FOXBORO – If, as expected, the Patriots devote a man-and-a-half to Julio Jones in Super Bowl LI, some other Atlanta Falcon will become the focal point.
Atlanta coach Dan Quinn said on Thursday that’s one of the big improvements the Falcons have made this season. They’re more multifaceted than last year.
No coincidence, they added one of the most versatile receivers in the NFL in the offseason and he’s paid dividends.
Mohamed Sanu, signed to a five-year, $32.5 million deal in the offseason, has been a do-the-dirty-work competitor for Atlanta. He had a career-high 59 catches for 653 yards and four touchdowns this season. Those aren’t eye-popping. But it’s the ability to do a little bit of everything – line up inside, or outside, block and play physically – that makes him more valuable than the numbers indicate.
“He’s big, he’s tough, he’s got great hands - tremendous hands,” said Bill Belichick, who tried to make Sanu a Patriot last March before being outbid. “He has a great catch radius. He catches everything. He’s a tough blocker. He’s hard to tackle. He’s an explosive player. There’s not a team in the league that he wouldn’t help.”
Fortunately for the Patriots, they aren’t starting on Sanu cold. Far from it. He went to Rutgers and he spent many practices in New Jersey across the line from Patriots Duron Harmon and Logan Ryan (just one against Devin McCourty who was a senior when Sanu was a freshman).
Expect the Ryan-Sanu battle to be rejoined.
“He does a lot of things well,” Ryan said coyly on Friday. “He’s got strong hands and finishes plays well. Physically tough, loves to block, loves to compete. I loved to compete so it was a lot of fun back at Rutgers.”
Who got the better of whom?
“He won his, I won mine,” Ryan smiled. “I think we’ll see what happens at this stage. I’m happy for him. He’s carved out a nice career.”
Despite only being with McCourty briefly, an impression was made.
“He started at safety and I remember being a senior corner thinking, ‘this is gonna work out well’ but a week and a half into spring ball, they moved him to receiver and I was like, ‘Damn,’ ” recalled McCourty.
“The thing that stuck out to me was he always wanted to get better,” McCourty added. “When he was a freshman out there at receiver I used to kill him. He’d just moved to receiver, obviously fresh out of high school but he was always trying to get better whether it was catching tennis balls in the weight room, doing footwork in the weight room in the offseason. Consistently when I went back and was in the NFL, he’d be saying, ‘Hey, you wanna do some releases?’ So it’s no surprise to me to see him come to the NFL and have success. He knew he was gonna have a shot and he knew when he got that shot he was gonna be ready.”
Another aspect of Sanu’s game the Patriots will need to be wary of? He can throw.
He hasn’t thrown a pass in two years but he went 5-for-5 in his career with the Bengals for 177 yards and two touchdowns.
Will the Patriots keep an eye out for that?
“Yeah, sure,” said Belichick. “We know he can do it. Look, this is the kind of game where a team could be working on a play like that all year and you’re running out of games. I mean it could be a lot of other plays, too; a reverse, a pass, a double pass, some kind of gadget play, so absolutely. The longer the season goes I think the more you have to be prepared for those kinds of plays because, again, if the team has been working on it then at some point they’re probably going to use it and the fewer games there are to call it. If you’ve been working on a play all year, a lot of coordinators, you might as well call it.”
With all that do-it-all ability, McCourty said he’d have been a perfect fit in New England.
“We group-chatted him to see what he was thinking,” McCourty laughed, “But I was happy for him. I was happy he got a good contract for his family it just happened to be Atlanta. He was a guy who would have fit in here. Hard-worker, doesn’t really care about anything other than winning. I imagine he’s brought a really positive and good attitude to Atlanta.”