By the time Sanders’ head hit the pillow in Santa Clara, California, that night, he had been traded to an undefeated San Francisco 49ers team that expected him to be the final piece needed to push them into legitimate Super Bowl contention.
Two games into Sanders’ time with the Niners, he sure looks the part.
“Watching him, you always know he’s a pro, but he’s even been better than expected since he’s been here,” San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan said. “Just how unbelievably smart he’s been in picking up the offense and being able to go out there that much, especially here on a short week. That game would’ve been real tough to win without him.”
Indeed, while quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo rightfully garnered most of the attention with his pinpoint passing in Thursday night’s 28-25 win against the Arizona Cardinals, Sanders offered a strong look at why the 49ers coveted him even as his contract is set to expire.
Against the Cardinals, Sanders finished with seven catches for 112 yards and a touchdown, his second in as many games with the Niners. He became the first 49ers wide receiver this season to finish with triple digits in receiving yards.
“He is picking things up very quickly, coming from a similar offense,” Garoppolo said. “I’ve said this before, but his body language on routes, I can kind of anticipate what he’s going to do. We’ve got room for improvement, but I’m pretty happy with where we’re at.”
Considering that Garoppolo and Sanders haven’t had much time to work together, their early progress has given a jolt of energy to the entire offense. Upon Sanders’ arrival on Oct. 22, he and Garoppolo spent extra time after each practice working on routes and getting on the same page in the week leading up to Sunday’s home victory against the Carolina Panthers.
They didn’t have that kind of time this week with the quick turnaround to Thursday night. It didn’t seem to matter, and Sanders says the duo has had an instant bond.
“I think it’s just energy,” Sanders said. “It’s a lot of positive energy. You know how Jimmy is, he still has his Eastern Illinois backpack. You have to love the guy. He’s a very humble guy, very hardworking guy. He’s young, but at the same time, the sky’s the limit. In his head, he wants to be great. He works hard. We stay after practice, we catch balls after practice, and all that hard work is paying off.”
Sanders’ route-running prowess already has made an impression on his younger teammates. He is showing them how to offer in-route indicators to Garoppolo when they’re coming out of their break.
In Sanders’ case, that can be something as subtle as leaning into the defender before making his break. On third-and-4 from Arizona’s 46 on Thursday, Garoppolo faced pressure and let a pass fly to Sanders well before he had broken out of his route. As Sanders turned his head, the ball was basically in his hands already.
It was a better throw than the catch, but it offered a glimpse of just how much chemistry Sanders and Garoppolo already have. Chemistry that can’t be underrated as the Niners continue rolling toward the postseason.
“He’s pretty good too,” San Francisco tight end George Kittle said of Sanders. “He’s won before. He knows what it takes to win. He’s one of the most professional guys I’ve been around. So just having him in the wide receiver room … he helps. So when we have a guy like that, bringing him in, it’s elevating the play of our other guys.”