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GIF Horse - The 6th Most Valuable Bronco

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Emmanuel Sanders health could be huge for John Elway’s plans this Spring.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Denver Broncos
Can Emmanuel Sanders beat the odds?
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Vic Fangio is the head coach, Ed Donatell is coming on as the defensive coordinator, Rich Scangarello will coordinate the offense and Mike Munchak will coach the offensive line. With big parts of the coaching staff in place, I continued my look at Denver’s roster. What players mean the most to the team?

Obviously some could move up or down based on how the schemes change. That means this is as much art as science, but to be as transparent as possible I wanted to lay out how I made my list. There are 3 main aspects I considered.

1. Their value to this year’s team and past performance.

2. Positional value

3. Salary compared to both past & expected future performance.

All three factors are important, but obviously this isn’t an exact science, so I look forward to seeing how Broncos Country disagrees with me.

Check out players 45-35 here.

Check out players 25-34 here.

Check out players 16-24 here.

Check out players 7-15 here.

With the final 6 left, and the obvious players remaining, I thought it would make more sense to give you a longer look. That means two probably works better than all six in one post for length/time. Anyways, let’s get started.

6. Emmanuel Sanders - Wide Receiver

First let’s get the big “if” out of the way: I’ve been going back and forth on Sanders for 2019 since he tore his Achilles. Back when it happened, it seemed logical to conclude that the Broncos would move on from a 32-year old wide receiver with a $12,937,500 cap hit. Especially once you consider that cutting him would only cost a hair over $2.5 million in dead money.

Then I started digging into similar situations and things got murkier. The following piece by Dr. Christopher Geary is a little dated, but offers a lot of room for hope.

Achilles Tendon Ruptures in the NFL - Inside The Pylon

Most patients will require crutches for about 6 weeks afterwards and the use of a walking boot for a period beyond that. Physical therapy is obviously important for regaining strength and flexibility as well. Most patients will start running or jogging around 5-6 months after surgery, with a return to more aggressive athletics around 1-3 months after that.

If you consider the fact that Sanders had his surgery in early December that could give him time to return by training camp in August, if you’re an optimist. Even better if you’re wearing orange shades: A more recent study by Joshua Harris suggests that Sanders should be able to return with gusto.

Most football players returned to NFL after Achilles tendon repair

“Our study of 95 NFL players showed that it was also a career-ending injury in nearly 28% of those analyzed. Although postoperative performance was worse in running backs and linebackers (vs. pre-injury), there was no difference in postoperative performance or number of games played for any position (with the exception of linebackers) compared to rigorously matched control players in the league.”

Obviously that 28% lingers a bit, but there’s good reason to believe that Sanders could return to lead the young receiving corps in 2019. As I dug through the medical reports, I also looked up players who were over 30 and suffered a similar injury. Here are a few names that could encourage you: Benjaman Watson tore his 36-year old Achilles in 2016 and still caught 96 passes for 922 yards and a touchdown over the last two years. Terrell Suggs tore an Achilles twice. Once in 2012 and another in 2015. In the 3 years since his last tear, he’s had 26 sacks and 8 forced fumbles. Robert Mathis tore his Achilles in 2014 and wound up having 10 medical procedures because of it. He still managed to notch 12 more sacks over his last two years in the NFL.

None of those players played receiver though, a position very similar to running back when you consider how often it demands the ability to start and stop or cut quickly. A sample size of 95 is just too small to contain meaningful information for every position. Demaryius Thomas does comes to mind as a more direct comparison, as he first tore an Achilles in 2011. His career since turned out okay since (and let’s hope it will continue with him recovering from his own injury at 31).

So its impossible to tell for sure if Sanders will be able to return to his old self this far out from camp. If he can though: the 2019 Broncos could feature a savvy route runner who provides the kind of inside/outside versatility that would give new Offensive Coordinator Rich Scangarello play calling flexibility.

A look at Sanders’ biggest plays with the Broncos last year really demonstrates his worth. Before going down to injury the 5’10 receiver caught 13 passes for gains of 20 yards or more. He had 4 such catches in the week 2 game with the Oakland Raiders and 3 of them really serve as a perfect example of the big play element he brings to an offense.

The Deep Crosser/Scramble Adjustment

The Deep Out

The Slot Shot

Throughout the tape, Sanders demonstrates that he can run a full route tree and beat defensive backs. He’s played long enough to have a feel for what to do when the play breaks down and the quarterback is scrambling. He’s also a scrappy 180 pounder, willing to make plays over the middle of the field or gain yards after the catch.

How the Demaryius Thomas trade impacted Sanders

I spent a day digging through the numbers this week to try and quantify how much the D.T trade impacted the Sanders and the Broncos offense. It’s a bit confusing at first glance. On an individual basis Sanders numbers were clearly better weeks 1-8, when he caught 50 passes on 65 targets for 660 yards and 3 touchdowns. After Thomas went to the Texans Sanders catch percentage, yards per target and raw numbers all saw a decline. Of the 20+ yard passes Sanders caught, all but 2 came with Thomas on the roster.

None of this was really surprising, of course. If you’ve read GIF Horse in the past, you may be familiar with my “Big 3” theory regarding WR corps construction. If you aren’t the short ramble is that essentially you want an elite level receiver #1 (your LeBron James in a perfect world) and an all star 2 and 3 that compliment the studs skillset. The rest of the receiving weapons are role players that fill out the gaps. A perfect example is the 2013 Broncos with Thomas, Eric Decker and Wes Welker, though of course they also had Julius Thomas at his apex.

This theory goes a way towards explaining the Thomas’ trades impact on the Broncos passing game last year. When Thomas, Sutton and Sanders were on the field together, things were easier for all of them. From weeks 1-8 Keenum threw 221 passes out of 11 personnel, completing 140 of them for 10 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. After the D.T trade but before Sanders was hurt, the Broncos QB was completing 57% of his passes out of 11 personnel and threw no touchdowns or interceptions. When the big 3 were together, Musgraves often deployed Thomas or Sanders as a coverage sponge to help Sutton or the other get open.

Yards and catches came easier for Sanders when he and Thomas were together.

So why did the Broncos O look stronger post D.T.?

According to Football Outsiders DVOA stats that adjust for opponent, Denver’s 5 best passing games last year were the Rams, Cardinals, Texans, Chargers and Steelers’ games. 3 of those occurred without Thomas, so what gives?

One big adjustment that Musgraves will never get proper credit for is how he utilized the 11 personnel package in that three game stretch: Denver often used the 3 receivers as little more than a way to set up the defense to give Phillip Lindsay room to run. Denver averaged 6.9 yards per carry out of the 11 during that 3 game stretch. Additionally, the Broncos found a lot of success when they passed out of 2 receiver sets.

The Steelers were clearly aiming to stop the run on this deep shot to Sanders.

So what does all of this mean going forward?

If Sanders can’t make it back to the point where Elway can justify his $12,937,500 cap hit, things get murkier. Someone like John Brown from the Ravens makes a lot of sense as his toolbox slides in as a similar fit to what the Broncos previously had, but he’s one of the exceptions on the free agent market.

The NFL Draft there could provide answers that come as a cost efficient alternative, but rookie receivers rarely make a big impact their first year in the league. While Sutton received criticism at times during the 2018 campaign, he outperformed names like Michael Crabtree, Will Fuller, and Brandin Cooks.

In a perfect world, Emmanuel Sanders is not the LeBron James of your receiving corps. He’s the Dwyane Wade, a 1B or 2A type that can serve as the fulcrum. That isn’t a slight by any means as I truly believe the Broncos offense would be better served carrying 10 into the 2019 season if his medical questions check out. It just also means that Sutton (and DaeSean Hamilton) needs to make the jump if Keenum (or a rookie quarterback) is to have the kind of receiving corps that the best offenses in the league have.