Why Saints, Emmanuel Sanders are a match made in 'wide receiver heaven'

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Sanders is excited to get to work with Brees and Thomas (1:39)

Emmaunel Sanders shares that Drew Brees was the first person on the Saints to text him and he also shares how excited he is to work with Michael Thomas. (1:39)

METAIRIE, La. -- Let’s be honest. New Saints receiver Emmanuel Sanders would probably fit perfectly into any offense.

The 10-year veteran has already appeared in Super Bowls for three different teams with the likes of QB Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh, QB Peyton Manning in Denver and coach Kyle Shanahan in San Francisco, while lining up at every receiver spot and earning a reputation as one of the NFL's most precise route runners.

But if you don’t immediately think of New Orleans when you read that résumé or watch Sanders’ game tape, then you probably didn’t see what coach Sean Payton and QB Drew Brees did with guys such as Lance Moore and Willie Snead over the years.

And you certainly didn’t notice how badly they were missing that type of No. 2 receiver to pair with Michael Thomas over the past two seasons -- especially in both of their playoff losses.

“If you turn on the tape and see the guy, he’s literally everywhere,” said the 5-foot-9, 187-pound Moore, a Saints Hall of Famer who split time between the slot and the outside in much the same way the 5-11, 180-pound Sanders always has. "Inside, outside, he’s the No. 3 in the trips formation, he lines up in the backfield, he takes handoffs. He does it all. So I think the possibilities are endless as far as what his role could be.

"He’s an older guy now, but he’s shown that he has a lot left in his tank. And he’s kind of coming into the perfect situation.”

When asked what Sanders’ bread and butter could be in New Orleans’ offense, Moore said, “In the most basic terms, any kind of read route or option route where he’s got the ability to read the defense and break the opposite way of the defender.”

“It sounds simple, but it’s not always easy. And those are the types of routes he’s gonna be running a whole lot of in this offense,” said Moore, who described Sanders as “a guy that can obviously create separation and get open."

ESPN analyst and former NFL safety Matt Bowen agreed. He chose Sanders as the best bargain deal of free agency in a recent ESPN+ roundtable.

“In my opinion, Emmanuel Sanders is a perfect fit for that offense,” Bowen said of Sanders, who ran the 40-yard dash in 4.41 seconds at the NFL combine in 2010. "He’s a detailed route runner with high-level traits in terms of his footwork, his ability to create separation and work back to the ball. And he does have enough catch-and-run ability at 33 years old to still make plays after the catch.

“And that’s what that offense is. Think about what he’s gonna do in that offense. Quick game underneath. Slants, shallows and those quick outs they use with Michael Thomas. Crossers and the deep over routes. That’s a huge part of that offense off of play-action. ... All the routes we’re talking about are right in Drew Brees’ wheelhouse.

“It’s about the ability to get open. That’s what matters in this league. At the end of the day, when it’s third-and-7 and you need to get open on a crosser or shallow or option route, you want the guy that has the traits to create separation.”

Bowen said one thing he expects to see a lot from Sanders in New Orleans is routes that break inside between the numbers -- a good match for Brees, who is now 41 years old but who "doesn’t really miss from 10 to 20 yards.”

Last year, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, Sanders ranked second among all NFL receivers with 562 receiving yards when targeted in the middle third of the field. That included a 75-yard TD catch against none other than the Saints in Week 14, which matched his career long.

He was tied for seventh with 32 catches in the middle third of the field (Thomas was first with 54).

Of course, there is reason to be skeptical with Sanders, who ranks among the NFL’s top 10 receivers in receptions (507) and yards (6,603) over the past seven seasons. He turned 33 earlier this month and battled a torn Achilles and ankle injuries in 2018.

But the beauty of this marriage is that the Saints don’t need Sanders to put up No. 1-receiver numbers. He could make a huge impact by simply matching the 66 catches, 869 yards and five touchdowns he posted in a combined 17 games with the Broncos and 49ers after a midseason trade last year.

Last year, the Saints’ No. 2 and No. 3 wide receivers, Ted Ginn Jr. and Tre’Quan Smith, combined for a total of 48 catches for 655 yards and seven TDs in the regular season. They combined for just one catch and 18 yards in New Orleans’ playoff loss to Minnesota.

“Another thing that I don’t think people are discussing enough: Emmanuel Sanders went midseason to another team and was productive,” Bowen said. “That’s not easy to do, man. You have to be a total pro to do that, to hit the ground running. That speaks to his football intelligence and to his professionalism.”

Moore also mentioned those intangible traits while saying Sanders could be a great influence on New Orleans’ young receiving corps -- even being able to offer some wisdom and guidance to a superstar such as Thomas after his NFL-record 149-catch season.

Payton told WWL Radio that was a factor in the Saints' signing both Sanders and veteran safety Malcolm Jenkins in free agency.

“They’re smart and tough, and they’re driven to win,” Payton said. “You’re constantly paying attention to the fit in the locker room and their football makeup.”

For his part, Sanders said he thinks his “dog-type mentality” will mesh well with the passion he has seen from Brees and Thomas. And though he doesn’t know exactly what the “X's and O's” plans are for him yet, he plans to be the “best teammate I can possibly be.”

“I say this humbly. For me, I feel like I can play inside, I can play outside, I can run every single route. And so for me, it’s really about what Sean Payton wants me to do,” Sanders said. “I’m a player where if you tell me to go block, I’m gonna block. If you tell me to run this route, I’m gonna run it. I feel like I put a lot of work in and stand on my work ethic."

Sanders pointed out that his best statistical season came in 2014, when he first joined Manning in Denver and finished with 101 catches, 1,404 yards and nine TDs.

“So to be back in a pass-happy offense and spreading the ball around with a Hall of Fame quarterback, I mean, it’s just like wide receiver heaven for me,” Sanders said. “To play with Drew Brees, one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, how could I pass up that opportunity and to play in a Sean Payton system?”