Refreshed and Rolling: Why Emmanuel Sanders is off to his best start since 2014

Emmanuel Sanders feels his age — no younger, no older.

You may see him sprint out of the backfield on end-arounds or front-flip across the goal line on a touchdown reception or finger wag in the face of opposing cornerbacks who weren’t quick enough to stop him, but he is all of his 31 years.

But you’d be forgiven for thinking he looks much younger than that. After all, old fogies aren’t doing acrobatics at the end of plays and usually the mileage on their legs doesn’t permit them to make such whimsical plays.

Finding the underlying reason for this is tricky because there are so many variables — the offense has a new coordinator and quarterback at the helm this season, and Sanders himself has a new position coach. And at a personal level, Sanders changed his mental approach to preparing for the season.

Whatever it is, it definitely has been paying off.

Perhaps Sanders’ rejuvenation is due in part to the Broncos realizing something that Bellville High School knew 15 years ago.

Sanders was absolutely electric with the ball in his hands. So Bellville got it to him however they could, playing him at various positions on offense — out wide, in the backfield, wherever. Watching his high-school highlights, Sanders is immediately identifiable by his speed and elusiveness with the ball, sometimes downfield after a reception and sometimes starting in the backfield on a sweep or handoff.

So when you watch Sanders do that now — as he has on two runs for a career-high 53 yards, — you’re getting a glimpse at something Sanders has been doing, however sparingly over his NFL years, since his high-school days.

“Obviously it’s all based off the offensive coordinator and what he thinks you can do,” Sanders says. “Bill [Musgrave] believes in me, and I’m loving it. I like to have the ball in my hands. I like to make plays. I take pride in being a playmaker. I like the fact that he understands that and he’s trying to get me involved in this offense, because I feel like if they do, we have a great chance of being successful.”

If you ask Chris Harris Jr., who has often been Sanders’ nemesis in practice since 2014, another part of Sanders’ success also stems from the offense’s changes, though it’s not likely it attracts as much attention as the couple of trick plays Musgrave has run.

“I think one huge thing was — and I’ve been telling ‘E’ forever — [moving] to the slot,” Harris says. “And he’s moved to the slot this year, and he’s been able to just move the chains for us, get way more catches, way more activity.”

That may very well be true, yet you can still find Sanders lining up out wide on occasion, and some of his biggest plays have come from those formations. More than anything, Sanders is just getting the ball in his hands in as many ways as possible.

“I mean, he’s always been a great receiver,” Harris says. “I think he just needed a QB that he can trust and give him the ball.”

Enter, Case Keenum.

Much has already been written about Keenum’s impact on the Broncos writ large, but his effect on Sanders is a prime example of what an experienced and even-keel quarterback can do for a receiver.

“I think having Case has given him new life and energy,” Head Coach Vance Joseph said in late September. “As a veteran receiver who’s played with special quarterbacks, him watching Case work and him watching Case practice has given him a lot of energy. How he’s practicing and playing, that’s who he’s been since the spring since Case has gotten here. I’ve been really proud of how he’s played.”

That connection has been building ever since Keenum’s arrival in free agency, but it has its roots in the paths that each of them have taken.

“He’s worked for everything he’s got,” Keenum says. “I see that with me, too, and it might have given me a little chip on my shoulder, which I see in him, too. I think we’ve got some kindred spirit there, when it comes to like-mindedness.”

Over the offseason, the two Broncos would work out together at a local high school, building not only the timing that can make or break a quarterback’s success with a receiver, but also the trust that the two will rely upon throughout the season.

“From the moment I got here, [I’ve seen] how he’s approached every day — just the extra [work] that he’s put in, as a veteran guy, a [nine]-year guy ... who’s done this for a long time and who has been to Super Bowls, won a Super Bowl and played a lot of ball,” Keenum says. “To come out here hungry, he’s playing at a high level. I’m really excited that he’s brought what he’s brought.”

The two share a common perspective and a common goal — to make this offense run as effectively as possible, and through the connection they’ve built and the talent they have, the two are starting to see all their work together come to fruition.

“He’s hungry and he’s looking for guys to make plays for him,” Sanders says, “and I’m over here with my hand raised like, ‘Hey, I’ll make those plays for you.’”

The result so far? Sanders is off to his best seven-game start to a season since his first year as a Bronco, when Peyton Manning was under center.

The changes on offense and at quarterback have surely made an impact on Sanders’ 2018 season, but the most vital factors may be his consistent devotion to the game and how he slightly adjusted his approach to this season.  

Much of Sanders’ preparation goes unseen, but you can catch glimpses through his Instagram, where he sometimes shares videos showcasing the work he puts in during the offseason and the off days. His footwork training is rigorous, but it pays off when he is able to shake a cornerback to create the inches of separation he needs for a toe-tapping sideline catch. On Tuesdays, when NFL players get the rest they need to recover from the previous game and prepare for the next one, sometimes Sanders heads into the Pat Bowlen Fieldhouse with a member of the equipment staff to practice with the JUGS machine, building the muscle memory he needs to make his hands like glue on game days.

But those are the things he does every year.

Here’s what’s new: He stayed in Denver during the offseason instead of going back to Houston, like he usually does. He started going to Resilience Code, an athletic center that puts the focus on holistic and proactive injury prevention. He started meditating, removing distractions to focus on reflection. And, after learning that the human body contains more neurons in the stomach and intestines than in the spinal cord, he changed his diet, putting an emphasis on fueling his body with healthier food.

“Right now, I feel like mentally I’m the best I’ve ever been, because I’ve been putting so much emphasis on taking care of my body,” Sanders says. “… Although I’ve been working hard, it’s just taking care of your body. It’s one of those things you’ve got to work hard at as well. So that’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve been getting a lot of massages and a lot of IV drips, really just taking care of me.”

Between the personal changes and the changes that have come with a new offense and new quarterback, Sanders has put in all the necessary work to ensure he and the Broncos’ offense can be as successful as possible.

“I think it’s everything just coming in place,” Sanders says. “If you see a successful guy, it’s more than just one element that makes that guy successful. Obviously Bill Musgrave and Case have a lot to do with it, as well, but I prepared for the opportunity. And the opportunity came, and I’m just trying to make the most of it.”

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