Mohamed Sanu is home in Atlanta now, without a team during football season for the first time since he was a kid. His story is one of many affected by the sideways circumstances of the season of COVID-19, and also one of how the NFL treats players on the wrong side of 30. But make no mistake about it, there’s another element at play that few will talk about next week.
Mohamed Sanu’s story is also a story of the NFL trade deadline.
A year ago, Sanu was in the fourth year of a five-year, $32.5 million deal he signed with the Falcons in 2016 and, really, everything had worked out for everyone in the aftermath of that move. Atlanta went to the Super Bowl in that first year, Sanu settled in the area and he caught 225 balls and scored 14 touchdowns in 53 games with the team.
Sanu had gotten wind of the idea he could be on the move as early as March 2019—with 2018 first-round pick Calvin Ridley in the fold to play opposite Julio Jones, it was obvious that he wouldn’t be around forever—and it wasn’t like he was obliviously whistling past the prospect of getting traded. He knew it could happen. He just didn’t think it was very productive to ruminate over it.
Things changed on Friday, Oct. 18. Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff gave Sanu’s agent, Mike McCartney, a heads up that he planned to work on trading Sanu, and McCartney then relayed word to the eighth-year slot receiver.
“My agent told me Friday: Hey, if you guys lose, you’re more than likely to get traded,” Sanu said after finishing up a workout on Wednesday afternoon. “I was like, Damn, for real? So in your head, you’re thinking, Do I wanna get traded? Do I not wanna get traded? Because you never know what situation is somewhere else, or what the scenario’s going to be.”
Two days later, the Rams blew the Falcons off the field, 37–10, dropping Atlanta’s record to 1–6.
Two days after that, true to Dimitroff’s word, Sanu was dealt.
And a year later, he’s still feeling the impact of those four days.
We’re approaching midseason, and November, and there’s plenty to dig through in this week’s GamePlan. In here, you’ll find …
• More trade deadline rumors.
• The 49ers’ secret weapon.
• Power rankings!
But we’re starting with the story of Sanu, who can tell you that being traded to a contending team can come with a price.
First things first: Sanu’s not harboring bitterness over how last year went. In fact, as he sees it, the experience forced him to evaluate just about everything. Which is a good thing.
“Everything happens for a reason,” he said. “It was a crazy experience, one that you don’t really want to wish on anybody—you go through a lot of different things. For a player? Players like their routine, and when you have a routine down pat, that you know is going to have you ready for Sunday, make you successful on Sunday, and you can’t quite get adjusted to how to get yourself prepared mentally, physically, emotionally.
“A lot goes into that, that people don’t think about.”
As a result, Sanu’s revamped just about everything around him. He hired a speed coach and shaved time off his 40. He hired a nutritionist and has dropped from 212 pounds to 204. He hired a receivers coach, Drew Lieberman, and even had that coach move in with him in Atlanta. He also hired a mental coach. And now he’s waiting for the call to come from a team.
COVID-19 has thrown a wrench in that, of course. The new six-day waiting period for free agents to enter team facilities (part of the NFL’s COVID-19 protocols) means a team would have to be willing, to sign a player like Sanu, to put him up for a week in a hotel to go through testing before allowing him to join the roster. That, of course, mitigates what an outside player can do to help fill a hole created by injury. Unless a team gets moving right away on Monday morning, a player it signs won’t be cleared to play the following Sunday.
So, bottom line, a team has to feel pretty strongly about a street free agent to go through all that to get him. But Sanu believes, at 31, he’s got plenty left to give, and a big part of that was getting traded—and having the trade not work out as planned.
“It’s helped me realize a lot of different things about myself. I came out better than I ever would have if I wasn’t injured,” Sanu said. “I’m in better shape now, way better shape. My body is the best I’ve been. I feel like I’m faster, stronger, lighter. Everything that happened, it happened for a reason, and I’m grateful that it happened. But at the same time, a lot of people don’t know. I haven’t been seen, so they’re going off what they saw last year.”
And the truth is, what happened last year didn’t always look pretty, and that was for more reasons than most people know.
The Monday after that Rams game, on Oct. 21 of last year, then Falcons coach Dan Quinn called Sanu and told him that he’d be traded, likely to either San Francisco or New England. Because he’d gotten the heads-up Friday, it didn’t exactly floor Sanu, so he went on with his weekly routine—which, later in the day, included traveling to Cincinnati, as he would weekly, so he could drive his son to school on Tuesday morning. By the time the second call came, this one from Dimitroff, Sanu was in Ohio. The deal wasn’t 100% done, but he could start to plan on going to New England.
The Patriots had a second-round pick on the table, the Niners were offering a third and, barring any last-minute snags, Dimitroff told him, the deal would get done. And on Tuesday morning, it was formalized. Patriots director of scouting administration Nancy Meier called first to arrange his flight from Cincinnati to Boston, then Bill Belichick, with whom Sanu already had a relationship, called, and Tom Brady DM’d him on Instagram.
Sanu was a Patriot. He moved into a hotel Tuesday. He practiced Wednesday. The challenge ahead was clear immediately, from the minute the playbook loaded on to his iPad.
“It was definitely a hard playbook,” he said. “I get playbooks very easily—I understand the Falcons playbook like the back of my hand. People would say I was the quarterback of the receivers. When somebody forgot what they had or didn’t know a call, I knew exactly what everybody had, so they’d come to me. And I learn quickly. But that offense was much different. It was a harder process. You had to study. You had figure out how to master it.”
Sanu, as a rule, never took notes as a player, because he has strong memory and recall, and “because I feel like if I’m taking notes, I’ll miss something being said.” But this time around, for the first time, because of the complexity of what he was learning, he decided the time was right to change policy—and he started writing down what he was learning. And that paid off with a 10-catch, 81-yard performance in his second game as a Patriot, in Baltimore.
His third game with New England didn’t go as well. Sanu got hurt returning a punt, and the next day it was diagnosed as a Grade 3 high ankle sprain, a four-to-six-week injury. So just as he was settling into his new life—he was moving out of the hotel and into an apartment the following week—things came undone again. And without the system he’d set up for himself in Atlanta, where he had his massages and lifts and conditioning set up a certain way, everything became a little harder.
But he knew he wasn’t going to be passive about things. He knew the Patriots traded for him as part of a push for a championship. He was going to do his part. So he missed only one game.
“That [Baltimore] game, that was the best I’d felt,” Sanu said. “That was where I felt the most comfortable. I was getting ready to get going. And as soon as I broke that punt return, Boom! There was definitely a pop in my ankle. But just me being me, I’m not gonna sit out. I’m gonna try my best to play, I’m trying my best to show my teammates, coaches, organization, Y’all traded for me, you’re getting a tough competitor that’s gonna grind it out and be there for his team. And yeah, that ended up backfiring.”
When I asked Sanu whether having that system (of massage people, trainers, etc.) he’d built around him in Atlanta taken away in New England might’ve led to the injury, he said he hadn’t thought as much about that. What he does know, though, is that his desire to get New England in position to win a championship trumped everything else for him. And that didn’t just mean expediting his return to the game field.
It also meant doing everything on the practice field—which was a lot more than he’d done in Atlanta. And as Sanu looks back now, the drastic change in routine in that area could’ve set off the chain of events to follow.
“The way they practiced was a lot different than the way we practiced, the way I practiced in Atlanta,” Sanu said. “I had to adjust to that. Taking every rep vs. taking four or five reps per period, that was different. … [In Atlanta], they would manage your reps, so you’d be fresh for the game. But in New England, we’d take every rep, just so we could build chemistry. All the starters took every rep. I mean, I see why. It would just burn people out, you could get injured, that’s how I thought of it. A lot of people pulled stuff. …
“There’s no need for you to play 60 plays in a game and take four periods of nine plays—take nine plays each period. … That’s 36 plays each day on top of the game reps. It’s a lot.”
However it happened, the wear on his ankle was apparent. The combination of his own competitiveness and New England’s unbending standard was taking its toll, and it showed up in the numbers. In his final six weeks as a Patriot, Sanu never caught more than three balls or broke 40 yards in a game, and he didn’t get in the end zone once.
“I tore a lot of stuff in my ankle,” Sanu said. “I was playing with some ligaments missing. It wasn’t stable. I couldn’t plant like I wanted to, cut like I wanted to. It was a lot.”
After the season, the injury didn’t improve. Shortly after the combine, Sanu had surgery. Soon thereafter, the Patriots lost Brady, for whom the team had seen Sanu as a fit. They signed Cam Newton, who didn’t line up stylistically with the veteran receiver as Brady had, and that led to Sanu’s release before the final roster cutdown.
Sanu wound up landing with the other team that had made Atlanta an offer last October, the Niners, and his old offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. But it was clear that he was there as an injury replacement for Deebo Samuel, and when Samuel healed up, San Francisco didn’t have room for him, either. So three weeks ago, the Niners let him go.
Which has left him hoping he can show someone out there the lessons he’s learned from having gone through all this.