Last offseason, the New Orleans Saints highlighted the wide receiver position as an area of need for the team as they prepared for the 2020 season. New Orleans had wideout Michael Thomas, who was coming off four straight 1,000-Yd campaigns and led the league with 1,725 yards and an NFL-record 149 receptions in 2019.
Outside of Thomas, the Saints had little other consistent production from the wide receiver spot, a deficiency that hurt them in each of the last two postseasons.
Enter ten-year veteran WR Emmanuel Sanders, who the Saints tried unsuccessfully to acquire from the Denver Broncos at the trade deadline in 2019. He was instead dealt to the San Francisco 49ers, helping propel them to the conference championship. Sanders had surpassed the 1,000-Yd receiving mark three times in five years with Denver and had at least 740 yards in six of the previous seven seasons.
The Saints targeted Sanders, 33, quickly in free agency last offseason, expecting him to add another bona fide threat at wideout to go along with Thomas. Sanders is today's Year-in-Review player spotlight.
An abbreviated offseason that forced the cancelation of team preseason games and most team activities because of COVID-19 health concerns handcuffed Sanders, who was trying to learn the complexities of the New Orleans offense.
By his own admission, that contributed to a slow start, as he pulled in 3 passes for 15 yards and a touchdown in a season opening win over Tampa Bay.
Michael Thomas suffered a severe ankle injury in that opening day win. The injury kept Thomas out of action until Week 9, allowing him to play in just 7 regular season games and severely limiting his effectiveness. Thomas was nowhere near 100% even when he played, the top duties as the team's primary wideout option fell to Sanders.
He caught only one pass in the team's Week 2 loss at Las Vegas, then 4 catches for 56 yards in a loss to the Packers the following week, but then showed why the Saints coveted him in the subsequent games.
Sanders would haul in six passes for 93 yards in a Week 4 victory at Detroit, then record 12 receptions for 122 yards in a Monday Night thriller over the Chargers. The twelve catches and 122 yards were the second most among all New Orleans players in any game this season. It was one of four 100-Yd outings by a New Orleans receiver in 2020.
The momentum Sanders had built was slowed by a positive COVID test that caused him to miss two games. His numbers dipped a bit upon his return, but he made some crucial catches in key moments and finished the regular season strong. Over the last three games, Sanders caught 17 passes for 222 yards.
Sanders caught 74.4% of his targets with the Saints in 2020. He finished with 61 receptions for 726 yards and 5 touchdowns with 33 of his catches resulting in a 1st down. He had one 100-Yd game and six outings of at least 60 yards receiving. Sanders finished second on the team in receptions, yardage, and receiving touchdowns.
Sanders, who turns 34 on March 17th, is under contract until 2022. However, he’ll count $10.5 million against the salary cap this season for a team that again must juggle numbers to be competitive.
Releasing Sanders before June 1 will save the team $6.5 million of cap space but create $4 million in dead cap in 2021. A post-June 1 move would create $8.5 million in cap space while causing $2 million in dead cap over the next two years.
A restructuring of his current deal seems just as likely. The Saints didn't really get to see what their passing offense was truly capable of with their top two wideouts because of the injuries to Thomas. Emmanuel Sanders showed us in 2020 that he still has plenty of productive football left after ten years in the league.