Buffalo Bills General Manager Brandon Beane swapped out one speedy route runner for another this week. After the Bills released receiver John Brown on the eve of free agency, the team has signed former 49ers and Saints receiver Emmanuel Sanders to a one-year six million dollar contract which will be effective at the 4 pm start of free agency on Wednesday.
So what are the Bills getting in the verteran receiver? Let’s get into his film.
There are some concerns over Sanders’ age, as he turns 34 years-old on the first day of free agency but those concerns don’t show up on film. Sanders is just as speedy and elusive as he was with the Denver Broncos and San Francisco 49ers.
Sanders is a professional route runner who can create separation with subtlety, speed and agility. In that aspect he does not appear to have lost a step. Sanders’ calling card is his ability to generate plays against zone coverage. He uses that agility and short area quickness to exploit holes in coverage schemes and knows when to throttle down to create the maximum window for his quarterback. He can do this from the slot, or on the boundary, which gives him scheme flexibility to deploy him anywhere to exploit soft coverage.
This makes Sanders a sort of undersized possession receiver who can beat coverage but doesn’t offer the big-play ability of top-end receivers. Sanders has ranked 73rd, 40th, and 29th in total yards after the catch over the last three seasons per PFF. Despite not making much hay after the catch, PFF also has him in the top 25 in terms of efficiency two of the last three seasons in yards per-route run, with the down year being in a run-heavy attack in San Francisco. Translation: He’ll get you all of the yards you scheme up, but won’t create much after the catch.
Sanders isn’t just a zone buster though. He’s a professional space creator who gets open against off-man coverage extremely well. He uses subtle moves in-route, sharp cuts at the stem and fantastic transitions to open up windows in man coverage. He is also still a threat to go deep.
With his ability to find holes in zones, create plays around the goal-line and to threaten deep, Sanders still presents a threat at all levels of the field. He’s a phenomenal compliment to what the Bills already have at receiver with star receiver Stefon Diggs and All-Pro slot receiver Cole Beasley. With Sanders in the fold the Bills have the most advanced route running receiving corps in the NFL.
The good news is that Sanders’ presence doesn’t have to hinder the growth and development of Gabriel Davis. Davis spent the majority of his time on the boundary last year where he used his size and speed to create problems for defenses that were rolling coverage towards Diggs and Beasley. Sanders has the ability to play from the slot and from the boundary so he and Davis can be on the field at the same time, giving Beasley a break.
The Bills also used 10 personnel (four receivers, one RB) more than just about any other team in the NFL last season. Sanders gives them more personnel flexibility with the ability to slide into the slot and present a challenge to teams playing their fourth DB in slot coverage.
The Down Side
Aside from his lack of yards generated after the catch, Sanders doesn’t offer much as a contested target player. He doesn’t have the body type or playing style suited to catching the ball if he doesn’t gain separation from the defense. In general, he doesn’t excel through contact.
He also doesn’t solve the Bills’ issue with press coverage that caused problems during the AFC Championship Game. If you can get your hands on Sanders at the line of scrimmage, or play with physicality during the route, he loses steam and is ineffective. New Orleans relied heavily on motion to free Sanders early in his route last year. This was one of the team’s biggest shortcomings last season and an area that quarterback Josh Allen struggled to overcome the most.
Those are systemic issues for the Bills, who still lean towards being undersized at the receiver position with the exception of Davis. Sanders is tough, but he doesn’t play very big. There is also the question of age as well. Both Beasley and Sanders will be 32 or older by the start of the 2021 season, leaving long-term questions at the slot position. While Sanders doesn’t preclude Gabriel Davis from seeing the field, he does reasonably prevent the Bills from making a significant long-term investment at the slot receiver position early in the draft.
Overall the signing of Emmanuel Sanders by Brandon Beane is a solid one. He’s a good facsimile of what John Brown could provide and he saves the team roughly two million dollars towards a tight cap figure this season. Moreover Sanders is a professional mercenary receiver who can win at every level of the field. He does all of that while also presenting a win-now option for a team in the middle of their Super Bowl window.