49ers roster 2021: Mohamed Sanu a No. 3 wide receiver?

San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Mohamed Sanu (14) Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports
San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Mohamed Sanu (14) Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports /

After having a cup of coffee with the 49ers in 2020, Mohamed Sanu is poised to assume a bigger role this year if he thrives in training camp.

The 2020 version of San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Mohamed Sanu was a mere three games played early in the season and recording a single catch for 9 yards.

The 2021 version could be significantly different.

In fairness to Sanu, he was signed almost as an emergency option in the wake of early injuries last year, primarily with wideouts Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel both being out. When both returned, Sanu was essentially an excess commodity.

Yet his familiarity with head coach Kyle Shanahan’s offense, primarily stemming from their 2016 campaign together with the Atlanta Falcons, prompted the Niners to bring the soon-to-be 32-year-old Sanu back on a one-year contract worth up to $1.14 million this season.

Mohamed Sanu Receiving Table
4 yr4 yrATL5352313225250711.1145971.9%23910.7256914
4 yr4 yrCIN5734249152179311.8117661.0%17810.9194613
1 yr1 yrDET74231617811.112169.6%1710.61811
1 yr1 yrNWE8647262078.012255.3%278.02151
1 yr1 yrSFO301199.009100.0%19.090

Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com
Generated 7/12/2021.

Sanu has certainly slowed since his heyday years with the Falcons, and injuries have played a role in him becoming more of a journeyman receiver at this stage of his career.

Yet there’s a unique element to Sanu’s game that could make him a key piece in Shanahan’s offense this season.

And with questions surrounding San Francisco’s wide receiver depth chart heading into 2021, the opportunity is certainly there, too.

Let’s break it all down in the next installment of Niner Noise’s annual “Who is?” series.

Why Mohamed Sanu emerges as 49ers’ No. 3 wide receiver

At 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, Sanu doesn’t exactly epitomize a prototypical slot receiver.

But let’s go back to Shanahan’s use of Sanu in 2016 in Atlanta, where 41 of his 59 receptions that year came in the slot.

“Big slots” aren’t anything new to the NFL, and many a head coach like Shanahan will try to deploy a mismatch by using a bigger-bodied wideout against a smaller nickel defensive back.

And with the 49ers having a void behind Samuel and Aiyuk, it’s already looking as if Sanu could be a front-runner to earn this job this season despite his advanced age and bouncing around the league the last few years.

Especially according to Sports Illustrated’s Grant Cohn from OTAs last spring:

"Sanu is only 31 years old, and seems motivated to win the No. 3 receiver job, because it’s wide open. And as of now, he seems like the favorite to win it. His only healthy competition is Jauan Jennings, who spent last year on the practice squad."

Jennings also impressed during OTAs, making this potential training camp battle one to watch heading towards Week 1.

But if veteran savvy and Sanu’s polished route-running skills are a plus, he should win out over Jennings.

Why Mohamed Sanu flames out with 49ers in 2021

It could be an all-or-nothing kind of scenario for Sanu and his second go-around with the Niners during camp.

If Jennings or one of the many other San Francisco wideouts vying for the No. 3 spot on the depth chart wind up winning the battle ahead of the regular season, it might be tough for Sanu to hang around as a back-end piece. True, the 49ers could benefit from his experience, as there isn’t exactly a ton of elder veterans on the roster, particularly those with good roster chances.

At the same time, though, the Niners may want to go with youth and growth over someone who’s clearly on the downward trajectory of his career. Without much of anything to offer on special teams, a would-be roster spot for Sanu might be a waste if he’s WR5 or 6 on the depth chart.

Chances of making 49ers’ 53-man roster, projected role

Sanu enters training camp on the stronger side of the bubble, which is a good thing, and all indications are that he’ll primarily just have to beat out Jennings to secure that No. 3 role as a primary slot receiver.

It won’t be easy, though, as Jennings appears to have made a sizable leap between his rookie season and 2021, and San Francisco might be more interested in developing the younger, cheaper Jennings over Sanu.

But if Sanu wins out, Jennings likely could make the roster anyway, creating other receiving battles of interest for the remaining one or two spots on the 53-man crop.

Should this happen, Sanu will probably be tasked with delivering those two or three catches per game when players like Aiyuk and Samuel are covered.

The end stats might not be massive, but this role is nonetheless important, and Sanu appears to have the inside track to getting it.

Next. 5 Niners who show off the most in training camp. dark