DENVER — After eight months and 14 days since Emmanuel Sanders suffered a torn Achilles tendon, the Denver Broncos receiver was back in uniform Monday night, helmet on, making tacklers miss.

Sanders, who suffered his injury in a Dec. 5 practice, has consistently promised throughout the Broncos’ offseason program as well as training camp to be ready by Week 1 of the regular season. And after steadily increasing his workload in practice over the last two weeks, Sanders played in the Broncos’ first three possessions in Denver’s 24-15 loss to the San Francisco 49ers.

Sanders had not played in the Broncos’ first two preseason games and said his feeling during the national anthem Monday night may have been second only to Super Bowl 50.

“It’s up there, it’s up there,” Sanders said. “To be able to come back and feel how I feel, and feel better, still be able to hang out with these 24-year-old kids and still be able to run with them, it’s amazing. I don’t take anything for granted.”

Sanders’ return was certainly the highlight for the Broncos’ offense, but injuries to rookies Drew Lock (right thumb/hand) and tight end Noah Fant were the flip side. Lock, who left the game after the Broncos’ first possession of the third quarter, had a small splint on his right hand/wrist following the game and said he’d know more Tuesday when asked if the injury would keep him out of the Broncos’ next preseason game, Saturday against the Los Angeles Rams.

Fant left the game in the first half, but stayed on the sideline, in uniform, for the rest of the night. The rookie tight end was limping after the game. On both injuries Broncos coach Vic Fangio said “I think they’re mild in nature, but we’ll see (Tuesday) or the next day.”

It was Sanders who was the first player introduced to the crowd Monday night as he sprinted out of the runnel to open the announcement of the starting offense. Broncos quarterback Joe Flacco then wasted no time getting Sanders involved with a 5-yard throw to Sanders on the offense’s first play from scrimmage.

Three plays later Flacco flipped the ball to Sanders on an end around as Sanders went for a 19-yard run. Sanders also had a 45-yard catch up the left sideline, on a third-and-14 from the Broncos’ 48-yard line, called back because of a holding penalty on Broncos left tackle Garett Bolles.

In all Sanders was in the lineup for most of the Broncos’ first three possessions of the game. He finished with the 19-yard run to go with the catch as he was targeted twice.

“I wanted to score (on the run), I feel like I could have scored,” Sanders said. “That’s going to come, that’s going to come. … I h I could go back and keep running down that sideline and scored.”

“It was great to see him out there the last few days getting after it, and now to get him some live reps in the game is a positive,” Flacco said. “… Getting him going (Monday) was definitely huge for our offense.”

Sanders had been held out of the Broncos’ offseason program and a limited participant as the Broncos worked through the early days of training camp — with an appearance in the Hall of Fame Game the Broncos were the first team in the league to open camp when all players reported July 17. Sanders’ workload had been steadily increased and he was almost in a full rotation this past week, including two joint workouts with the 49ers Friday and Saturday.

Early last week Sanders even punctuated some catches in a red-zone drill by dunking the football over the crossbar. Sanders said this past week he felt like he needed to play in the preseason to “get in the groove for the first regular-season game.”

There’s no question of his importance in the offense. Despite missing the last four games of the season in 2018, Sanders still finished as the team leader in receptions with 71 (29 more than the next player) and receiving yards (868) and finished tied for the team leads in touchdown catches with four.

Asked if he would play again in the preseason Sanders said Monday: “I don’t know, (I’ll) talk to coach Fangio and see where we go.”


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