Hindsight is always 20/20. Hindsight also suggests the New England Patriots may have been better off with the *other* veteran wide receiver.
The Patriots acquired Mohamed Sanu from the Atlanta Falcons on Oct. 22 in exchange for a 2020-second round pick. Hours later, San Francisco 49ers -- who reportedly had interest in Sanu -- "settled" for Emmanuel Sanders, sending a 2020 third-rounder and a 2020 fourth-rounder to the Denver Broncos for the 32-year-old receiver and a 2020 fifth-rounder.
Fast forward to Dec. 10, when both receivers and their respective offenses are going in opposite directions. Here are Sanu's stats with New England compared to Sanders' stats with San Francisco, including both teams' records since the trades:
Sanu (3-3 with Patriots): 18 receptions, 135 yards, one TD in five games played
Sanders (5-2 with 49ers): 28 receptions, 407 yards, three TDs in seven games played
Those stats come with a caveat: Sanu suffered a high ankle sprain in his third game with the Patriots that sidelined him for one game and has limited his effectiveness in the last two. Sanders, meanwhile, has stayed healthy after recovering from a torn Achilles in the offseason.
But as The Athletic's Mike Sando points out, there's evidence to suggest Sanders would have fit better in New England even if both players were healthy.
Per Sando, Sanders has caught 67 passes of 15 yards or more in the last four seasons, compared to Sanu's 44. Those kinds of big plays have been relatively rare in New England, where the Patriots are tied for 13th in the NFL in passing plays of 25 yards or more.
That's not too surprising considering the Patriots lack of weapons compared to San Francisco, which has an All-Pro tight end in George Kittle and a speedy slot man in Deebo Samuel.
"Sanders would be the intermediate to deeper threat that they don’t have in New England right now," an NFL evaluator told Sando.
Patriots rookie N'Keal Harry eventually could be that deeper threat but has yet to realize his potential. And save for a 10-catch, 81-yard effort against the Baltimore Ravens, Sanu hasn't been able to get open consistently for quarterback Tom Brady.
That begs the inevitable question of whether Sanders -- who averaged 5.9 receptions per game last season compared to Sanu's 4.1 -- would have given New England's offense a bigger spark.
Sanu still has time to carve out an increased role for the 10-3 Patriots down the stretch and into the playoffs. But if Sanders continues to thrive with ex-Patriots QB Jimmy Garoppolo, it will be worth wondering "what if."
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