We’re well into the NFL free agency period, and while a lot of the big-name receivers remain on the market, the Buffalo Bills made an interesting move late on Tuesday. They signed veteran receiver Emmanuel Sanders to a one-year, $6 million contract. So how will this affect Sanders — and the rest of Buffalo’s offense?
VETERAN PRESENCE ON THE PERIMETER
Sanders, now 34 years old, will be playing in his 11th NFL season next year. The experienced wideout entered the league with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2010, but it wasn’t until he joined the Denver Broncos in 2014 that he flashed his true upside. He posted three-straight 1,000-yard seasons with the Broncos. However, the last of those came in 2016. Sanders hasn’t topped 1,000 yards receiving since.
The 5-foot-11 receiver weighs in at 180 pounds. He ran a 4.41-second 40-yard dash at the combine, and his agility score ranked him in the 96th percentile at wide receiver. However, he is well past his prime, and you can read Mike Tagliere’s full breakdown of what age receivers tend to decline at here. Interestingly, teams have continued to feature Sanders on the perimeter. Sanders has played less than a quarter of his snaps out of the slot since 2019. I suspect that they’ve done so because of his exceptional catch radius, which ranks in the 92nd percentile. Kyle Shanahan has even praised Sanders for his ability to create separation.
Emmanuel Sanders’ agent should just circulate this clip where one of the best offensive minds in the NFL describes what Sanders brings to the tablepic.twitter.com/MZifyoITiL
— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) March 10, 2021
Although he hasn’t been a high-volume player in years, Sanders stands out when it comes to efficiency. He posted a 74.4% catch percentage last year for the Saints, good for seventh-best among all wide receivers with 80-plus targets. For some perspective, that rate sits between slot weapons JuJu Smith-Schuster (75.8%) and Cooper Kupp (74.2%), yet Sanders’ targets often came much further downfield.
RUNNING (AND CATCHING) WITH THE BUFFALO
Sanders’ decision to sign with the Buffalo Bills makes perfect sense. They’re a team on the up-and-up, and they give him a chance to win his second ring.
I suspect that Sanders will fill in for the recently-released John Brown. While Sean McDermott will want to get Gabriel Davis more snaps, as the young receiver has a high ceiling and looked phenomenal last season, he already drew 62 targets. That’s already solid volume! Davis was never going to get all 104 of the looks that Brown was on pace for in 2020.
Incredibly, the Bills will return almost all of their starters from last season, so we have a pretty clear picture of what this team will probably look like. McDermott employed a pass-heavy approach with gunslinger Josh Allen under center, and they attempted the 10th-most passes per game (37.7) and the seventh-fewest rushing plays (24.5). That paves the way for him to have a high-volume role in Buffalo, although he won’t come anywhere close to the numbers he posted in Denver.
EARLY 2021 PREDICTION
Sanders found an excellent landing spot for his skill-set, and as I said earlier, his arrival mostly offsets John Brown’s departure. Brown flashed WR2 upside alongside Stefon Diggs at points last season, but he fell off due to injury. If Sanders can stay healthy, he could put together the campaign that Brown should’ve had in 2020.
Brown averaged 10.8 PPR points per game across his nine appearances last year. Over an entire season, that would’ve been good for 172.8 points. That slots in between Michael Gallup (WR38) and Jamison Crowder (WR39). If Sanders can fill Brown’s shoes — and the Bills don’t pivot toward Davis too heavily — the veteran wideout should be a viable streaming option at WR3/FLEX.
As for the rest of Buffalo’s receiving corps, Sanders’ arrival has the largest impact on Davis. The youngster’s dynasty managers may be frustrated by the veteran’s arrival, but they should rest easy knowing that Sanders is on his way out of the league. He has started a full 16-game season only once since 2016, and even he delays the inevitable Davis breakout by a year, it won’t prevent it from happening.
I haven’t mentioned Cole Beasley yet for a reason. He has a solid role in the slot for Buffalo, and he remains under contract until 2023. Brown and Davis didn’t prevent Beasley from finishing as the WR21 last season, so don’t expect Sanders to shake that up.
I expect Sanders to play around three-quarters of the season at a pace slightly below John Brown’s, leaving him with the following stat line.
Way-Too-Early 2021 Projection: 71 targets, 50 receptions, 604.5 yards, 4 touchdowns
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