MIAMI — If you remove the Antonio Brown fiasco from the equation, the New England Patriots and San Francisco 49ers took very similar steps to attempt to improve their respective receiving corps this season.
First, both teams drafted a wideout within the first 36 overall selections last spring. Then, when the need for reinforcements became evident midseason, both pulled the trigger on trades for established veterans who had been effective in multiple NFL offenses.
The Patriots wound up with N’Keal Harry and Mohamed Sanu. The 49ers got Deebo Samuel and Emmanuel Sanders.
The disparity in production between those two duos this season was glaring.
Harry, the 32nd overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, displayed a limited skill set in training camp, spent the first half of the season on injured reserve and then caught just 12 passes in seven games. The hulking Arizona State product was able to use his eye-popping size and athleticism to make a few splash plays — he’s a pain to bring down in the open field, and his ability to make contested catches is undeniably impressive — but his route-running limitations prevented him from becoming a reliable downfield target for Tom Brady.
While Harry was scuffling, Samuel, drafted four picks later, was emerging as one of the NFL’s most promising rookie wideouts. He caught 57 passes for 802 yards and three touchdowns in 15 games and added another 159 yards and three scores on 14 carries.
The difference between Sanu’s and Sanders’ numbers was similarly stark.
Sanu had one very good game for the Patriots after they acquired him from the Atlanta Falcons for a second-round pick (10 catches, 81 yards, one touchdown in a loss to the Baltimore Ravens) but injured his ankle the following week and was never the same. He caught 14 passes on 28 targets for 103 yards and no touchdowns over New England’s final seven games, including a five-target, one catch performance in the team’s wild-card round loss to the Tennessee Titans.
On the same day Sanu was moved, San Francisco gave up third- and fourth-round picks for Sanders and a fifth-rounder. The former Denver Broncos star fought through a rib injury to tally 36 receptions for 502 yards and three scores over 10 regular-season games for the NFC champion Niners, including banner days against the Arizona Cardinals (7-112-1) and New Orleans Saints (7-157-1).
49ers players and coaches also lauded the impact Sanders’ leadership had on Samuel, whose three most productive performances to date (100-plus-yard efforts in Weeks 10, 11 and 17) came after the veteran arrived in late October.
“Deebo has come a long way,” quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo said during Super Bowl LIV week. “He’s always been crazy athletic, he has that burst to him, he can break tackles. We saw that immediately. But just his route-running, his savviness of the game and learning how coverages actually work, I think bringing Emmanuel in really accelerated that. He was trending in a good direction, and then Emmanuel came in, and he just took off.”
Despite sharing targets with All-Pro tight end George Kittle and playing in an offense that ran the ball more than any team outside of the Baltimore Ravens, Samuel and Sanders both posted significantly better per-game stats than their Patriots counterparts:
Deebo Samuel: 3.8 catches per game, 53.5 yards per game, 2.04 yards per route run
Emmanuel Sanders (with 49ers): 3.6 catches per game, 50.2 yards per game, 1.83 yards per route run
N’Keal Harry: 1.7 catches per game, 15.0 yards per game, 0.83 yards per route run
Mohamed Sanu (with Patriots): 3.3 catches per game, 25.9 yards per game, 0.94 yards per route run
Of course, there’s no guarantee that success would have translated in New England. That’s especially true of Samuel, who would have faced the same steep learning curve that many a Patriots rookie has struggled to overcome. And who knows, maybe Harry would’ve eventually become a consistent contributor if he hadn’t missed 10 weeks of practice.
But given Bill Belichick’s previous interest in both players — Samuel took a pre-draft visit to Gillette Stadium; Sanders has been linked to the Patriots ever since they signed him to an offer sheet in 2013 — it’ll be hard not to wonder what could have been when they take the field on Super Bowl Sunday.