Emmanuel Sanders: I could have been a 'Hall of Famer' with Patriots

Emmanuel Sanders: I could have been a 'Hall of Famer' with Patriots

MIAMI -- Emmanuel Sanders knew a trade was coming this season. He thought he might end up with the Patriots after six years in Denver, but he wasn't sure.

What Sanders does know is that if he landed in New England as a restricted free agent back in 2013 -- the way he thought he was going to -- he might have had an even brighter career than the one that's been highlighted by three Super Bowl appearances, one Super Bowl win (so far) and two Pro Bowl nods.

"If I had went to New England, I probably would've been a Hall of Famer," he said with a smile. "I probably would've been a Hall of Famer. That was, what, my third year in the league? Tom (Brady) would've had, what, seven more years left? How many Super Bowls have they won from then?

"But it didn't work out. That's not the plan that God wanted for me. I don't regret anything. Year 10. Third Super Bowl. I'm blessed, man."

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Years ago, after three seasons with the Steelers, Sanders, a third-round pick out of SMU in 2010, became a restricted free agent. Pittsburgh assigned him an original-round tender, meaning that if Sanders signed with another club, the Steelers would receive a third-round pick from whichever team signed their guy. 

To that point in his career, Sanders was averaging 31 catches for 363 yards per season. He'd caught five touchdown passes in 40 games. The numbers weren't gaudy, but the Patriots -- who were about to watch their top receiver, Wes Welker, hit free agency -- were interested.

Sanders made a visit to New England and later signed an offer sheet to play for Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. The Steelers, though, had five days to match the Patriots' offer. They did. Sanders remained with Pittsburgh for one more season.

The Patriots had an opportunity to sign Sanders again the following year as a free agent, but by then Julian Edelman had emerged as a force in their passing game. Sanders went to the Broncos. The Patriots won the Super Bowl. The Broncos won one of their own the following year in 2015.

When the Patriots were in clear need of receiver help in the middle of the 2019 season, Sanders appeared to be one of the top options. The Patriots, however, chose Mohamed Sanu, giving up a second-round pick to get him. (Sanders and a fifth-round pick cost the NIners a third and fourth-rounder.)  

Despite New England's heavy payment to land Sanu, it was Sanders who ended up the far more productive midseason acquisition. 

Sanders, 32, is older than Sanu. He has a lengthier injury history, including a 2018 Achilles tear that ended his season. And he's in a contract year, whereas Sanu has a year remaining on his deal.

Still, after going through an extra week of training camp -- the Broncos were Hall of Fame Game participants this preseason -- and having missed both the Denver and San Francisco bye weeks, Sanders finished with 36 catches for 502 yards and three scores in 10 games with the Niners. That out-paced Sanu's per-game averages with the Patriots (26 catches, 207 yards, 1 score) in eight games.

Sanders would've been open to landing with the Patriots in 2019. But he was thrilled to be where he was Monday night, in Miami, as a member of the Niners, at a podium for Media Night in the week leading up to the Super Bowl. 

"I didn't know where I was gonna go, truthfully," Sanders said. "It's one of those situations where I really didn't have any expectations. What I was hearing from the media was it could be the Patriots. It could be the Saints. It could be the Packers or the Niners. Out of all those teams, I would've been in a good situation. I really wasn't worried about it."

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Gary Tanguay: I was wrong to doubt Bill Belichick

Gary Tanguay: I was wrong to doubt Bill Belichick

I should have known.

I should have known that Bill Belichick would address the senseless murder of George Floyd with his team.

Belichick had remained silent on the matter when other notable coaches and owners like Brad Stevens, Gregg Popovich, and Wyc Grousbeck had spoken out publicly. The Patriots had released a statement, but we heard not a word from the Hoodie. His players were another story.

Mike Giardi of NFL Network reported that the coach held an extensive session with his team regarding the matter. Patriot captain Matthew Slater told Phil Perry on The Next Pats Podcast that his coach, “has a healthy understanding of the situation and the times we’re living in. I think he’s done of good job of trying to listen, trying to learn from his players and try to navigate this as best he can.”

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Of course. Shame on me for doubting him.

Belichick is a "my way or the highway” kind of guy. We know that. However, he has consistently changed “his way” during his coaching tenure.

Known as a defensive-minded coach, he took the reins off of Tom Brady to 2007 as his one-time game manager threw 50 touchdowns that year.

This no-nonsense coach brought in one-time problem players like Corey Dillon and Randy Moss and made them into extremely productive Patriots.

A military-minded fellow has had no problem with a player’s facial hair, hair length, or how they dress.

His training camps have become more about field trips to the movies than two-days as he adapts to the ways of managing a player’s health in today’s NFL.

As my friend and colleague Steve DeOssie has told me thousands of times, “Bill, does business as business is done.” There is not a better example of this than the coach’s virtual session with his team. He tossed football aside and was there for his players.

How could Belichick look Slater or the McCourty twins in the eye and not address this situation?

How could he pass Andre Tippett in the hallway in Foxboro and remain silent? He shouldn’t, he couldn’t, and he didn’t.

Belichick knows his players need him right now and did the right thing and spoke up. He just didn’t need to tell us about it, which is OK with me.

Next Pats Podcast: Matthew Slater reflects on social unrest within U.S. and NFL

Next Pats Podcast: Matthew Slater reflects on social unrest within U.S. and NFL

As much as we'd love to talk football, it has taken a back seat to the conversations that need to be had about George Floyd's murder and the racial injustices that remain prevalent in the United States.

The "Black Lives Matter" movement has spread across the country with protests advocating for justice and racial equality. It has impacted the world of sports, with countless athletes using their platforms to let their voices be heard. NFL players even sent a strong message to the league with a video stating what they wanted to hear it say regarding the oppression of African Americans.

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On a brand new episode of the Next Pats Podcast, New England Patriots special teams captain Matthew Slater joined Phil Perry to discuss the state of the nation.

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Slater covered a variety of important topics in the episode. But one that particularly stood out was his explanation of how if the country operated like an NFL locker room, it would be a more inclusive place.

"It is a very unique place. A locker room setting -- you know, if our country operated and moved like a locker room, man it would be a beautiful thing," Slater said. "I'm not saying it's perfect, I'm not saying we've got it all figured out, but what a unique space where people from all different walks of life, different belief systems and things of that nature to work toward a common goal.

"And there's automatic respect that comes with the fact that you have a jersey and a helmet, and you're one of us. So I'm appreciative of that and I think now is a time for us to maybe forge those bonds even deeper. Guys that maybe hear personal stories and maybe experience this from their teammates have a different appreciation for why that guy is the way he is, why he does the things that he does. And I think ultimately that's going to lead to deeper and more fruitful relationships."

If anyone knows what a healthy, inclusive locker room environment looks like, it's Slater. The 34-year-old has been a captain for the Patriots for nearly a decade and has been an admirable leader throughout his stellar NFL career.

Slater also discussed how head coach Bill Belichick has been involved in the team's discussions about recent events, his experiences living as a black man in America, and much more.

Check out more of the Next Pats Podcast on the NBC Sports Boston Podcast Network or watch on YouTube below: