The San Francisco 49ers hardly needed to make a splashy move before the NFL trade deadline. They’re sitting at 6-0 on the season with a win over the rival Los Angeles Rams under their belts. But for a team that has made huge strides on defense, the Kyle Shanahan-led offense has been missing something.
That something was a reliable wide receiver, which they now have after making a trade with the Broncos for Emmanuel Sanders.
Sanders, 32, has more yards (367) this season with Joe Flacco throwing to him than any 49ers receiver has had from Jimmy Garoppolo. With his addition, the 49ers are a much more complete team on offense, and that should help the team across the board.
The 49ers are winning games on the back of a strong defense, a powerful running game, and a complex Shanahan offense that will only get more difficult to predict now that Sanders has arrived.
Let’s take a look at the ways Sanders makes the 49ers better.
Sanders is immediately the best receiver on the team
Going into this season, Shanahan was upfront about George Kittle’s usage, claiming that the tight end would probably see a drop in targets as his offense comes together. The 49ers really like Kittle’s blocking in the run game, especially with fullback Kyle Juszczyk currently injured.
But Garoppolo has had to rely on Kittle more often than not, going to the tight end when his receivers are well-covered. Kittle is the team’s leading receiver through six games, with 34 catches for 376 yards and a touchdown. After that, Marquise Goodwin is the top receiver with just 181 yards.
Goodwin, Kendrick Bourne, Dante Pettis, and rookie Deebo Samuel were the team’s top four receivers prior to this deal, and while all of them have made some good plays, none have stood out much.
In fact, Sanders has more yards this season than the 49ers’ top two receivers combined.
Sanders: 367 yards, 30 receptions, 2 TDs in 7 games
Goodwin and Samuel, combined: 349 yards, 26 receptions, 2 TDs in 6 games
Sanders has also eclipsed 1,000 yards receiving three times in his career, including the last time he played a 16-game season in 2016.
His numbers since then have declined slightly with a rotating cast of bad quarterbacks in Denver, but not by a significant enough margin to truly matter. What the 49ers like about Sanders should be obvious: he’s a fantastic route-runner with a high catch rate (68.2 percent this season and 72.4 percent last season).
You can see his route running ability in a couple notable plays below:
Look at the separation Sanders gets from the single short cut on the play above — that kind of separation is sorely needed on the 49ers’ offense. You can see an even bigger gap created by Sanders when he makes his outside cut on the play below, where the Broncos were showing run:
Sanders provides more room for Goodwin and the running game to shine
San Francisco got a glimpse of what Goodwin could do when he put up multiple 100-yard receiving games with Garoppolo under center in late 2017. But his 2018 season was quieter, which is unsurprising given he was primarily catching passes from C.J. Beathard and Nick Mullens.
Goodwin is a stellar fit for the 49ers’ offense, and the only thing he really needed was to not be drawing the top corner and a safety over the top on every play. As a deep threat, he gets the safety look fairly often, but with Sanders and Kittle to worry about, defenses are going to have to commit fewer resources to covering Goodwin.
Then there’s the running game, led by Matt Breida, Raheem Mostert, and Tevin Coleman. Now that they comprise the second-best rushing attack in the NFL, teams are starting to realize that these guys are serious threats. Defenses won’t be able to stack the box on every play and if they do, Kittle should be allowed to block more. Breida leads the way with 411 yards and a touchdown, and he’s averaging 5.6 yards per carry — that mark should go up (or at least not regress) with extra receiver help.
Another weapon that will take some pressure off the defense
Through six games, the 49ers have fielded one of the top defenses in the NFL, alongside the also-undefeated Patriots. Led by Richard Sherman in the secondary and pass rushers Dee Ford and rookie Nick Bosa up front, the San Francisco defense has been nothing short of dominant. It allows the fewest yards in the league and an average of just 10.7 points per game, second behind only the Patriots.
The 49ers haven’t shown that they can win a game solely on the back of their offense, though. They haven’t had to yet because the defense has looked so good, but with games against the Packers, Ravens, and Saints looming on the schedule, there is always a chance an opposing offensive coordinator finds the right attack to throw them off.
Now, Robert Saleh’s defense should feel a lot less pressure about having to carry a game week in and week out. Not to mention a more effective offense often leads to longer drives, which gives the defense more time to rest.
At 32, Sanders’ best seasons are likely behind him. That said, he’s shown through seven games this season that he’s still effective and if not a true No. 1 receiver, close enough to one for the 49ers.
San Francisco probably didn’t need to make this deal, just like the Patriots didn’t need to trade for Mohamed Sanu. But they’re a team that’s coming along faster than most predicted, and this move puts them firmly in “win now” mode.