Mohamed Sanu Shows How the NFL Trade Deadline Can Impact a Career

Ahead of the NFL trade deadline, let's look back at how one of the biggest names to move last year remains affected. Plus, some names who that teams are getting calls about, how the 49ers are withstanding injuries, power rankings and more.
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

“It was all beneficial for me,” Sanu said. “The improvements have been drastic. I benefited drastically, and not just athletically, but in all areas of life. I’m a better dad, better friend, better brother, all that.”

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On the surface, it’s been a pretty precipitous fall. A year ago, the Patriots, the NFL’s gold standard, were willing to give up a second-round pick for Sanu. Five days ahead of this year’s trade deadline, he’s training on his own in Atlanta, looking for a shot somewhere.

Of course the what-ifs have crossed his mind. What if he hadn’t been traded? What if he’d instead gone to the Niners, who got Emmanuel Sanders at the deadline for their own Super Bow run? But as he sees it, the final result of all this actually isn’t horrible.

“Not even close,” he said. “Right now, I’m better physically, mentally and emotionally than I was last year at this point in time.”

That, in turn, plays into the advice he’d give any player whose name is being bandied about right now through the rumor mill.

“I’d just say try to keep your routine as best you can, try to keep a clear head, a clear mind, have people you can rely on and talk to—and don’t try to handle everything on your own,” Sanu said. “You do that, because you feel like you have to, you feel like that’s what’s most important. You don’t have to.”

Based on the team he’s got around him now, Sanu’s not trying to anymore. And he’s hoping that sometime soon he can show someone the benefits he’s taken from that.

Which would only give us all another example of the impact these trades can have on a player’s career.

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POWER RANKINGS

1) Pittsburgh Steelers (6–0): Right now, they look like the NFL’s most complete team. The defensive front is imposing, the secondary’s better than it’s been in a long time and the offense is very solid with potential to ascend around its crew of young pass catchers. All of which leads into an intriguing game with archrival Baltimore on Sunday, harkening back to what that matchup was a decade ago.

2) Kansas City Chiefs (6–1): The Chiefs look like a team that can win a lot of different ways right now. They blew out Denver on Sunday with first-half touchdowns from the offense, defense and special teams. They beat Buffalo the week before with their run game. And the idea that they no longer need Patrick Mahomes to take over to win games should be a pretty scary prospect for everyone.

3) Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5–2): It’s weird putting a two-loss team ahead of four one-loss teams, but the Bucs really have had it going the last two weeks. And just as the Chiefs and Steelers have looked complete, the Bucs have, too. As good as Tom Brady and the offense have looked, the Bucs’ defense might be even better.

4) Baltimore Ravens (5–1): I’m hearing a lot about how the Lamar Jackson–fueled offense has come back to earth. And maybe that’s true—the bar set last year was pretty high. But I still think there’s room for growth with their young receivers and Yannick Ngakoue’s joining a tough, versatile defense. Their game this week, as I see it, is a legit coin flip. So if Baltimore’s that close to Pittsburgh, I have to get them in the top five.

5) Tennessee Titans (5–1): Last week’s No. 1 falls as a result of their loss to Pittsburgh. But seeing their ability, again, to come from behind is a major thing. What separates great NFL quarterbacks from average or good ones, generally, is third-and-long and playing from behind. Ryan Tannehill’s been checking those boxes.

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Vikings' Kyle Rudolph catches game-winning touchdown pass in overtime vs. Saints in NFL playoffs

THE BIG QUESTION

How much movement will we see over the next five days?

A round of texts and calls on Thursday morning showed the NFL to be in a familiar place a little more than a week out from the trade deadline—asking prices are still too high on veteran players, and whether they come down will likely dictate how much activity is coming.

So a lot of names we gave you last Thursday are still on the market. Among them: Vikings TE Kyle Rudolph, G Pat Elflein and WR Tajae Sharpe; Eagles WR Alshon Jeffery; Giants G Kevin Zeitler and WR Golden Tate; Falcons DE Takk McKinley; Texans WRs Kenny Stills and Will Fuller; Washington DE/OLBs Ryan Kerrigan and Ryan Anderson; Bengals WR John Ross; Browns TE David Njoku; 49ers WR Dante Pettis; and Dolphins RB Jordan Howard.

What else is floating around out there? Let’s dive in …

• Names of Eagles and Vikings players have continued to pop up, as two teams that expected to contend and have had rough starts consider their options. Eagles S Will Parks and Vikings franchise-tagged S Anthony Harris are new available names that I’ve heard over the last few days.

• We told you last week that the Texans were waiting to see how the game against the Packers went to chart their path. Well, Houston lost that game 35–20 and, it seems, is now open for business. The Texans have told other teams that four players are off limits: QB Deshaun Watson, DE J.J. Watt and OTs Laremy Tunsil and Tytus Howard. They’ll listen on anyone else (though they’d probably be less likely to move guys they just signed extensions with). They’ll get calls on their receivers, and could move Stills, Fuller or Brandin Cooks.

• The Falcons are in a similar spot to Houston, without knowledge of who their coach or GM will be in January and trying to manage their roster accordingly—and give the new coach and GM the ability to do what they want with the major pieces on the roster. That said, McKinley was available before Quinn and Dimitroff were fired. Center Alex Mack is another who hasn’t elicited interest yet but could—he’s in a contract year, and his successor, rookie Matt Hennessy, is already in-house. With O-line issues across the league, he might make sense for someone to rent. And he wouldn’t be a trade asset for the next GM and coach, anyway.

• Teams out of the race aren’t the only ones that could have assets for sale. Over the last week or so, word around the league was that Seattle was trying to create cap space to add a pass rusher, and TE Jacob Hollister was available. Now that B.J. Finney was traded and Carlos Dunlap has been acquired, the Seahawks have pulled back on that. But Hollister drummed up so much interest across the league that I don’t think it’s impossible someone will put something in front of the Seahawks they have to consider.

• The Browns are another team that could get creative in moving players in and out, and along those lines veteran pass rusher Olivier Vernon’s name is one that’s circulating as available for teams looking for help in that area. I don’t think it’s too much to think the Browns could trade Vernon and add a pass rusher elsewhere to replace him.

• In the wake of the Dunlap trade, my understanding is that teams have called the Bengals about veteran DT Geno Atkins and have been told he isn’t available.

• The Jets have gotten calls on LB Avery Williamson, OTs George Fant and Chuma Edoga, and CB Quincy Wilson. There hasn’t been as much interest in Crowder, nor has there been in DBs Brian Poole and Marcus Maye.

• The Patriots have been quiet thus far, but I’m told they’ve said to other teams they’d listen on almost anyone. The team did discuss Stephon Gilmore with other teams before the draft, and then again in training camp, before moving $4.5 million in his contract from 2021 to ’20. Other teams took that restructure as a sure sign that this will be Gilmore’s last year in New England. So if they lose Sunday in Buffalo, it’d be interesting to see if they’d move the timetable on his departure up.

And we’ll see where things go from here. As I’d mentioned with the Patriots, Sunday’s results could impact how teams approach all this on Monday and Tuesday, as could the realities of the COVID-19 onboarding process.

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WHAT NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT

The key behind the Niners’ withstanding the barrage of injuries.

No Nick Bosa. No Solomon Thomas. No Jimmie Ward or Richard Sherman. No Jordan Reed. And on Sunday, no Raheem Mostert either, and San Francisco was still able to pulverize the Patriots, 33–6, in Foxboro.

And how were they able to do it? To me, a huge piece of it was their ability to maintain the identity they’ve established since Kyle Shanahan arrived in 2017, and that identity is centered on what might be the sport’s most creative run game. Consider this …

• Despite all the attrition and players in and out of the lineup, San Francisco is eighth in rushing yards per game (137.7), eighth in yards per carry (4.8) and first in rushing touchdowns (12).

• In the New England game, with Jeff Wilson and JaMycal Hasty as lead backs, the Niners rushed for 197 yards on 37 carries (5.3 yards per), which allowed the visitors over 38 minutes of possession.

• With the run game rolling, the Niners have been able to ease Garoppolo back into the mix as he works to get his ankle back to 100%. As a result, Garoppolo’s play is improving.

And as you might imagine, Garoppolo’s appreciative of what the offense is giving him.

“I think it starts with the coaches,” he told me. “Those guys, every week, they really take pride in the run game and making it look similar but different at the same time. And it's just, when they can put in something that unique and different, it's on the players to get it down and get it right in practice. We've got a bunch of smart guys. It's like you said, whoever you put in there, they're going to know what to do and how to run the play.

“When you can do that, that's how you sustain injuries and things like that throughout a season, especially like this COVID season. There's just so many injuries, so many weird things going on. But when you have a system like that and guys who can buy into it and run it, it makes for a successful team."

So here’s a name to watch: Mike McDaniel. The Niners’ run game coordinator is a key to a lot of this, and he’s the one assistant that Shanahan has taken everywhere he’s gone—from Houston to Washington, Cleveland, Atlanta and now San Francisco. The former Yale receiver has been a popular coordinator candidate the last year or two, and with the new rules in place on coaches seeking promotions, it’d be easier for him to leave if he wants to call plays somewhere else.

It also wouldn’t be a shocker if defensive coordinator Robert Saleh—who’s done a phenomenal job in his own right amid a mountain of injuries—wanted to bring McDaniel with him if he gets his shot at being a head coach come January (McDaniel was on Saleh’s list when he interviewed last year). That, for all the reasons above, would only make Saleh a more attractive candidate.

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THE FINAL WORD

I’m excited for Thursday night’s game, because it’ll give everyone a chance to focus in on what Matt Rhule’s building in Carolina. If you haven’t seen it, I think you’ll be impressed.