Kyle Shanahan has been interested in Emmanuel Sanders since free agency following the 2013 season as the receiver was leaving the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Shanahan had just taken the offensive coordinator job with the Cleveland Browns early in 2014 after the tumultuous divorce with the Washington Redskins while working for his father, Mike. He watched Sanders evolve from a backup behind Hines Ward and Mike Wallace to a player on the rise.
Sanders first became a starter in 2013, his second consecutive contract year after the Steelers matched an offer sheet from the New England Patriots in the offseason, logging career highs in catches (67), yards (740) and touchdowns (six).
It led to Sanders joining Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos the following season when Pittsburgh decided to center its passing game around budding star Antonio Brown and let Sanders sign elsewhere.
Sanders went on have 256 catches, 3,571 yards, 20 touchdowns and two Pro Bowl nominations during his first three years in Denver, which included winning Super Bowl 50 at Levi’s Stadium following the 2015 campaign.
It took some time, but Shanahan, now the 49ers coach, finally got Sanders this week in a deal which sent third- and fourth-round picks in next year’s draft to the Broncos to get Sanders and a fifth-round choice for the remaining 10 games and a likely playoff run.
“Emmanuel’s been a guy I know I’ve personally wanted since probably the last eight years,” Shanahan said Wednesday. “Huge fan of him coming out of the draft and everything he’s done since. We were looking into all possibilities, we didn’t know if any of them would go through.”
Sanders was brought in to add explosiveness, experience and productivity to an otherwise inexperienced receiving corps. His 30 catches and 367 yards this season are more than San Francisco’s top two receivers, Deebo Samuel and Marquise Goodwin, combined. He’s already received a strong endorsement from cornerback Richard Sherman, who believes Sanders’ skill set matches up with the NFL’s elite receivers.
“I’ll say he has a very unique skill set,” Sherman said. “He’s explosive, he’s experienced, he’s got a great set of hands. He’s great at changing speeds, getting in and out of his breaks and ... just being crafty. He’s not scared to take contact. He’s a guy that welcomes contact. And he’s not the biggest guy in the world so you gotta respect it.”
By dealing away coveted draft capital, Shanahan and the rest of San Francisco’s brass are putting all their chips in on this season.
The 49ers (6-0) haven’t made the playoffs since 2013 and finally might have the defense, running game and quarterback to play deep into January – and perhaps the first weekend in February – now that they have Sanders, who paid rookie Jalen Hurd for jersey No. 17, to add to Shanahan’s seventh-ranked offense.
“I think it says that we’re competing this year to try to get in the playoffs,” Shanahan said. “I think that’s pretty obvious with where our record is at right now, but we’re not even halfway through this year. I know we’ve got a long way to go, but this is a decision you’ve got to make before next Tuesday (the NFL trade deadline). With where we’re at right now, we wanted to see how much better we can make our team and I think we did as good as we could in that area without really truly making a huge risk on the future.”
Sanders said during his introduction to Bay Area reporters Wednesday his interest in playing for Shanahan was mutual. He saw the historically productive offense Shanahan put together with the Atlanta Falcons in 2016 that played in the Super Bowl behind quarterback Matt Ryan’s MVP campaign and one of the best seasons of receiver Julio Jones’ career.
“Getting here and just seeing how he is, seeing he’s very laid back, funny guy, light guy, light on his toes,” said Sanders, who expects to play Sunday against the Carolina Panthers. “I noticed in the team meeting, I was like, ‘I can’t wait to get home and tell my wife that the head coach is wearing Yeezys (Adidas sneakers inspired by musician Kanye West). I was like, ‘That’s cool, that’s one cool coach.’
“The environment here is just so light, but at the end of the day we have a concentration and we have a focus on the task at hand. I can tell that his team is a reflection of him and it’s cool to see.”
It was clear Sanders’ relationship with the Broncos’ soured in recent seasons as the team struggled to find a replacement for Manning after he retired following Super Bowl 50. Denver also lost head coach and the designer of the offense, Gary Kubiak, a season later.
Defensive mind Vance Joseph was hired in 2017 and lasted just two seasons with a ragtag group of starting quarterbacks including Trevor Siemian, Brock Osweiler, Paxton Lynch and Case Keenum. It was easy to see why Sanders may have wanted a change of scenery, which he said he conveyed to Broncos executive John Elway following the Oct. 13 game against the Tennessee Titans which he exited at halftime with knee soreness.
“Me and John had a conversation in terms of the direction that I wanted to go and me expressing that,” Sanders said. “He listened and hearing that, hearing the trade rumors, I think we both decided that it was best for me to go.”
Sanders left Denver midway through his sixth season there and his 10th year in the league. The team has a 2-5 record under first-year coach Vic Fangio with quarterback Joe Flacco and appears on its way toward rebuilding.
From Denver’s perspective, moving Sanders for mid-round draft picks was understandable given the 32-year-old is slated for free agency in the spring. The package Denver received from the 49ers was far more than the team would have gotten in a compensatory pick had Sanders left in free agency.
But Sanders doesn’t come to the 49ers without questions. He tore his Achilles in December and is San Francisco’s second-oldest starter on offense (left tackle Joe Staley recently turned 35). Plus, there’s the chance Sanders will be a short-term rental if he decides to leave when free agency opens next spring.
“It always gives you pause when it comes to draft picks and everything,” Shanahan said. “But we feel he’s a guy who can come in and help us a lot this year and we’ll see where it goes for him after that. We’re very well aware that he’ll be a free agent at the end of this year and we’ll see how this year goes and hopefully we’ll be able to keep him here.
“With that being said, we felt good about it because we know the type of player we got and we know how much he can help us.”
Sanders has made more than $53 million in salary over his 10 NFL seasons. He said Wednesday he plans on playing two or three more seasons and whether or not he re-signs with the 49ers will depend, in part, to how close the team is to winning a championship.
“A lot of people don’t understand, yeah, the money’s good, I’ve made my fair share of that,” Sanders said. “I think it’s about happiness, it’s about, is it worth it? Because for me, if I’m just playing for money and we’re talking about longevity and lifestyle, I love playing football, I love being happy, I love playing games. I think (contending is) going to ultimately be the deciding factor in where I go.”
For now, both Sanders and the 49ers seemed to get what they want with the new pairing, which has been a long time in the making.