If we’re going to be fair, the Falcons got the better end of the trade Tuesday that sent receiver Mohamed Sanu to the Patriots.
Atlanta got a second-round pick (albeit probably a late one) for a 30-year-old receiver who was getting squeezed out of the offense by younger players and likely was going to be a salary-cap casualty in the offseason. Sanu has had a productive eight-year NFL career, but he has never made a Pro Bowl, and in a vacuum he probably isn’t worth a second-round pick.
But this is still a solid trade for the Patriots, who are picking up a savvy veteran who has good size, toughness, versatility, and football IQ. Watching the All-22 film on Sanu, you get the sense that Tom Brady will enjoy working with a polished receiver like this. The Rutgers product runs precise routes, knows how to time his releases on pick routes, knows how to read coverages, and even though he is 6 feet 2 inches and 210 pounds, he mostly works the middle of the field out of the slot.
“I definitely see myself as unique in that regard,” Sanu told the Falcons website in 2018. “I move differently. I move a lot faster and quicker than people think. When I get the ball in my hands, I’m very hard to tackle. A linebacker isn’t going to just flat-out maul me because I’m big. And a DB isn’t going to out-quick me because I can move, too. It’s tough.”
For a team that was a little thin at receiver, Sanu should be able to contribute right away. He has been dependable in his four seasons in Cincinnati and four in Atlanta, missing only two games in the last 6½ years, and playing 75-80 percent of snaps each season.
Sanu has 25 career touchdown catches, averages 11.4 yards per catch, and is coming off a career year in 2018, when he had 66 catches for 838 yards and four touchdowns. Sanu once had five catches for 70 yards and a touchdown against the Patriots, in the “on to Cincinnati” game in 2014. The Patriots kept him quiet in Super Bowl LI, however, holding him to two catches for 25 yards.
This year, Sanu found himself squeezed out of the Falcons rotation by Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, and tight end Austin Hooper. He was averaging a career-low 9.5 yards per catch, with just one touchdown.
Sanu’s biggest value is in his toughness over the middle. He is great at reading the linebackers, sitting down in the middle of the zone, and using his big body to gain extra yards. He operates a majority of the time out of the slot, running a lot of quick slants and crossers. Sanu is a dependable third-down receiver, catching 8 of 9 targets for 107 yards and five first downs this year.
The Falcons also ran a ton of bunch formations and pick plays with Sanu, who knows how to time his routes with his receivers. Last year against the Saints, Sanu beat his receiver out of a bunch formation, broke open across the middle of the field for the catch, tiptoed the sideline, and plowed through a cornerback on the goal line for a 35-yard touchdown.
Sanu also knows how to work his way open and find a spot for the quarterback when the initial play breaks down. This is not someone with whom Brady and the Patriots coaches will have to spend much time teaching the fundamentals of route-running.
Sanu gives Brady another big body in the red zone. In 2017 against the Seahawks, Sanu created initial separation on a pick route, then used his long frame to outjump the cornerback on a corner fade and come down with a 3-yard touchdown. Brady really could use another jump-ball receiver in the end zone, with Josh Gordon ailing and N’Keal Harry unproven.
Sanu’s size also makes him a more-than-capable blocker in the run game, which the Patriots always appreciate. Last December, Tevin Coleman broke a 65-yard run down the right side in large part because of Sanu’s clear-out block on the edge.
Sanu provides extra value to the Patriots with his athleticism and versatility. A triple-option quarterback in high school, Sanu is 7 for 8 passing in his NFL career, with four touchdowns and a perfect 158.3 passer rating.
And it’s not all on trick plays, either. In 2017 against the Bucs, Sanu lined up in the shotgun, dropped back to pass, and winged a 51-yard bomb to Jones for a touchdown. Sanu had a similar play as a rookie, resulting in a 76-yard touchdown for A.J. Green.
With three former quarterbacks now playing receiver for the Patriots — Sanu, Meyers, and Julian Edelman — Josh McDaniels has all kinds of gimmick plays at his disposal.
Sanu has reliable hands, as well. Though he struggled with drops in 2017 with six, he had just one in 2018, and none through seven games this year. Sanu also has just six career fumbles in 425 touches.
The one knock on Sanu is his lack of breakaway speed, and certainly he is not the fastest receiver. But that can be overblown, too. Sanu looked plenty fast last year when he took a bubble screen 52 yards against the Rams, or when he outran the Steelers 43 yards to the end zone on a quick slant.
Last December against Carolina, Sanu showed good speed and vision when taking a direct snap and scampering 24 yards up the left side. And the Patriots can scheme up separation for Sanu with pick routes, bunch formations, and play-action.
The Patriots perhaps gave up too much to get Sanu, who is under contract through next year. But it’s just a second-round pick, which the Patriots whiff on all the time (Jordan Richards, Cyrus Jones, Duke Dawson, to name a few).
For the Patriots to finish off their march to the Super Bowl, they needed to add someone like Sanu. He’ll be a good Patriot.