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."
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."