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Remembering Mohamed Sanu’s impact for the Falcons

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A player once deemed not good enough ultimately proved to be a true difference maker and fan favorite.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Houston Texans Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Heading into the offseason in 2016, the Falcons had to bolster their offense. They had become stagnant as an overall unit. With age catching up to Roddy White and Leonard Hankerson failing to develop, Dan Quinn knew they needed someone to complement Julio Jones. A true No. 2 receiver who could make contested catches and become a consistent option for Matt Ryan was desperately needed.

Most people were calling for Marvin Jones or Travis Benjamin to be the Falcons’ big free agent signing. It seemed like an ideal fit based on both players being vertical threats. The offense could have used another explosive receiver opposite Jones. The front office went a different route. They pursued a big-bodied, versatile receiver to line up opposite the best wide receiver in the league.

The signing of Mohamed Sanu wasn’t meant with great approval. As exciting as Sanu’s highlight reel was, there were major doubts about his ability to separate and catch the ball. His lack of production in Cincinnati also raised eyebrows on whether he could handle a featured role in an offense. Sanu was the fourth option behind A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert, and Marvin Jones in an ultra-talented Bengals’ offense. Could he thrive as the No. 2 receiving option for the Falcons’ revamped offense? It took some time, but eventually Sanu found his niche in a historically great offense.

2016 thrill ride

Sanu’s impact was felt beyond the stat sheet. His ability to contribute without the ball makes a major difference. Whether it was making an impact as a blocker in the run game or creating openings on rub route concepts for his teammates, the former Rutgers star embraced doing the dirty work. That’s what made Kyle Shanahan quickly fond of him. While Shanahan didn’t necessarily run the wildcat with him often, he knew how to bring the best out of Sanu.

It was evident in a huge win over Green Bay in late October. Sanu caught the game-winning touchdown pass from Ryan. Utilizing him in the slot against smaller slot corners and overmatched safeties created immediate mismatches for Shanahan to target. That helped Ryan outduel Aaron Rodgers in a classic back-and-forth game.

There were games Sanu wasn’t featured often. It was mainly because another player was exploding elsewhere. If Jones didn’t torch the opposing corner, Taylor Gabriel would accelerate past helpless defenses. Running the ball often with the best tandem in the league in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman proved to be a successful recipe as well. It was a season for the ages. Although the season ended in calamitous fashion against New England, Sanu clearly had won doubters over. His personality, aggressiveness, and versatility made him a huge fan favorite.

Bigger role in 2017

Sanu made a bigger impact in 2017. With Steve Sarkisian taking over, there were more opportunities for him to make plays. It meant a lot more plays requiring pure individual effort rather than schematic brilliance. The easy-access plays weren’t being created on a weekly basis without Shanahan. Sarkisian proved to be overwhelmed for the majority of the season. That didn’t stop Sanu from making plays, particularly when Ryan needed him in crucial moments.

What makes Sanu such a fascinating receiver is his route-running ability. For a physical receiver who makes contested catches with the best of them, he doesn’t depend on his frame and strength to be productive. Sanu uses his tremendous footwork and high football IQ to beat opposing corners. He would have slot corners on their heels on choice routes. With his craftiness and slick feet, they would be left going the other way when matched up against Sanu.

Some of Sanu’s best moments in Atlanta came from that season. His exceptional touchdown catch against the Jets helped them snap a three-game losing streak. In a colossal Monday night matchup against Seattle, Sanu made an outstanding one-handed grab in the red zone.

One of the best things Sanu brought to Atlanta was his presence in the red zone. They desperately needed a threat down there following the red zone woes in 2015. Sanu made a major difference with his knack for creating space in tight areas and boxing out cornerbacks.

That season also saw the emergence of Sanu running the wildcat. Shanahan only used it twice in 2016, albeit once in the NFC Championship game. Sarkisian used it several times during the course of the season. There was great anticipation for Sanu to throw a pass following his success in Cincinnati. It finally took place against Tampa Bay, which was fitting going against Mike Smith’s defense. Sanu bobbled the snap, yet still managed to loft up a picture-perfect ball to Jones. A risky play call on third down worked to perfection. Another play was added to the legend of Sanu’s rocket arm.

The final memorable moment took place in the playoffs. In a hard-fought battle against the Rams, Sanu produced one of the plays of the game. He took a screen on second-and-13 for 53 yards to put the Falcons in prime position to win a third playoff game in two years. When I spoke to Sanu last June, he talked in great detail about that play being one of his favorite moments. It showcased what an unpredictable play call and excellent execution can translate into.

Sanu has always made plays after the catch. With his long legs and ability to make defenders miss, it was only right for him to deliver when the Falcons needed it most.

Powerful influence

While the 2018 season didn’t have many memorable moments, Sanu managed to have his most productive season. He was one of the bright spots in an otherwise forgettable year for the Falcons. A season filled with disappointment shouldn’t completely overshadow the contributions of a reliable, charismatic receiver. Sanu never let up when things went awry. His dedication, passion, and work ethic were evident when stepping onto the field.

On a team with not many big personalities, Sanu emerged as one. He didn’t back down from opposing defenders. He often visibly encouraged his teammates. When it came to creating excitement and setting the tone, Sanu was one of the first players to do it. Teams need players who bring energy and aggression wherever they go.

When the former third-round pick got the ball in his hands, he would finish plays with authority. When a big moment happened, he would let the opposing team know about it. Coaches appreciate those qualities in a player. Fans start chanting a player’s name after every big catch. That’s what Sanu brought to Atlanta. He not only established himself as a true fan favorite, but one of the most beloved players on the roster.

It certainly stings to a lose a player like him. This isn’t going to be the last big name to be traded or released in the coming months. Desmond Trufant and Alex Mack could potentially go elsewhere. There’s a possibility the imminent new coaching staff doesn’t value Freeman. These are three big names who have accomplished a lot in Atlanta. The rebuilding process can be difficult to digest when adored players go elsewhere. Sanu ended up being the first one.

When looking back on his time in Atlanta, most (including myself) will have to admit they were wrong. He proved to be the perfect fit in their offense. There was more to his game than simply being a gadget player. Sanu possesses strong hands, fantastic route-running ability, excellent body control, impressive instincts, and sturdy blocking. Those attributes made a substantial difference in games.

Replacing a franchise legend to compliment Jones was never going to be possible. Establishing himself as a charismatic, dependable player who left it all out there was possible. Sanu did that in becoming a true fan favorite and someone who will be truly missed.