SANTA CLARA -- Emmanuel Sanders is the only featured 49ers receiver with more than three years’ NFL experience. He has more than triple that during a stellar professional career.
Sanders had an excellent run in Pittsburgh, followed by a Denver tenure that included two Pro Bowls and a Super Bowl championship. Winning got harder the last two-plus years with the Broncos, and the impending free agent and a fifth-round NFL draft pick were traded to the 49ers for third- and fourth-round selections.
The transaction served player and new team well. Sanders provided leadership, a clear talent upgrade and alleviated pressure on a young 49ers receiver corps featuring rookie Deebo Samuel and third-year pro Kendrick Bourne. Young guys have paid him back, rejuvenating Sanders during a playoff run that continues Sunday against the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game at Levi’s Stadium.
Let’s focus on the team benefits first.
“It gave us a big pick-up when we needed it,” 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan said. “Emmanuel came in and allowed, I think, most importantly, our other receivers to grow. I don't know how ready all those other guys were quite yet and Emmanuel came in and took a lot of pressure off the guys right away.”
Sanders was able to play during his first week in red and gold, during a blowout win over the Carolina Panthers. He followed that with 112 yards against Arizona, part of four victories in his first five games as a 49er.
“It's been great having Emmanuel in there, where guys like Deebo and Bourne can watch him,” Shanahan said. “I think that, since he's gotten here, those guys have gotten a lot better.”
Don’t take facts in this paragraph as straight causation, but it's clear young wideouts have been better since the trade. Bourne had zero touchdowns before the Sanders trade. He has six since and has become impactful in the red zone. Samuel also has cranked things up since Sanders’ arrival, with his first three 100-yard games and significant upgrades in yards after the catch per reception.
The 49ers receiver corps has proven deeper and more effective since Sanders’ arrival.
They have helped the 33-year old with a youthful energy that has been well documented down the home stretch. That was clear to Sanders during a recent Shanahan speech about team chemistry.
“The speech that Kyle gave was that there's so much love between this team and how much we care about each other and I looked around, I looked at Deebo, I looked at KB, I looked at the receiver corps,” Sanders said. “I said, ‘Man, I genuinely do love these guys.’ It's a great group of guys to go to work with every day -- a fun group of guys to go to work with.”
Sanders had early success in Pittsburgh, with a rookie-season trip to the AFC title game. Sanders appreciated having mentors take him and fellow rookie Antonio Brown through the process and is paying it forward with the 49ers.
“We had guys like [former Steelers receivers] Antwaan Randle El and Hines Ward to tell us what to do,” Sanders said. “I remember once the playoffs started, Hines was like, ‘All the extracurricular actives you guys are doing, get rid of those, get rid of the extracurricular and let's hone in on trying to do something special now,’ and we were able to do that.
“That's why I kind of tell young guys as well, 'let's lock in for two or three weeks and at the end hopefully we'll be saying we're the world champs and the offseason is yours. They will be calling you champ all the way up until next season.'"
Programming note: NBC Sports Bay Area feeds your hunger for 49ers playoff coverage with special editions of “49ers Central” all week (6 p.m. Thursday and 8 p.m. Friday)
Also tune in at 2:30 p.m. Sunday for “49ers Pregame Live,” with Laura Britt, Jeff Garcia, Donte Whitner, Ian Williams and Grant Liffmann previewing the NFC Championship Game against the Packers. That same crew will have all the postgame reaction on “49ers Postgame Live,” starting at approximately 6:30 p.m.