Emmanuel Sanders spent less than a full NFL season in the 49ers’ locker room but his impact still is being felt to this day.
In the aftermath of the 49ers’ season-opening blowout win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, All-Pro tight end George Kittle brought up Sanders’ name when discussing the blocking ability of San Francisco’s wide receiver group.
On Friday, Sanders’ influence was mentioned to Kyle Shanahan, and the 49ers coach heaped glowing praise on his former wide receiver.
“Emmanuel is one of my favorite receivers of all time,” Shanahan told reporters after 49ers practice. “I think he’s one of the most underrated receivers. Emmanuel was great — how good he was in Denver, how good he was in Pittsburgh before we got him toward the end. But when he came in, he was still at that time, he was our best separator. He was so good. He helped those guys a ton.
“Just not only how he was our best separator, but his conditioning, he never took a play off. It seemed he was dead. It seemed he couldn’t go another play, but once that ball snapped, he was full speed. I think he showed a huge standard for that.”
Sanders’ mark can be seen on Kittle and 49ers star receiver Deebo Samuel, who was a rookie in 2019, and they are setting the example for the rest of San Francisco’s pass-catching unit.
The Week 1 play that epitomized Sanders was Christian McCaffrey’s 65-yard touchdown run that was aided by huge downfield blocks from 49ers receivers Brandon Aiyuk and Ray-Ray McCloud. They aren’t the biggest wideouts, but they didn’t hesitate to do some heavy lifting.
“Emmanuel Sanders when he came in and he listened to Kyle [Shanahan] and he blocked the way he wanted him to,” Kittle told reporters after practice Thursday. “Emmanuel’s a big guy, but he’s not the biggest guy in the room. You saw his effort on every single play – running routes when he wasn’t getting the ball to get other guys open, the backside of run plays digging out safeties – it kind of showed our young guys that’s what it’s supposed to look like.”
Shanahan reflected on how Sanders set the standard for what was to come from the 49ers’ receiving group.
“Him being one of the smaller guys compared to the others, just weight-wise, he didn’t turn anything down, and he always had good technique and stuff,” Shanahan said Friday. “That’s all you need, to me, as a receiver. Good technique, and the mindset to do it paired with everything we do. And it was one of our hardest decisions not to keep Emmanuel. It was just the age with Kendrick Bourne and stuff and how he was coming on. So, we had to make that decision. But loved Emmanuel.”
The 49ers acquired Sanders from the Denver Broncos in Oct. 2019, along with a 2020 fifth-round draft pick for a 2020 third-round draft pick and a 2020 fourth-round draft pick.
In nine regular-season games with the 49ers, Sanders had 36 receptions for 502 yards, with three touchdown catches. He almost won Super Bowl LIV with San Francisco, but they squandered a fourth-quarter lead and lost to the Kansas City Chiefs in Miami Gardens.
That was Sanders’ only season with the 49ers, but it’s clear Samuel and Kittle were watching and listening. Now they are keeping that example alive as part of San Francisco’s strong culture.