Heading into training camp, the 49ers have a deep group of wide receivers. But beyond a handful of players, the unit lacks a lot of proven experience. The group is reminiscent of the 49ers 2019 receiving corps where the only healthy and experienced member of the unit was a veteran of just two seasons.
At that time, Deebo Samuel was an up-and-coming rookie with plenty of promise, who added to Kendrick Bourne and Dante Pettis as San Francisco's starting wide receivers.
It wasn't until a midseason trade for veteran wideout Emmanuel Sanders that unlocked San Francisco's offense and helped the 49ers young group of pass catchers blossom en route to a Super Bowl appearance. The unit went from averaging 214.5 yards per game to 250.5 yards following Sanders' arrival.
It wasn't just Sanders' play that benefited the group, but his veteran presence. The 49ers already see a similar effect out of wideout Mohamed Sanu. Sanu joined the team this past March in free agency for his second stint in San Francisco.
The 49ers signed Sanu back in Week 2 of the 2020 season where he appeared in three games and made one reception for nine yards. The returns of Samuel and then-rookie wideout Brandon Aiyuk from various injuries made Sanu the odd man out as he was released by the team three weeks later.
Sanu was re-signed by the team at the start of free agency to compete for San Francisco's vacant slot receiver role following the departures of Bourne and Trent Taylor in free agency. As the elder statesman of the group, Sanu has become a resource for San Francisco's relatively young group of pass catchers. And a healthy showing from the 10-year NFL vet could provide a boost for the 49ers undetermined unit.
"Me and B.A. (Aiyuk) were kind of upset last year when they cut Sanu because he was like the vet in the room," Samuel said on Wednesday. "He teaches us the ins and outs of the game, not only just football, but kind of like Emmanuel was when Emmanuel was here. That's what we have here with Sanu."
Added Jimmy Garoppolo: "It is very similar. Just the attention to detail 'Mo' brings is very unique in the receiver position. Emmanuel was the same way. And I wouldn't say we have a young receiver core, but just inexperienced, I guess. But having his experience around and hearing him talk to guys, it's really cool."
Prior to his first stint in San Francisco, Sanu was coming off three and half seasons with the Atlanta Falcons, where he caught over 2,500 yards and 14 touchdowns, prior to a mid-season trade to the New England Patriots midway through the 2019 season. He dealt with injuries during his time in New England and was later released by the team 11 months after the trade.
Now healthy and eager to carve out his role in San Francisco, Sanu was one of the highlights of the 49ers first day of training camp. The veteran wideout caught passes from both Garoppolo and Trey Lance, including hauling in a contested pass with his fingertips along the sideline during 7-on-7 drills. He also took reps at punt and kick return.
Last week, he was a guest on the DNP-CD Podcast where he revealed he physically feels the best he ever has in his life. According to head coach Kyle Shanahan, as well as several of Sanu's teammates, the receiver is already looking the part early in training camp as well.
"I think he's in such a better spot," Shanahan continued. "Sanu told us he was good to go and we believed him. And we got him here in OTAs and we could see it. I think you ask our players and anybody who's watched him here. He looks like the guy I remember, and not the guy that we had for that week and a half. And he looked great today too. So hopefully he can keep it up and keep it going."
"He came in ready," Garoppolo added. "It's been a lot of fun this first day and I'm looking forward to the rest of camp with him."