That catch by Emmanuel Sanders was his first in a game since the 10th-year wide receiver suffered a season-ending Achilles tendon injury last December. And to show just how healthy he is, Sanders also added a 19-yard run against the Niners.
After an offseason in which Sanders was a rather significant question mark for an offense that greatly needs him to not be, Sanders has powered through August looking every bit like a No. 1 wide receiver.
“I wasn’t here last year or before that, but people here who were say they don’t see a difference in Emmanuel now,” said first-year Broncos coach Vic Fangio. “You never know how a guy is going to heal or how quick it’s going to be. But it’s a good thing for us.”
And that’s after repairing not one, but two, ankles this offseason. In addition to his surgery to repair the Achilles in his left leg — performed the day after he suffered the injury (Dec. 6) — Sanders has said in recent weeks he had “tightrope” surgery on his right ankle in January as well.
Sanders missed four games in 2017 with a right ankle injury and the January surgery stabilized the joint after it had bothered him for much of last season.
“Yeah, it was definitely crazy,” Sanders said recently in training camp. “I remember going out in the Denver community when I had my ankle surgery — I was in a boot. I went to the mall, I went to a couple of places and people were walking up to me and they were like, ‘How’s the Achilles doing?’ And they were pointing at my boot. And I’m like, ‘It’s good. it’s good.’ But it’s not my Achilles, it’s actually my ankle. I actually kept that under wraps because I didn’t want you guys writing stories: ‘There’s no way he can battle through two surgeries.'”
The Broncos held Sanders out of the team’s offseason work and gradually ramped up his participation throughout the first weeks of training camp. By the time the 49ers were set to arrive for joint workouts Aug. 16-17, Sanders had been seen dunking a football over the crossbar after scoring in red zone drills.
Through it all, Sanders had publicly expressed a vast amount of confidence he would return “better than ever,” even as he said he had to “trust in the process” while dealing with the long, often monotonous, drumbeat of injury rehab.
“He looks the same to me,” said Broncos linebacker Von Miller. “Just the same. Emmanuel is going to do great things. … I feel like when came back from my [torn ACL in 2013], I came back stronger and you want to play so bad because when you’re doing all that work all you can think about is getting back out there.”
For an offense that’s still finding its way through first-year coordinator Rich Scangarello’s playbook — the Broncos’ first-team had one touchdown in the preseason — Sanders’ importance is clear. Despite missing the last four games of 2018, he still finished as the team leader in receptions with 71 — 29 more than Courtland Sutton in second. He also led the Broncos in receiving yards (868) and tied for the team lead in touchdowns (four).
At 32 years old, the separation between Sanders in experience, age and résumé and the rest of the receivers on the depth chart is clear.
There is a scenario, after the Broncos make roster cuts to 53, in which Sanders is the Broncos’ only wide receiver who has been in the league longer than two seasons. The Broncos need Sanders, and they need him to stay healthy.
“I’m not thinking about if the pain will come and go, I don’t have that thought in the back of my head,” Sanders said. “I’m repaired … I’m ready to be myself out there.”