The 49ers are going all-in on 2019.
On Tuesday, San Francisco — 6-0 for the first time since 1990 — traded a pair of 2020 draft picks to the Denver Broncos for wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders.
A two-time Pro Bowler, Sanders gives quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo a consistent and experienced downfield threat. Fast and quick, Sanders is exactly the kind of playmaker the 49ers needed to add to an underwhelming receiving corps in a season where they could make a deep playoff run.
“Emmanuel is a passionate football player whose toughness and competitive nature have helped him become a dynamic playmaker in this league,” 49ers general manager John Lynch said in a statement. “He possesses a number of qualities, on and off the field, that we value in our players. His familiarity in a similar offensive system will allow for a quick transition. We are excited to add Emmanuel to our roster and look forward to seeing him positively impact our team.”
Head coach Kyle Shanahan has long coveted Sanders, a 2010 third-round draft pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers with eight postseason games under his belt, including a win in Super Bowl 50 at Levi’s Stadium.
After Sanders tore his Achilles during a practice on Dec. 5, 2018 — the week Denver played San Francisco last season — Shanahan said, “I think he’s been a No. 1 receiver since he’s been in Denver. Emmanuel is the man. He’s always been the man.
“He is extremely quick,” Shanahan continued. “He knows how to separate. He can beat man coverage and he’s also fearless. He’s aggressive with the ball. He doesn’t mind going there and blocking, he doesn’t mind going over the middle and he’s one of the tougher challenges in the league.”
That injury cut short a promising season in which Sanders had already caught 71 balls for 868 yards and four scores in 12 games. In his Week 1 return this year, Sanders caught five passes for 86 yards and a touchdown in a 24-16 loss to the Oakland Raiders. Through seven games, he’s caught 30 balls for 367 yards (12.2 yards per catch).
Sanders’ skill set is one San Francisco has been searching for since the offseason, when the team made a run at Odell Beckham Jr. Lacking a true No. 1 receiver, the 49ers are 25th in the league in passing yards per game, and while they are seventh in the NFL with 7.7 passing yards per attempt, they’re 31st in the league in passing attempts per game.
Tight end George Kittle has more than twice as many catches — 34 — as the team’s leading wide receiver, rookie Deebo Samuel (15). Speedsters Dante Pettis and Marquise Goodwin were supposed to be able to stretch the field, but Goodwin has been used situationally (11 catches, 181 yards, 14th in the NFL in yards per catch) and Pettis (nine catches, 83 yards) has only just started to make some noise.
What yards the 49ers do make through the air are due in large part to the after-catch ability of Kittle, who’s 15th in the NFL in yards after catch with 209.
Sanders has caught 565 balls for 7,391 yards (13.1 yards per catch) and 39 touchdowns in nine and a half NFL seasons. He’s not a true No. 1 at this stage of his career, but Sanders does give San Francisco an experienced deep threat that will complement Samuel and two pieces the 49ers expect to get back off injured reserve — Trent Taylor (foot) and Jalen Hurd (back) — for a stretch run that will see San Francisco face teams that are a combined 42-25.
Sanders is, however, a half-year rental. While he’s had remarkable injury luck — playing in 12 or more games each year from 2012 to 2018, including five straight seasons of 15 games or more — he turns 33 in March. In the final year of his contract, it’s unlikely that the 49ers bring him back next season. While Lynch and Shanahan’s other moves have been more long-term, this trade shows San Francisco banking on the present at the expense of the future.
By giving up the pair of picks for Sanders, and dealing a second-rounder for pass rusher Dee Ford this offseason, San Francisco no longer has a second-, third- or fourth-round pick in next year’s draft. However, after going 10-22 in its first two seasons under Lynch and Shanahan, the 49ers have built the NFL’s No. 2 defense and the league’s No. 2 rushing attack, along with a franchise quarterback just rounding into form after recovering from an ACL tear. Their 6-0 start is the best since the 1990 team, which was coming off back-to-back Super Bowls. If there were a time to go all-in, it’s now.