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With familiar offense, old friend and title goals, Emmanuel Sanders’ fit might be just right with 49ers

© Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

After five-and-a-half seasons and more than 2,000 days with the Denver Broncos, Emmanuel Sanders could feel it was time. He was ready to move on. So was general manager John Elway, who said Tuesday that there were mutual issues between the Broncos and Sanders.

Sanders said Wednesday, in his introductory press conference with the 49ers, that he and Elway had a conversation which amounted to an understanding that, should a worthwhile trade offer come through, the Broncos would accept it. While four other teams were reportedly in on Sanders—something he confirmed—the 49ers, with an offer of a third- and fourth-round pick, in exchange for Sanders and a fifth-round pick, got the deal done on Monday.

At age 32 and having recovered from a torn Achilles suffered last season, the two-time Pro Bowler and 2015 Super Bowl champion Sanders made clear that he’s only interested in more silverware, something the Broncos don’t appear all that close to competing for.

“I think we both decided that it was best for me to go,” Sanders said. “I’ve only got two more years left or three more years left of playing football and I’m trying to win a championship. Obviously they’ve got a young locker room over there and so we both made the decision that you know, if a trade comes about, [Elway] would keep me posted and possibly trade me.”

While some people looked at the trade as creating a gap from the first round to the fifth round in the upcoming NFL Draft for the 49ers (their second-round pick was traded for Dee Ford), head coach Kyle Shanahan indirectly pointed to the fact that the 49ers are, well, good, and the Broncos simply are not. Shanahan said he hoped there wouldn’t be much difference in the 49ers’ fourth and the Broncos’ fifth.

It’s a deal that seems fair for the directions both franchises appear to be heading in, and provides a clear No. 1 wide receiver for a 49ers team which was in desperate need of one. Shanahan said he wasn’t sure if the deal would get done, but if there was one team with which a 49ers trade seemed more likely than the rest of the league, it was the Broncos.

The two teams had joint practices together, and despite a pair of scuffles on a Saturday practice which saw two Broncos players removed, the coaching overlap from the Broncos and 49ers always positioned the two as potential trade partners.

Head coach Vic Fangio was the 49ers’ defensive coordinator from 2011-2014 and offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello was the 49ers’ quarterbacks coach from 2017-18 and left Santa Clara with a similar scheme to the one Shanahan runs. Sanders seemed at ease with the transition into Shanahan’s system.

“It’s similar because Rich was the quarterbacks coach here last year,” Sanders said. “I’d say about 90 percent of it is similar. Obviously there’s 10 percent of it that the terminology is different and I’ve got to get adjusted to that, so I’m looking forward to it.”

Shanahan said there will be a necessary period of adjustment for Sanders, but was certain about his talent. He revealed that he’d been eyeing Sanders since his days with the Pittsburgh Steelers, from 2010-2013.

“Emmanuel’s been a guy I know I’ve personally wanted since probably the last eight years, since he became a free agent at Pittsburgh,” Shanahan said. “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. I know I answered that question the other day and I meant it. I have felt less urgency than we have in year’s past. I feel good about our group, but we do have a better team right now and we were able to make it better yesterday and pumped he’s here.”

Sanders hasn’t been following Shanahan the same way Shanahan’s followed him, but he did appreciate the MVP-like season Matt Ryan had under Shanahan and what he did for the Atlanta Falcons in 2016, when they lost in the Super Bowl.

His first impressions of Shanahan were less X’s and O’s and more the energy he brings to the building… plus what’s on his feet.

“He’s very laid back, funny guy, light, light, light guy on his toes,” Sanders said. “You know, 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 Yeezy’s. I’m like that’s cool, man. This one one cool coach. Just the environment is so light, but at the end of the day we have the concentration and we have to focus on the task at hand, so you know I could tell that’s a reflection of him.”

As far as that “10 percent” of new terminology goes, the 49ers have a translator of sorts. Sanders has been reunited with Wes Welker, who’s in his first season as the 49ers’ wide receivers coach, and has already been working on him with the adjustment into Shanahan’s offense. Sanders and Welker played together on the Broncos in 2014.

Shanahan also pointed to head athletic trainer Dustin Little, who was with the Broncos from 2013-2018 and, along with Welker, “confirmed how we felt about him.”

“Man, it’s cool, from going from 14 and playing with [Welker] to now him being my coach, it’s definitely different but it’s not bad at all,” Sanders said. “I actually enjoy being around Wes. That’s my boy. He’s been teaching me the offense and we’ve been communicating and it’s been going well and I expect it to continuously go that way.”

Of course, no one is really questioning the ability of Sanders to adjust to Shanahan’s offense, nor Shanahan’s ability to incorporate him. It’s about whether he and Jimmy Garoppolo can get in sync, and quickly. Though, the way Sanders put it, if he runs his routes correctly and Garoppolo throws the ball accurately, there shouldn’t be any issues.

Garoppolo raved about Sanders as a “playmaker,” saying, “he’ll make you look good,” if he gets the ball in his hands. There was equal praise of sorts from Sanders’ end in how he saw Garoppolo dictate the offense in his first walkthrough.

“Jimmy is just like Kyle, cool, but at the end of the day, all about the business,” Sanders said. “What I know so far in terms of him as a player is just going out to walkthrough, how much energy he brought, just through a walkthrough practice and the cadence he delivered and the tempo he expected guys getting in and out of the huddle. It was good to see. I’m a big energy guy, I love and I feed off energy, and his energy is definitely contagious.”

It’s far too early to tell what the future holds for Sanders in the offseason, but if you want to read into how he described his outlook, a return to the 49ers on a reasonable deal could be in the cards if the season continues on its current trend.

“Once I become a free agent, obviously yeah, [winning] is going to factor in a lot,” Sanders said. “A lot of people don’t understand, yeah the money’s good, I’ve made my fair share of that, but I think it’s it’s about happiness. It’s about happiness, it’s about, is it worth it? Because for me, if I’m just playing for the money and then we talk about longevity, it’s not worth it for me. I love playing football, I love being happy, I love winning games and I think that’s going to be definitely the ultimate deciding factor of where I go.”


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