While Broncos fans have collectively mourned the departure of Eric Decker to the New York Jets this offseason, a new wide receiver has quietly been thrown into the boiling cauldron that is the Peyton Manning-led Denver offense. Emmanuel Sanders arrives in the Mile High City after a four year stint with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Actually selected five spots ahead of Decker in the 2010 NFL Draft, the SMU product grew into a significant role in the Steelers' offense and seeks to reach greater heights under the guidance of Manning this upcoming season.
Standing at 5’11 and weighing 186 pounds, Sanders brings versatility and explosiveness. Coming off a 67 catch, 740 yard, and 6 touchdown season, he has the potential to produce more in an already record setting offense. At the prime age of 27, he is likely nearing the peak of his career. While essentially replacing Decker, Sanders brings a different skill set. Decker was a big time red-zone threat with good hands and excellent route running, but lacked the athleticism to excel after the catch. Emerging tight end Julius Thomas and big-bodied receiver Demaryius Thomas can replace those targets near the goal line, while Sanders has the ability to emerge in the open field. His smaller frame, agility, and blazing speed will be on full display in that phase of the game.
As an outside receiver, Sanders possesses the straight line speed to take the lid off the defense. Whether running a fly or a post route, there are only a few cornerbacks with the ability to keep up with him in the open field. With limited strength, he is susceptible to being jammed at the line by more physical corners. Therefore, the Steelers often lined him up in the slot position. Unlike Decker, Sanders can create mismatches both outside and inside. His shiftiness and quick turns give him an advantage over most defensive players, whether that be the nickel corner, a safety, or a linebacker who lines up against him inside.
Likely ranked behind only Thomas outside and Wes Welker inside, Sanders should see a lot of playing time. Denver plays to Manning’s strengths and often will line up in three receiver sets instead of utilizing a fullback, so Sanders should start from Day 1. If Welker continues to struggle with concussions and is sidelined for any portion of time, Sanders can easily step into the starting job there. More opportunities arise for him to move inside when the Broncos spread the defense out with four and five receiver formations, effectively creating two to three slot receiver positions. While it is unsure how quickly second-round pick Cody Latimer will develop, his potential emergence as another big bodied receiver on the outside could push Sanders to the slot as well. With the agility and foot speed to both elude and outrun defenders, Sanders will see plenty of playing time this season at multiple spots in the Broncos’ formations.
On the business side of this situation, Sanders will likely provide a similar amount of work for a discounted price when compared to Decker. Both talented receivers, neither possesses the physical traits to be a number one receiver in the NFL. Sanders’ size and Decker’s athleticism are responsible for that. When inserted into an offense with Peyton Manning, Decker’s numbers soared in comparison to his numbers with Tim Tebow and Kyle Orton. In his second year in the league, he posted 44-612-8 (rec-yards-td). Last year with Manning, he saw his numbers climb to 87-1288-11. How much does Decker produce if he’s not receiving wobbly passes from Tebow or a part of the most dominant offense in NFL history? Probably somewhere in the middle of those two seasons. He will likely always have high touchdown numbers as a result of his red zone dominance, but should not be relied upon or paid to produce 1,200 yard seasons without an elite quarterback.
Only fourteen receivers had 1,200 or more yards last season, indicating Decker should clearly be a number one. Well, he certainly got paid like one. His five year, $36.5 million ($7.3/year) contract from the Jets sees him ranked as the 17th highest paid receiver. With $15 million guaranteed, the team is taking a large financial risk on a receiver who is simply unproven away from Peyton Manning. The team can essentially get out of the deal after two years if Decker has not lived up to expectations. If Geno Smith does not progress and the offensive line fails to improve, it will be difficult for Decker to even scratch the thousand yard mark. Some big time wide receivers such as Vincent Jackson and Pierre Garcon have stepped in and played well after receiving a monster deal. However, many like Mike Wallace, Greg Jennings, Laurent Robinson, Santonio Holmes, and Sidney Rice suffer setbacks when combining a downgrade in quarterback and a new scheme. This is a significant amount of money to be tied up in Decker, a receiver who has yet prove himself when separated from Manning’s high octane offense.
The Broncos gave Sanders a three year contract worth $15 million ($5/year), with only $6 million guaranteed. The term and guaranteed money are what really matters in the NFL because of how easily teams can cut players and see the salary disappear. The Broncos can opt out of this contract if Sanders fails to produce up to his cap hit. The extra $2.3 million saved each year can also be spent to help fill out the roster. The Pittsburgh offense suffered from poor offensive line play and an aging Ben Roethlisberger, yet Sanders still put up respectable numbers and was able to create plays with the ball in his hands. There is no reason to think Sanders can’t put up or exceed Decker-like numbers with Manning zipping the ball into his hands – at a much lesser price.
Some players are only able to hit free agency as a highly coveted asset once in their careers. Coming off of a career year, Decker could not resist the temptation of chasing the money. In desperate need of playmakers, New York Jets GM John Idzik opened up the checkbook and bought high. Looking to fill a spot on his roster, John Elway worked his free agent magic and bought low, finding a more electric and explosive weapon in Emmanuel Sanders for cheaper.