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The only risk for the 49ers would have been to sit idle at the trade deadline

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Going through the risks and rewards of acquiring Emmanuel Sanders. Also, explaining his game in five routes.

Kansas City Chiefs v Denver Broncos Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

The game of football is full of risks. Some of the best teams in the NFL take these risks year after year. Look at the San Francisco 49ers divisional foe in the Los Angeles Rams. They’ve arguably been the most aggressive team in the NFL over the past couple of seasons. The Rams traded for Jalen Ramsey a week ago, but they’ve made over five trades since 2018. Why? Because they recognize their window.

John Lynch recognizes his teams’ window.

A chance to recoup some picks

When the 49ers traded for Emmanuel Sanders, they gave up two draft picks. Realistically, the team will move back roughly ten spots in the fourth round. Additionally, if Sanders signs somewhere else, the 49ers will receive a comp pick in the 2021 draft. I could see John Lynch trading out of the first round this year to recoup some picks. If he does that, it’d be tough for me to be mad at Lynch moving forward. That’d be a move that signals Lynch isn’t living in the now but has been planning out all of these moves. You hope Sanders stays in San Francisco, so the offense isn’t looking to invest in another receiver this next offseason. I can’t envision a scenario where the 49ers make a run in the playoffs, and Sanders leaves.

It’s clear that San Francisco has something special brewing. They’re undefeated, and feature the best play-caller on offense and arguably the best defense in the NFL. Looking at their early season success as a reason to stay put at the trade deadline is short-sighted. I can drown you in stats about this 49ers defense. I won’t. I’ll save you the time to say this: San Francisco is one of a kind. What this team is doing on defense is rare. You’re kidding yourself if you think the front office hasn’t recognized this.

Win-now mentality

The 49ers are a good team. Acquiring Sanders puts them on the brink of being a great team without mortgaging their future. Getting a receiver that has gone over 1,000 yards the last three times he’s played a full season in exchange for a draft pick where you have better odds if you were to bet Giants QB Daniel Jones to win the Offensive Rookie of the Year award.

On Monday morning, if I were to ask you, “can the 49ers offense bail out the defense in a playoff game when it matters most?” Would you honestly be able to answer that question with a yes? I wouldn’t, and I’m the biggest Kyle Shanahan fan on the planet. Injuries and youth at receiver haven’t helped. I’d describe Jimmy Garoppolo’s season as “good in spurts.” San Francisco hasn’t needed Jimmy G to play at an MVP level because their defense has played at one. There will be a time where the roles will be reversed. The defense needs to be bailed out by the offense. It’s coming. You know it. I know it. The 49ers knew that.

Here is my favorite stat that signaled the 49ers need to add a receiver. On third down, the 49ers are 22nd in passing DVOA this season. When the defense knows San Francisco has to throw, the offense has been significantly below-average.

Enter, Emmanuel.

Sanders in five routes

The 49ers offense is plenty good enough to excel in the regular season. They’re probably good enough to win in the playoffs. Trading for Sanders removes any doubt about the offense.

Reasons I’m hesitant to reference Football Outsiders DYAR, a stat where Sanders is ranked 22nd out of all receivers, or PFF’s “yards per route run,” where Sanders is ranked 58th, is because those stats are reliant on the receiver being thrown the ball.

Take the Broncos against the Chiefs last Thursday. It’s early in the second quarter, and Sanders is matched up on the outside against a Kansas City cornerback. Sanders beats the corner off the line of scrimmage so bad that he hopped in a different direction. He then stops on a dime, and the corner goes flying by. There are about four yards of separation on an eight-yard route. An eye-popping rep that doesn’t mean squat to any charting stat because Sanders never got the ball.

I went back and watched every route Sanders has run this season. So when I say he’s the best receiver in San Francisco, I mean it. Here is Sanders in five routes.

Week 1

Sanders caught a long post in this one that went for 50+ yards. He also caught a back-shoulder fade from the one-yard line that resulted in a touchdown for you wide receiver height truthers. There were also a handful of plays where Sanders is running free against the Raiders defense while Joe Flacco scrolled Twitter in the pocket before he was sacked.

Let’s go back to the deep post route. Saying Sanders has lost a step is fair. He’s 32-years old. Saying Sanders is still explosive is accurate, as well. Sanders showed no problems running by defenders in the seven games I saw.

The 49ers are 23rd in DVOA on deep passes. Sanders is a proven threat that stretches the field for San Francisco.

Week 2

The Bears came into the season with the expectations to perform like the 49ers defense has all season. Chicago has dipped a bit, but they’re still a top-eight defense. Sanders went off this game. He caught 11 of 13 passes for 98 yards and a touchdown. A consistent threat in the slot has been missing for this Niners offense in 2019. That was supposed to be Trent Taylor. Sanders had a field day in the slot against the Bears defense. Despite his size, he had no problem this game or Week 1 holding on over the middle after contact.

The touchdown Sanders scored was far more impressive than the play below. The catch was reminiscent of Santino Holmes Super Bowl catch. I’m using this play below as Sanders goes outside of his frame to make the catch, but holds on after the hit.

Sanders did an excellent job this game of finding the holes in Chicago’s defense underneath. Sanders gives the 49ers awareness and reliability over the middle.

Week 3

Nobody should have to watch Flacco for an extended period. It’s painful. This is a prime example of why it’s not fair to the receiver to reference simple counting stats. On the play below, Flacco decides that nobody is open, and he scrambles, despite not being pressured. He picks up a first down, and Denver even scores. Just because the results were worked, doesn’t mean the process is right.

The Receiver to the top of the screen is open. Sanders—the yellow circle—ran an in-breaking route. He was open for about 2.5 seconds. He wasn’t thrown the ball. Sanders finished the Packers game with two receptions for ten yards on five targets. In no way does that stat line paint the picture for how open Sanders was all afternoon.

Week 4

The Broncos targeted Sanders deep early on against Jacksonville. They clearly thought the Receiver could do damage down the field against the Jaguars. Sanders finished the game with five catches for 104 yards. This route below was worth the fourth-round pick San Francisco gave up.

Seventeen of Sanders’ 30 receptions have gone for first downs. So, he has more receptions that went for first downs than the 49ers leading wide receiver has caught on the season.

Week 7

I showed this route on another article, but it’s good enough to show again. One thing that stood out was Sander’s ability to win at the line of scrimmage. If you win early, you make the rest of the route a piece of cake. Sanders made this route look just like that, a piece of cake.

The Risk

Sanders isn’t without risks. You noticed how I jumped from Week 4 to Week 7 on those plays. Sanders was dealing with a knee injury that kept him from fully participating in practice Week’s 5 and 6. He didn’t miss the game, but he also didn’t look the same. Sanders tore his Achilles last December. He also had ankle surgery the following month. Amazingly, Sanders recovered quickly.

When Sanders is on the field, the only area I see where he has room for improvement is bigger defenders getting their hands on him. That doesn’t happen enough to be worried about, just an observation.

Sanders is an upgrade at a position that is viewed as a weakness. I like the move because the 49ers went out and got a good player without selling the farm. Look within the division to see the difference between aggressive and reckless. Trading two first-round picks for a premier player would make sense if you were a player away. The Rams aren’t a player away. Trading away a late third-round pick for a top-20 receiver when you can make an argument that you are a player away defines aggressiveness. It doesn’t wreak of desperation.

I liked the move before watching Sanders, and I love it now after watching him up close. He’s an ideal fit for Shanahan’s offense. Sanders can get open at all levels of the field without his coach needing to scheme him open. The real risk for the 49ers would have been sitting idle at the deadline. Lynch will be rewarded for his aggressiveness.