For Emmanuel Sanders, all it took to become a diamond-studded receiver was a change of scenery and gaining the confidence of the most statistically-dominant signal caller in the history of the NFL.
History has shown us that playing with Peyton Manning makes pedestrian receivers like Eric Decker look like world beaters. And the receivers who always had that killer, first-option receiver gene and didn’t previously get to exhibit it, tend to morph into All-Pro caliber pass-snatchers.
Before he joined the high-octane Broncos in the offseason, NFL Nation had only witnessed a glimpse of Sanders’ speed, sure hands, athleticism and fancy foot work. With Pittsburgh’s “Young Money Crew”, Sanders was a distant second or even the third-option behind speedy Mike Wallace and blossoming D-wrecker Antonio Brown.
While Ben Roethlisberger has the ability to air it out with the best of em’, to explode in his offense you have to arrive as a ready-made product. Roethlisberger isn’t known for his uncanny grasp of offenses and professor-like approach to building incomparable aerial chemistry and willing his receivers to meet the expectations of their iconic QB. Taking nothing from the two-time Super Bowl QB, his football IQ isn’t as legendary as Manning’s.
When the Broncos signed Sanders in March, they projected him as a supporting player that could become one of the integral targets of an offensive juggernaut. Icing on an already gluttonously constructed cake, if you will.
In 2012, Sanders was part of a triumvirate receiving corps that many were calling the NFL’s most potent. Pittsburgh hadn’t had a Top 5 receiving squadron since the 70s when Lynn Swann and John Stallworth ruled the airwaves for the vaunted Steelers Dynasty. The trio caught wreck that season. It would be their only season together at full strength.
Despite flossing three cats with No. 1 receiver skills, it took a few years for Sanders, a third-round 2010 draft pick, Brown and Wallace to all be healthy for the Steelers at the same time. At the start of the 2011 training camp, Sanders was on crutches with a protective boot covering his ankle. He used an abbreviated but effective 13-game season as a glimpse into his bright future, but it was clear he was not the top dawg.
When Wallace bounced to Miami after 2012, Sanders had a break-out season but it wasn’t one for the ages. Brown was making his way into the NFL’s top receivers club as well. Sanders surveyed his situation entering the following season and decided to sign with the Broncos. It was the best decision he ever made as he currently ranks among the leading NFL receivers in receptions (fourth with 62) and yardage (seventh with 852) and has six TD’s after catching two of Manning’s five TD passes in a 41-17 drumming of the stank-ass Raiders on Sunday.
Sanders has caught six of Manning's 29 touchdowns this season. He already has more yards and the same number of touchdowns through nine games in 2014 than he did all of last year.
Until joining Manning, Sanders had never even had an 800-yard receiving season. His career high of 740 yards was accomplished last year. He'd never even had a 100-yard game; a 98-yard at New England last Nov. 3 was the closest he'd come. This season, he has five games of more than 100 yards, with a career-high 151 yards in a 41-23 loss to the Pats on Nov. 2. More indicative of his importance to Denver’s offense, he was targeted 16 times and caught 10 balls in that game.
"You just throw it as far as you can, and it’s hard to out-throw that guy," said Manning.
He makes it sound so easy, but that’s a part of the magnificence of working with “The TD Doctor.”
"I want to go to the Pro Bowl because I haven't been there before," Sanders said, earlier in the season. "And, of course I want to be on a team that wins the Super Bowl. I'm satisfied with what happened so far this season. Being on the same team with Peyton is an opportunity of a lifetime."
There are QB’s who have had comparable statistical seasons and even won more Super Bowls, but for a receiver, becoming a part of Manning’s offensive inner-circle is akin to a religious experience or a pilgrimage of enlightenment,where a physical and psychological chemistry is developed before these guys ever cleat up for Sunday service.
Days after Sanders signed, Manning invited him to Duke University for informal workouts. The duo began to develop their timing there, and continued through organized team activities and the first two weeks of training camp, when Sanders and Manning were among the last players to leave the field after each practice.
The extra work has proved to be invaluable as Sanders hit the ground running in an offensive system that features some of the game’s most prolific receivers.
Sanders was once a member of the “Young Money Crew", but now he joins a new group. Let's call them “The Record Breakers.” On Sunday, fellow wideout Demaryius Thomas became just the eighth player in league history to string together six consecutive 100-yard receiving games. His latest assault was torching Oakland's Raiders for 11 catches and 108 yards on Sunday. He’s leading the league in receiving yards average per game (99.3 yards per game).
Tight end Julius Thomas leads the NFL in TD’s with 12 and is another lethal target. There’s also Wes Welker—the forgotten All-Pro—who’s a beast when his dome is not scrambled.
Dispensing this defensive dissidence is Manning who needed just 17 minutes to throw five touchdowns on Sunday. It was the ninth time he has thrown for at least five touchdowns in a single game, which is the most in NFL history.
Manning also leads the NFL in four touchdown games with 34, and three touchdown games with 91. This is also now his 15th consecutive game with at least two touchdown passes, which is also the most in NFL history.
But honestly, we could sit here and spit Manning statistics until A Tribe Called Quest makes another album.
One of the dope underlying stories of this NFL season is Sanders’ rise to prominence from a 5-foot-11, 180-pound long shot from Southern Methodist University to a starting receiver for one of the NFL’s most storied and beloved franchises, to being an envied and respected soldier in general Manning’s war to obliterate every passing record in existence.
Sanders is so valuable to the Broncos that he doesn’t even have to play suicide sucker on returns anymore. You can say Sanders came up and he's on his KeKe Palmer real heavy.
With Wallace’s success in Miami and Brown’s elevation to Jerry Rice comparisons, it’s worked out for all parties involved. But eating in Denver’s wide open offense gives Sanders a shot at ending up the best beast of the bunch.