Analyzing Emmanuel Sanders' Impact on the Broncos
Regardless of his agent's shady tactics, former Steelers wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders landed in what he called "wide receiver heaven" in Denver.
After finally overcoming numerous foot injuries, Sanders stepped into the starting role last season in Pittsburgh with the departure of Mike Wallace. In 2013, Sanders produced career best numbers: 67 receptions, 740 yards and six touchdowns.
The free agent's tour ended with him signing a three-year, $15 million dollar deal with Denver, which could escalate to $18 million if his performance kicks in $3 million worth of escalators. Was it the right move for the Broncos? What kind of receiver are they getting to replace the departed Eric Decker?
Sanders' Receiving Ability
Sanders brings some exciting physical traits to the Broncos, providing speed and shiftiness to a greater degree than Eric Decker brought to the table for Denver. Sanders' run after the catch ability will allow Peyton Manning a lot of flexibility in the passing game.
Sanders is capable of lining up outside as well as in the slot, and Denver will certainly move Sanders around the line of scrimmage find mismatches. Sanders also possesses 4.4 speed, and has shown the ability to stretch the defense, which will allow Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker to work the underneath routes in the Denver offense.
But when we take a look at the numbers, it appears that Sanders may be quite a downgrade for the Broncos offense compared to the now departed Eric Decker.
In 2013, Sanders had 67 receptions on 112 targets (59.82% catch rate) from Ben Roethlisberger. He finished the season with 54.15 Reception Net Expected Points (NEP), which ranked fourth-to-last among all receivers with 50 or more catches (45 players). Eric Decker, for reference, had a 112.59 Reception NEP in 2013, which ranked 11th in the NFL.
Now, looking at the number of points added on receptions from a player clearly doesn't tell the entire story. And the number one reason for that, obviously, is the fact that Decker played with a record-breaking Peyton Manning, while Sanders played with an above average Ben Roethlisberger.
But in comparison, Decker only finished 18 Reception Net Expected Points lower than teammate Demaryius Thomas, while Emmanuel Sanders' score was far lower than both Antonio Brown and Jerricho Cotchery (120.20 and 74.68, respectively). In essence, when you look at what Sanders did with his catches, it wasn't all that impressive.
Even when you factor in volume, things don't get any better. Sanders' Reception NEP per target - the amount of points being added for a player's team on receptions divided by volume - was a measly 0.48 this past season. For context, that number ranked 76th of the 87 receivers with at least 30 receptions last year. Efficiency machine Jerricho Cotchery ranked third within the metric, and Antonio Brown was 34th.
Lastly, Sanders' Target NEP - a measure of how well a player performs on all targets - was easily worst on the Steelers a season ago. While Antonio Brown added over 70 points for the Steelers across his 166 targets, Emmanuel Sanders added just over 10 on his 112. That's not all that uncommon, either, as Sanders has never had a Target NEP hit higher than 22.41, a mediocre score.
Question Marks Surrounding Sanders
There's no doubt that Sanders big shoes to fill in the Denver passing game - the inconsistencies in his game are exposed when looking at the metrics. The Steelers passing game has performed well overall according to our metrics (eighth in Adjusted Passing NEP in 2013), so the poor numbers reflect the fact that he hasn't made huge plays, and that he hasn't been a consistent threat.
Past health issues aside, Sanders must become a more consistent route runner and pass-catcher to become a trusted weapon in Peyton Manning's arsenal.
But the biggest concerns for Sanders are his durability in such a pass heavy offense, and whether or not he can he finally utilize his physical tools to maximize his statistics. He's had foot issues in the past, and while he's played in 32 straight games, he hasn't played that at 100 percent health. He's yet to see a season with more than the 112 targets he saw in 2013, and as we saw, he wasn't all that effective.
Sanders in 2014
With Eric Decker bolting for the green - I mean the Jets - Sanders has a prime opportunity to put up career numbers in a Broncos uniform. I believe Sanders now enters potential fantasy WR2 conversation in the high octane Broncos offense, but only on volume alone.
Peyton Manning has made wide receivers with half of Emmanuel Sanders physical skills look very impressive. Sanders will likely see 120-130 targets in the Denver offense, which should put him around 75 receptions.
As we handicap it today, the over/under for Sanders stat line in 2014 is 75 receptions, 1,100 yards and eight touchdowns.
Sanders will likely fly off draft boards as a low end WR2 in fantasy drafts this summer, and if he refines his skill set by working with Manning, Thomas and Welker, fantasy owners could be very happy with the newest Broncos receiver. They just need to ensure he stays healthy to see enough volume, as his efficiency isn't strong enough to get to that status alone.