Denver Broncos: Emmanuel Sanders now most valuable on team?


Thanks in part to a second- and especially untimely- Jamaal Charles fumble (and no thanks to Gary Kubiak‘s new offense), the Denver Broncos prevailed over the rival Kansas City Chiefs 31-24. The Chiefs are one of the strongest darkhorses around the NFL, and the pre-game hype centered around their chances of finally knocking off Peyton Manning. After beating him severely in the first half and watching the aging QB sky wobbly throws with an arm that looked weaker than a Papa John’s crust, the Chiefs suddenly fell victim to a Manning-led comeback victory.

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Well, the main post-game story is about how Manning turned it around to lead his team to victory, but this was actually a comeback led by wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. Manning’s turn-around allowed the team to pull out the win, but without Sanders’s steady contributions in this one, they wouldn’t have been in a position to steal this game away.

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Heck, you could say the same thing about Sanders in the Broncos touchdown-less, ugly victory in the opener over the Baltimore Ravens. In that game, Sanders caught eight passes for 65 yards and was the main weapon on an offense that completely lacked a running game against the Ravens vaunted defense.

Sanders was even better against Kansas City (mostly because Manning actually showed up in the second half), hauling in eight of 14 targets for 87 yards and two touchdowns. Thomas had the same 8-14 line with more receiving yards (116), but Sanders was literally the only player keeping the offense afloat before the Broncos finally found their groove in the shotgun formation.

With the offensive tackles getting lit up every week, Evan Mathis failing to make a Pro Bowl impact, and the center spot a complete wasteland, the Broncos haven’t been able to establish a running game. Ronnie Hillman gave them some signs of life yesterday, but he still averaged just 3.8 yards per carry on nine attempts- hardly enough to worry any defense.

So Sanders has filled the role as the team’s chain-mover, and it’s almost mind-blowing how critical he has been to this team on third downs.

According to Pro-Football Reference, Sanders has caught 11 of 13 third-down passes for 117 yards and two touchdowns, meaning that Manning completes 84.6% of his passes when targeting the former Pittsburgh Steeler on third downs. Thomas, on the other hand, has just a 62.5% catch rate in those situations (5-for-8), which isn’t substantially higher than Manning’s 62.1% completion percentage on third downs.

Some are wondering if Sanders could actually be a better receiver than the handsomely-compensated Thomas, but I’m not one of those who subscribes to that belief. Thomas is a true “X” receiver who is a better playmaker, better at the catch point, and has better athletic tools.

Sep 17, 2015; Kansas City, MO, USA; Denver Broncos wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders (10) catches a touchdown against the Kansas City Chiefs in the second half at Arrowhead Stadium. Denver won the game 31-24. Mandatory Credit: John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

And yet, Sanders is more valuable to the Denver Broncos offense as a whole, because he’s the sort of quick, chain-mover that this team desperately needs. He’s always open, which means that he’s always there to bail Manning out when the legendary QB needs him. With Manning’s skill-set weakening and his offensive line nearly in shambles, those quick passes to Sanders have become all the more important.

Sanders’s importance has also increased, simply because the Broncos no longer have as vast of an array of options surrounding Manning. Gone are the days of Thomas, Eric Decker, Wes Welker, and Julius Thomas forming a “Four Horsemen” trio, to the point where it’s basically become a dynamic duo of 110-reception receivers in Sanders and Thomas.

The decrease in the number of possession receivers (and weapons as a whole) has put the focus on Sanders, who is required to move the ball for this offense, especially with an offensive line that has looked like the worst run blocking unit in the NFL thus far (the caveat being that this is a new line, and new lines almost always suck in the running game before they have a chance to gel).

No disclaimer changes the fact that Emmanuel Sanders has been absolute money on third downs, and no point of clarification undermines the fact that nobody has proven capable of covering him. For example, burgeoning shutdown corner Marcus Peters allowed just two receptions on eight targets for 23 yards when covering Thomas, while it took just four targets for Sanders to put up an identical 2-23 line with a TD against Peters, as per Pro Football Focus.

Basically, you can’t take Sanders out of the equation because of his well-rounded skill-set, and that’s critical now that he’s clearly “the guy” in key situations. Despite being a full four inches shorter than Thomas, he has both of Manning’s lone touchdown passes to wide receivers this season, and that’s a good, quick indicator that he’s went from being a gem of an offseason signing to a pearl of inestimable value to a Broncos team that would be in peril (and likely 0-2 instead of 2-0) without his steady work.

Next: Where Do Sanders and Thomas Rank Among NFL's Best WRs?

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