sanu with first-round grades,'' NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said in his pre-Combine conference call with reporters. "On tape for me, neither of them separate. They struggle getting off press coverage, and by the way, Sanu had  catches this year. Some of them were of sick variety. Just really impressive, one-handed, beautiful catches. So he's a guy I want to like and believe in, but he's not sudden. He doesn't have great acceleration, and in the NFL, everything's going to be contested. That's where you get nervous with some of these big-bodied guys. If they can't get open, is every throw going to be contested?''
But NFL scouts every year let their thirst for difference-making speed obscure the true value of players whose whole is made up of more than the sum of their parts. Speed is an overvalued component for so many of the players who get drafted every April, and many offer little else but their ability to separate. Then the games start, and you find out they don't really know how to play. Suddenly speed isn't the end-all, be-all that it would seem. That's really what Sanu is counting on. That there's a team out there that looks at him and sees a winning football player.
"I'm the type of player who knows I can do everything there is to be done on a football field as a receiver,'' he said. "I can run every route. I know how to run an inside route and run an outside route. I understand how to attack a defensive back. I know all about the coverages and where the weakness is in a defense. I just feel like I just do whatever needs to be done out there. This week is a great opportunity to show that, and I plan on taking full advantage because I know the game, and I've put everything on the line for this.''
Talk to people who know him best and they say Sanu will make most of his converts in the one-on-one meetings with NFL club officials and coaches. By and large the league gets to the Combine without really knowing much about the juniors who have declared for the draft, so NFL talent evaluators always come out of Indy won over by a handful of prospects who have wowed them with their preparation, poise and winning personality. Sanu seems ready to be one of those slightly-off-the-radar types whose greatest impact here might come in face-to-face interviews, rather than on the field.
A native of Sierra Leone, Africa, who spent his childhood bouncing between there and South Brunswick, N.J., Sanu is not your typical diva receiver. He is known for his superb attitude and work ethic, and he has been a selfless team-first player for Rutgers, switching from safety to receiver as a freshman, but also successfully playing plenty of Wildcat quarterback in both 2009 and 2010, when he was basically the entire Scarlet Knights offense. NFL scouts trying to measure his speed and separation ability may tend to overlook that, in his role as Rutgers' slot receiver, he was seldom given shots to stretch the field or run vertical patterns. In the NFL, if they haven't seen you master a particular skill, the assumption is you don't have it. But such is not always the case.
"Sometimes I don't understand why they think of a possession receiver as a bad thing,'' said Sanu, who will fully participate in all receiver drills at the Combine. "You're supposed to maintain possession of the ball, that's our job. Catch the ball when it comes your way. I didn't get that many opportunities to attack vertically or stretch the field, because I was put in the slot position. But I was there because I was the best person for the job and it was the best thing for our team. But I know I can stretch the field, and I'm just going to have to go prove it.''
Sanu didn't want to hazard a specific guess as to where his 40 time will end up, but predicted it will "look great,'' adding that scouts will "see for themselves, and then they'll believe it.'' At the end of the weekend, he said he expects to be considered among the best receivers in this draft, right there in the same conversation with the elite foursome of Oklahoma State's Justin Blackmon, Baylor's Kendall Wright, Notre Dame's Michael Floyd and LSU's Reuben Randle -- all of whom should go in the first round. A team like the receiver-needy 49ers, owning the No. 30 pick, is almost certain to be eyeing him closely this week.
"We all have different things we bring to the table, and we're all good at something,'' Sanu said. "But I feel like I'm up in there with the best of them. Not many people in the league know about me yet, or what kind of person I am. But I can't wait to talk to teams and let them know what I know about the game, and how offensive concepts work and how to attack a defense. I'm going to leave it all out there this week. I love the game and this is what I've been doing since I was a little kid.''
The Combine, for both good and bad, can be a perception-changer in dramatic fashion. What is being said and written about Sanu today may not be the same even a week from now. The beauty of this event, if you can even call it that, is that players often come into it with one label and leave with another. Nail this job interview and you can make the NFL see you in a new light. You can make scouts eat their words.
"I'm going to make sure those words, and those perceptions change,'' Sanu said. "That's what I'm definitely going to do this week.''