SANTA CLARA, Calif. — San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan has coveted Emmanuel Sanders for the last eight years. To say Shanahan was excited to acquire the Pro Bowl wide receiver in a Tuesday trade would be underselling it.
When he reported to Levi’s Stadium on Wednesday for his first team meeting, Sanders, too, was delighted. “I can’t wait to get home and tell my wife the head coach is wearing Yeezys,” he said. “I was like, ‘That’s cool, this is one cool coach.’”
Sanders and the rest of the 49ers organization appeared to be on the same page less than 24 hours removed from the trade, one which they hope will benefit both parties. With Sanders’ physical gifts and Shanahan’s demeanor and play calling, the hope is that this is a match made to thrust San Francisco into the postseason.
“I think it says that we’re competing this year to try to get in the playoffs,” “Shanahan said. “I think that’s pretty obvious with where our record is at right now.”
On Monday, when Shanahan was asked about the urgency he and the rest of the organization felt to bolster the receiving corps, the third-year head coach downplayed the situation, stating that he was happy with the group that currently sat in the 49ers locker room.
Considering that San Francisco’s passing offense was ranked as the eighth-worst in the league, averaging 214.5 yards per game, the expectation was that there was some transaction to be made as the Oct. 29 trade deadline approached.
Giving up third- and fourth-round draft picks in 2020, San Francisco landed Sanders as well as a 2020 fifth-round pick from Denver, immediately improving its receiving game by adding a three-time 1,000-yard receiver (including 1,404 yards in 2014 en route to a Super Bowl appearance), but mortgaging a bit of the future.
The acquisition of what should be a No.1 pass-catching option also comes with its own risks: Sanders, 32, is coming off of a torn Achilles tendon and his three-year, $33 million contract is set to expire at the end of this season.
“It always gives you pause when it comes to draft picks and everything,” Shanahan said. “But we feel like he can come in and help us a lot to this year.”
Sanders says he’s already comfortable in the 49ers locker room and admires the “light” environment that Shanahan has instilled in the building. It’s what allows Shanahan, 39, to connect with his team. Between his love for hip-hop artist Lil Wayne, to his affinity for modern fashion — including Kanye West’s line of Adidas Yeezys — Shanahan is one of the hippest young coaches in the NFL.
In addition, something that should ease Sanders’ transition even further is the fact that he comes from a Denver offensive scheme run by Rich Scangarello, who served as the 49ers quarterbacks coach from 2017-2018.
With similar play concepts and verbiage, Sanders expects to be able to absorb Shanahan’s playbook — which is viewed as one of the most complex in the NFL — very easily.
“I would say about 90 percent of it is similar,” Sanders said. “Obviously there’s about 10 percent that the terminology is different and I’ll have to get used to that.”
As for Shanahan, having a veteran out on the field, who can run crisp routes and play physically with the ball in his hands is exactly what he thinks the 49ers need as they try to maintain their spot as the top team in the NFC.
“I think he’s always been very good at separating. He’s wired in a certain way where he can get downfield,” Shanahan said. ”The game is not too big for him. He can go over the middle and not flinch. He catches the ball and gets up the field hard.”
Sanders’ ability to take hits and stay aggressive with the ball in his hands is something that’s been missing from the 49ers receiver corps all season. San Francisco ranks 20th in the NFL with just 749 yards after catch this year, with 210 of those coming from tight end George Kittle. Sanders would outmatch any 49ers receiver with 118 yards after catch through seven games.
The move to San Francisco gives Sanders a “change of scenery,” as the 2015 Super Bowl champion put it. But it also gives him a chance to benefit from one of the smartest offensive minds in football in Shanahan.
“At the end of the day, we have the concentration and focus on the task at hand,” Sanders said. “I can tell the team is a reflection of him, and it’s cool to see.”