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'Man hands' make Mohamed Sanu quite a catch for Falcons

"I want my quarterback to feel a sense of security," Mohamed Sanu said. "When he comes to me in a key situation, I'm going to make the play." Al Bello/Getty Images

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The drill started eight years ago, and the end results far outweighed any pain.

Mohamed Sanu, then a player at Rutgers University, would line up an arm's length away from the Jugs machine and, with his bare hands, catch 100 balls coming at him at 70 mph.

"By the time you hit 25, your hands are burning," the Atlanta Falcons wide receiver explained. "You're catching the ball while your hands are fatigued because catching up that close, you use a lot of grip strength. That's definitely tiring and fatiguing."

The drill is called "Man Hands" and was a regular routine Sanu followed under then-Rutgers receivers coach P.J. Fleck, now the highly energetic head coach of the Minnesota Golden Gophers. Fleck picked up the drill when he was an undrafted receiver coming out of Northern Illinois trying to maintain a roster spot with San Francisco.

"When you're a scout team, practice-squad member, you'll do anything to get better," said Fleck, who played in one game in two-plus seasons with the 49ers. "I used to keep equipment guys afterward and come up with all kind of catching drills because I had to make spectacular catches, not just the routine ones.

"Part of 'Man Hands' was building confidence. If you can put your hands that close to a Jugs machine and catch it 70 miles per hour, you should probably be able to catch a ball from a quarterback, right?"

Years later, Sanu has made catching the ball look rather routine. His 0.8 drop percentage per target over the last two seasons is the best rate among all receivers who have played in 20-plus games. Over his 31-game span, Sanu had 92 receptions and just one drop on 129 targets. His strong hands and physical style have made him a reliable red zone threat, where he has no drops and 12 touchdowns on 51 career targets.

Sanu's success catching the ball isn't the least bit surprising to Fleck.

"First of all, Mohamed is a freak athlete," Fleck said. "I mean, he could play every position on the football field, first and foremost. He's just naturally gifted that way. But the one thing I appreciated about Mohamed was that his work ethic was tremendous. He was one of the hardest workers on our football team."

Sanu deflected the praise right back to Fleck.

"I would say a lot of it came from a lot of different drills that Coach Fleck put me through," Sanu said. "That's my man. He taught me a lot, a lot, a lot about receiver play. And he taught me a lot about catching the ball and just hand placement ... just a lot of various different drills. And he helped my game a lot."

Sanu, in his second season with the Falcons after starting his career as a third-round pick of the Cincinnati Bengals, has evolved into the ideal complement to All-Pro wide receiver Julio Jones. No one talks much anymore about the 12 combined drops Sanu had between the 2013 and 2014 seasons with the Bengals.

"I never thought twice about it," Sanu said of those drops. "Those are just concentration stuff. When you drop the ball, it's not about, 'Oh, he can't catch,' or none of that. If you put time into something, of course you can catch. I wouldn't have got drafted if I couldn't."

Coach Dan Quinn and the Falcons never doubted Sanu's ability, which is why the team signed him to a five-year, $32.5 million contract ($14 million guaranteed). And Sanu just continues to impress every time he steps on the field, whether it's practice or an actual game.

"When he came back for the offseason, he was intent on throwing a hell of an offseason," Quinn said. "That part of his game really came through. He was more fit, stronger, and really at the top of it heading into the offseason, which is not always easy to do.

"He improved on certain things inside at the slot. For a big guy, he still has good change of direction to break a guy off in the slot. Although he's 220 pounds, he can change direction like a smaller player. With that kind of size in a slot, you can see the advantage that would have. He's a real valuable factor for us in the pass game."

In the first exhibition game this preseason, Sanu's first catch was a one-handed gem near the sideline. His teammates and coaches have grown accustomed to seeing those type of catches.

"He practices those, so you see them in practice and go, 'Where'd that come from? OK, I've seen that movie before,'" Quinn said. "He's a real competitor and he's got a real pride about him in terms of the way he wants to carry himself and perform."

Sanu shrugged off the 0ne-handed catches as no big deal.

"That's what they pay me to do is catch the football, so I'm going to do my job," he said. "I work on it. Part of my craft is catching the ball, so I definitely put a lot of pride into it. I want my quarterback to feel a sense of security. When he comes to me in a key situation, I'm going to make the play. I definitely put a lot of pride into it."