Flip through snapshots captured from Emmanuel Sanders' best grabs as a Bronco.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --** Yes, Emmanuel Sanders has blossomed into an incredibly productive target in his first season in Denver.
He is fourth in the NFL in receptions (62), sixth in receiving yards (852) and tied for 13th in receiving TDs (six).
But he's also near the lead league in a very crucial stat: drop rate.
Sanders has secured 62 of 63 catchable passes this season (according to Pro Football Focus), good for the second-lowest drop rate (1.59 percent) of any receiver with at least 50 targets. He has at least 14 more receptions than any player who PFF has not credited with a drop this season.
More impressive than that reliability as a pass catcher, though, is that it extends to throws that, for other receivers, might be deemed uncatchable – until Sanders proves otherwise.
Since his diving touchdown against the Texans in preseason, it seems like the fifth-year receiver has come down with a jaw-dropper on a weekly (or even twice weekly) basis. He's made so many gorgeous grabs this year that we can't break all of them down. So he walked us through four of his best.
Let's begin with the play that was part of an explosive introduction to Broncos Country, in Week 3 of the preseason:
PRESEASON WEEK 3: 29-YD TD VS. TEXANS
After going catchless in the preseason opener against Seattle and missing the next game with a nagging quad injury, Sanders and Peyton Manning hoped to connect against Houston so they wouldn't enter the regular season opener against the Colts without an in-game throw-and-catch together.
They accomplished that goal and then some early. Already with four catches for 99 yards and a score, Sanders ran a go route down the right side late in the first half.
Perhaps in a game that counts in the standings, the Broncos might be less aggressive with just 10 seconds on the clock. Either way, with a cornerback underneath and a safety helping over the top, the execution had to be perfect. And it certainly was.
"In terms of the corner, he's playing low, and the safety is supposed to be right there but Peyton threw it in such a good spot where only I could catch it," Sanders said.
An excellent throw indeed, but the level of difficulty on Sanders' end was extremely high. He was fully extended, with the safety coming over for the hit, and had to secure the ball as he went to the ground.
"You've got to hurry up and catch it and get down, and that's one of the reasons I kind of dove for it and laid out, just to avoid the safety," Sanders said.
As for how he hung on while crashing to the ground with the safety diving at him: "You've just got to secure it. When I dive, especially in the end zone, I hold onto the ball for dear life like I'm riding a bull or something, just so I can make sure it doesn't bobble or pop out."
The magnificent catch was just the cherry on top of a clinic put on by the QB-WR tandem, and was only a preview of things to come.
WEEK 5: 30 YDS VS. CARDINALS
If anybody was looking for confirmation of how effective Sanders was from the get-go in Denver, look no further than Todd Bowles' defensive assignments in Week 5. Two-time All Pro cornerback Patrick Peterson shadowed Sanders all day while 30-year-old Antonio Cromartie drew Demaryius Thomas (which didn't go well either).
Sanders caught 7-of-9 targets for 101 yards on a banner day for the Broncos' offense, with this 30-yarder over Peterson as a standout moment.
With pressure in his face, Manning trusted Sanders enough to hurl a throw over Peterson as the receiver snuck between Peterson and safety Rashad Johnson before breaking toward the sideline. The pass cleared a leaping Peterson, but was still a good distance from Sanders, who fully extended to stop the ball before securing it despite a little bump off his facemask on his way to the turf.
"I'm a big believer in muscle memory," Sanders said. "I believe that if you do something over and over — just like every morning you wake up and brush your teeth — you create good habits and bad habits. This catch right here was definitely over the shoulder and it's something that I work on every single day at practice, so when I get into the game, it just becomes second nature."
Simply getting to and corralling the pass was impressive, but Sanders also had to hold it securely as he tumbled to the ground. We routinely see great catches go for naught when the impact jars the ball free or causes it to move and scrape the grass. Not so with Sanders, who instinctively tucked the ball into his left arm (away from the ground) as he tumbled on his right shoulder.
"I try to really hold the ball against my stomach so it doesn't move," he said. "It's kind of like I'm putting pressure on it and squeezing the ball, rather than keeping it off in my hands and risking it.
"I don't know how I do it. Really I try to fall on my shoulder more than fall on my stomach so the ball won't pop out."
Even considering Thomas' spectacular game and a milestone (TD pass No. 500) for Manning, this acrobatic grab was play-of-the-day caliber.
WEEK 8: 38 YDS VS. CHARGERS
With a Thursday-night divisional game still scoreless late in the first quarter, the Broncos started their third possession with a bang. Off play-action, Manning fired downfield for Sanders, who was running a deep post with standout rookie Jason Verrett tracking him and former All-Pro Eric Weddle breaking from his safety position.
"I felt like the ball was going to be tipped by the DB, so I just tried to go up and high point it," Sanders said.
Because of great coverage from Verrett, who lined up with a healthy cushion at the snap, Sanders had to leave himself hanging in the air while fully extended just to reach the football, which nearly grazed the leaping corner's fingertips. Sanders somehow snatched the ball cleanly, but was still left open to a big hit.
"I saw Weddle come over, but it doesn't matter," Sanders said. "I'm trying to make the play for my team. Right now the score is 0-0 so I'm just trying to provide that spark."
The 5-foot-11, 188-pound receiver absorbed the mid-air hit and tumbled to the turf without the football budging before popping up immediately for good measure. His post-play reaction accurately portrayed how he felt about the grab, which he calls "my best catch of the season."
"Those plays, those bang-bang plays are scary," he said. "It's like your adrenaline is going and you know you've got to go up and catch it, which a lot of people don't like to go up and get those kinds of balls – they shy away from it.
"But I try to take pride in playing this game with tenacity and catching every single thing that's thrown my way. So that was definitely a great catch."
Sanders capped the drive six plays later with a 2-yard TD and would finish with nine catches (on nine targets), 120 yards and three scores. Still, this was the play that shined brightest.
WEEK 10: 32-YD TD AT RAIDERS
If the late-half touchdown against the Texans displayed early chemistry between Manning and Sanders, this mirror-image masterpiece illustrated how the duo has developed a telepathic-like connection over the weeks since. Once again, late in the half (35 seconds left this time), Manning found Sanders between the safety and corner on a home-run ball for the diving score.
But this time, pay attention to two things in the broadcast version of the play below: First, note where Sanders is relative to the cornerback when Manning decides to throw the pass. Second, watch the ball at the top of the frame (or its shadow, which is traveling through the sideline) and note where it is relative to Sanders when he turns to locate it.
Cornerback D.J. Hayden – who ran a sub-4.4 40-yard dash at his pro day in March of 2013 – had three-and-a-half yards on Sanders (who ran a 4.41 at the 2009 combine) when Manning hit his back foot, but Manning immediately fired down the right sideline. By the time Sanders looked up – now even with Hayden at the 12-yard line – to locate the pass, the ball was just six yards behind the receiver and well on its way down. No problem for Sanders, who pulled away from Hayden late and brought it in over his shoulder while plunging into the end zone ahead of the oncoming safety.
"Most of the time you see the ball, sometimes when Peyton releases it," Sanders said. "But this time, I just heard the crowd yell, as if the ball was there, and I looked up and the ball was on its way down. So I just tried to extend my arms, catch the ball and secure the catch.
"It ended up being a really good throw by Peyton and he just trusts me. And that's something that when I first got here, I said, 'I want to earn this guy's trust. I want him to know I'm going to try to catch every single thing that's thrown my way.'"
After all the extra sessions the pair has put in, from workouts at Duke University in April through OTAs and training camp, their commitment to building chemistry is being handsomely rewarded. Likewise, Sanders' dedication to his own technique – he catches "about 150 balls" in a typical practice – is producing the desired results.
"It just goes to show that hard work pays off when you get in the game," Sanders said. "If you do it based off muscle memory every single day of practice, and looking that ball over the shoulder, once you get in the game, it's all going to be second nature."
Along with the satisfaction of his behind-the-scenes grind paying dividends on the big stage, this master of acrobatics often gets a little bonus: the chance to sit back and survey his artful handiwork.
Including the preseason, four of Sanders' plays have been reviewed (one by coach's challenge, three by post-scoring-play booth review) this season, with all four being ruled as receptions after further examination. Sanders, who usually lets his teammates know on the sidelines that he did indeed make the catch, certainly enjoys those moments.
"It gets to slow down the play," he said. "I know a lot of fans think that when you see a guy drop a pass, 'Oh I could have caught that,' but this game is moving 100 miles per hour. I know that's an exaggeration but these guys are fast, big and strong and they're moving extremely fast out there.
"Instant replay allows you to really slow it down and just enjoy the catch and the art of the game."
So far, so good for the Broncos' Picasso. Just nine games into his career in Denver, who knows what else he has up his sleeve.