'The old man's still got it': Bills have put Emmanuel Sanders' surprising speed to use

Emmanuel Sanders' role in the Bills' offense has been to stretch the field. Joshua Bessex/Getty Images

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Buffalo Bills wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders had planned to retire after 10 years in the NFL.

That was the goal, at least, that he set for himself around his sixth season.

“I always wanted to go double-digit numbers,” Sanders told ESPN. “It will be sweet after I retire, to have somebody say, 'Hey, how many years (did) you play?’ Ten." Six just sounded ... oh, yeah. Ten, you know it's real.”

But here the wide receiver is, at 34 years old, playing in his 12th season in the NFL and his first with the Bills. Why keep playing? According to Sanders, he just “kept going” and the money was "too good.” Sanders signed a one-year, $6 million deal with Buffalo in March.

The real motivation for Sanders, however, is winning: Getting another ring to go along with the one from Super Bowl 50 with the Denver Broncos. Buffalo -- coming off an AFC Championship Game appearance and with an offense led by quarterback Josh Allen -- seemed like a good place to try and do it.

Sanders, the oldest player on the roster, is quarterback Josh Allen’s third-most targeted receiver through three games (20) behind Stefon Diggs and Cole Beasley, Sanders’ former college teammate at SMU. Sanders has 11 receptions for 194 yards and two touchdowns, both of which came against Washington in Week 3. He leads all of the team’s wide receivers in percentage of snaps taken (83.8%).

“He's been great for me,” Allen said. “I know he's been great for the other guys in this locker room. And to have that guy who's been there and done it and won the whole thing, to have his presence, I think that's huge for us. And it's only going to continue to get better, in my opinion.”

Sanders’ role in coordinator Brian Daboll’s offense has been stretching the field. His average target depth is 16.3 yards downfield, seventh most in the NFL. Of his receiving yards thus far, 117 have come on vertical routes, which is in stark contrast with his performance last year in his only season with the New Orleans Saints in which his average target depth was a career-low 8.98 yards.

So why downfield?

Sanders proudly shares speed is not an issue. Last week in practice he clocked the second-fastest time on the team.

"The old man’s still got it,” he said.

And it’s showing during games.

He is averaging the third-fastest speed (13.6 mph) in the league at the time of targets, per NFL Next Gen Stats. The only players ahead of him are Allen Lazard of the Green Bay Packers and Devin Duvernay of the Baltimore Ravens, two receivers under the age of 26. In comparison, Sanders averaged 9.83 mph last season in New Orleans.

He attributes part of that to cleaning up his diet. Less sugar, more water and better overall choices.

“I've been taking really good care of my body, and obviously, from a nutrition standpoint, I made some adjustments,” Sanders said. “I'm not young and my body tells me [that], so when I wake up in the morning, it's like, as bad as I want to eat pancakes with syrup, man, your body already feels like s---. How do you think that's gonna make you feel? Is it gonna make you feel better or worse? I kind of go with the healthier choice. It's crazy how the body tells you exactly what you need to put in it. It's been paying off for me.”

Thus far, bringing in Sanders has worked out for the Bills. The only player to have won a Super Bowl on the roster, the wide receiver was one of the vocal players at the team’s practice following a season-opening loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“I think a lot of the players look up to him,” coach Sean McDermott said. “And when you just watch how he goes about his week, he gets himself prepared mentally and physically. It's great to see a guy do that and then also do good things in our community, as I mentioned last week. And so I appreciate the way that he's embraced Buffalo.”

His brief time in Buffalo has included restarting his foundation and spending time in the community. When it comes to embracing his new team on the field, Sanders’ block in the Week 2 win over Miami sprung open running back Devin Singletary for a 46-yard touchdown run. He called that block one of the favorite plays of his career.

“I just want to win. I don’t care about stats. I’ve already done it all -- what have I not done?” Sanders said. “So, for me I just want to win, get to the playoffs, win, get to the Super Bowl, win."