Emmanuel Sanders isn’t ancient. He’ll turn 33 in mid-March, so he’s hardly eligible for Social Security or a walker.
But in NFL years for a wide receiver, that can mean a player has lost a step (or two).
Yet Sanders was a boon for the 49ers offense this past season when he was acquired in a trade from the Denver Broncos on Oct. 22, and he not only was productive on the field – catching 36 passes over 10 games for 502 yards and three touchdowns – but made the wide receiving group as a whole much better.
In his first game with the 49ers on Oct. 27, Sanders stepped right into the offense, catching four passes for 25 yards and a touchdown in a 51-13 romp over the Carolina Panthers. The next week, in a 28-25 win over the Arizona Cardinals, Sanders had seven catches for 112 yards and a TD.
The way Sanders worked, and the overall professional way he went about his business, helped the entire offense, said wide receiver Kendrick Bourne.
"I watched Emmanuel Sanders growing up," Bourne, who is 24, told ESPN in October. "That’s what’s crazy about it. … He came in and made an impact immediately, so us seeing that, it just motivates every wideout in the room more because there’s always competition every single day, even after camp. Having him go that hard, seeing it at the age he’s at, is amazing.
"So just taking all those traits is the best thing we can do as young wideouts."
Now, however, it’s uncertain if Sanders will be with the 49ers for the 2020 season.
Sanders can become an unrestricted free agent soon, and the Niners – who have several players they’d like to retain and have limited salary-cap flexibility – will have to decide if re-signing Sanders makes sense.
Sanders came into the league in 2010 with the Steelers and has played 144 NFL games, catching 601 passes for 7,893 yards and 42 touchdowns. He’s had three 1,000-yard seasons and showed in 2019 that he remains a formidable receiver. Despite his age, Sanders is judged by the analytic website Pro Football Focus to be one of the top wide receivers available in free agency (if he’s not re-signed).
Pro Football Focus ranked him the 27th best overall potential free agent this spring and noted he’s probably been a better player in recent seasons than he was at a younger age.
Wrote PFF: "He has transformed the 49ers’ passing attack since arriving and is one of the savviest route runners in the league. In addition to all of that route-running skill, Sanders had just one drop this past season (with the 49ers) and has some of the best hands in the game. Age will scare teams off, and he’s certainly not a long-term option, but the veteran wideout has recently proven that he can completely change an offense in need of receiving help."
After the Super Bowl, Sanders noted on Twitter that his age is irrelevant, and he’s eager to keep playing at a high level, noting he’s "still flying past 23 year olds."
Tweeted Sanders: "I’m still playing at a high level and will continue to play at a high level as long as I want bc my heart is immeasurable and my work ethic is second to none!"