What to expect from Emmanuel Sanders, Saints' young receivers

Thomas' barber welcomes him to the Madden 99 club (0:59)

Michael Thomas is the latest player to join the Madden 99 club as his barber helps reveal the surprise to the all-pro wide receiver. (0:59)

METAIRIE, La. -- It’s quite possible New Orleans Saints receiver Emmanuel Sanders makes the biggest impact of any NFL free agent this year.

Sure, that might sound like hyperbole -- especially since the Tampa Bay Buccaneers just added quarterback Tom Brady in the same division. But we’re talking about a Saints team that finished 13-3 in each of the past two seasons. And their lack of go-to receivers behind Michael Thomas was one of the few things holding them back in both playoff exits.

So even if you project Sanders for modest totals such as 56 catches, 746 yards and six touchdowns (as ESPN fantasy analyst Mike Clay does), that could be enough to finally push the Saints over the top.

But will anyone else step up in the Saints’ receiving corps once Thomas, Sanders, running back Alvin Kamara and tight end Jared Cook gobble up an estimated 27-28 targets per game?

Will this finally be the year Tre'Quan Smith makes a consistent impact? Will New Orleans find a role on offense for last year’s breakout return specialist Deonte Harris? Can a hidden gem emerge from the jam-packed battle for the final one or two roster spots?

Here’s a breakdown of what to expect from the Saints’ receivers in 2020:

Thomas: As I said in a recent fantasy post for ESPN+, Thomas’ targets should dip from his astronomical total of 185 last season -- but not enough to drop him from the No. 1 WR spot in fantasy. Even when Thomas had 148 targets in 2018, he caught 125 passes for 1,405 yards and nine touchdowns. He should still post monster numbers with close to 10 targets per game.

Sanders: Unfortunately, Sanders and quarterback Drew Brees haven’t had much chance to work together this offseason (though they did sneak in at least one throwing session in Denver). But no one doubts their ability to get on the same page quickly.

Sanders (5-foot-11, 180 pounds) is a 10-year veteran known for stellar route running. And he has appeared in Super Bowls for three different teams with quarterbacks Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Jimmy Garoppolo.

Sanders also proved what a quick study he is by fitting in smoothly with the San Francisco 49ers following a midseason trade last year -- though both Saints offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. and receivers coach Ronald Curry mentioned that the things Sanders did with Manning in Denver from 2014 to '15 are most similar to what he might do in New Orleans.

"He'll be able to play inside and outside," Carmichael said. "Obviously, there are some differences between maybe what he's been doing as of late to going back to a few years ago. But again, one thing that [Saints coach Sean Payton] is really big on is making sure that we're putting those guys in the position where they can be successful.”

Curry agreed, saying Payton “knows how to move guys around and take advantage of their unique talents."

"It’s hard to say exactly what you're going to do for Sanders until you really get your hands on him," Curry said. "[But] he’s a transition player, you want to get the ball in his hands ... win your one-on-one matchups in the red zone.

"We have a vision for him on third down and how we can use him, maybe taking some of that option stuff off of [Kamara's] plate and some of the stuff that [former Saints deep threat] Ted Ginn was doing, double moves, transitional stuff."

Sanders averaged 8.6 targets per game during his prime with the Broncos from 2014 to '18, but six per game is a realistic estimate in New Orleans.

The Saints should use Sanders a lot like they used receivers Lance Moore and Willie Snead in the past. Moore averaged six targets per game during his prime from 2008 to '12, with highs of 7.6 in 2008 and 6.9 in 2012. Snead averaged 6.7 in 2015 and 6.9 in 2016. But the Saints threw the ball a lot more during those eras -- and they didn’t have a No. 1 receiver like Thomas dominating so much of the target share.

Smith: The buzz surrounding the former third-round draft pick has quieted to a whisper heading into his third season. Although Smith has caught five TD passes in each of his first two years, his catches dipped from 28 as a rookie to 18 in just 11 games played last year because of an ankle injury.

Still, New Orleans’ coaches remain high on the 6-foot-2, 210-pounder.

“I think his improvement is going to be drastic, and I think he’s gonna have a breakout year. Y’all can write that down,” said senior offensive assistant/receivers coach Curtis Johnson, who pointed to two things that stunted Smith’s development.

One was Smith's getting hurt during Week 2 (while making a 28-yard catch). The other is that the Saints moved Smith from his more natural position as an outside receiver to the inside last year “by necessity” because they used Ginn outside so often.

“The one thing about Tre'Quan I can say that we haven’t used him to do is he’s a catch-and-run type also. The play he made in Los Angeles that he got hurt on, he caught the ball, broke like two or three tackles, and then a guy got his ankle,” Johnson said. “Any setback for a young player in his second or third year is going to be major setback.

“We’ve just got to continue to work with him on some of the things that he never did in college and didn’t do very much of in the first year that he was here."

Johnson and Carmichael stressed that Smith is a standout blocker -- which will help keep him on the field. And Curry said Smith is a “special player” who “just needs more opportunities.”

“He needs to fix his stance and be a little bit more explosive,” Curry said. “He’ll be all right. We joke about this all the time: A lot of people give us flak about needing guys because Michael Thomas gets all the balls. [But] Mike Thomas is a hell of a player, and Tre'Quan kind of gets slighted when it comes to that.”

Harris: Another thing that could limit Smith’s opportunities, however, is that coaches also want to get Harris more involved on offense after he flashed his potential with a 50-yard catch from backup QB Taysom Hill in January’s playoff loss.

At just 5-6, it’s hard to expect a heavy dose of deep balls for Harris (especially since Brees doesn’t throw many these days). But defenses still have to respect his speed. And the Saints will likely focus even more on getting him free in open space on screen passes and jet sweeps, etc.

The undrafted rookie from Assumption College caught six passes for 24 yards and ran the ball four times for 31 yards during the regular season.

“His role will expand,” said Curry, who pointed out that Harris’ offensive role was limited even more since he missed time in training camp with a hamstring injury. “If you’ve been in our offense or around this team, you know that guys fall into a role. And we’ll have 30 days to kind of figure out what his role will be.”

Wild card: Pickings might be slim for whoever makes New Orleans’ roster as a fifth or sixth receiver, barring injuries. But there is no shortage of candidates.

Third-year pro Krishawn Hogan made my 53-man roster projection because he is a known asset on special teams and as a blocker after appearing in eight games with the Saints last year. However, you can’t dismiss veteran Austin Carr, who has spent the past three years on New Orleans’ roster, or fellow veterans Maurice Harris and Tommylee Lewis.

Also, last year’s undrafted rookie training camp standouts Emmanuel Butler (who spent the 2019 season on the practice squad) and Lil'Jordan Humphrey (who appeared in five games) have plenty of potential. And you can’t ignore this year’s undrafted rookies Juwan Johnson (who received a guaranteed $85,000 to sign with the Saints) and Marquez Callaway.