ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Emmanuel Sanders arrived in what he called "wide receiver heaven" in 2014 and with Peyton Manning throwing him passes, he certainly found bliss in Denver, where he became a champion and a bona fide NFL star.
On Tuesday, he escaped what had become wide receiver purgatory when the Broncos (2-5) granted his trade request and sent him to the unbeaten San Francisco 49ers (6-0).
Now he’ll team up with QB Jimmy Garoppolo and play at Levi’s Stadium, site of the Broncos’ Super Bowl triumph over the Carolina Panthers.
Broncos GM John Elway intimated that he soured on Sanders "with what happened after the Tennessee game" Oct. 13 when Sanders left at halftime of a 16-0 Denver victory with what was described as a knee injury.
Asked to elaborate, Elway declined, saying, "Nope. I’m not going into that."
Sanders caught one pass for zero yards on three targets that day. The week before, he was targeted just once, for a 9-yard catch, in a win over the Chargers, and 48 hours after Elway had declared none of his veterans were on the trading block.
Elway confirmed Sanders asked out of Denver.
"He did. When we look at it, Emmanuel had issues and we had issues," Elway said. "So that’s why it was a good time for us to go different directions. With that being said, we were able to get the value that we thought was fair and so that’s why we decided to make the deal."
The 49ers sent Denver 2020 third- and fourth-round draft picks for Sanders and a fifth-round pick next year.
Sanders was one of eight holdovers from the Broncos’ Super Bowl-winning team and his departure leaves tight end Jeff Heuerman, who was on IR in 2015, as the only offensive player left from that championship team.
Elway did have some compliments for Sanders, saying, "Emmanuel had a lot of catches and played hard and was a competitive guy. He did a good job while he was here."
Elway added, "the team understands the move. The bottom line is we’re still trying to win football games. We’re not throwing in the towel by any means. We’re still trying to win football games. The message it sends to the rest to the team is they know what message is being sent. They’ve been around."
Elway, who traded veteran receiver Demaryius Thomas at last year’s deadline, said everybody on offence will have to step up with Sanders gone and he said wide receiver Tim Patrick (hand) will be one of two players recalled from IR. It’s believed QB Drew Lock will be the other.
Elway said he wasn’t sure if he’d trade any other players but did say he’s received no calls on cornerback Chris Harris Jr.
Sanders didn’t reveal any animosity toward the Broncos on his way out.
"It’s hard. Anytime you break up or you leave a place, it’s tough," Sanders said as he left Broncos headquarters about 90 minutes before Elway’s teleconference. "We definitely had a great run out here in Denver. I had a lot of great times. Obviously, all good things come to an end. Looking forward to getting out to San Fran and showcasing my talent, meeting the guys, hopefully add my explosiveness, my capabilities to their system and trying to win."
The 32-year-old veteran may have found another utopia in the Bay Area.
"Yeah, we kind of run a similar offence," he said.
Sanders caught 30 passes for 367 yards and two touchdowns this season as he made a successful return from surgery on both ankles. He quickly found a rapport with new quarterback Joe Flacco, who followed Trevor Siemian, Paxton Lynch, Brock Osweiler and Case Keenum in the years after Manning retired.
But second-year pro Courtland Sutton, a fellow SMU alum, emerged as the No. 1 receiver in Denver this season with 36 catches for 564 yards and four TDs.
San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan said Monday that he believed the 49ers had the answers at receiver on the roster but opted to make a move anyway for a proven veteran like Sanders.
The 49ers have been seeking a No. 1 receiver since the off-season when they looked into trying to trade for Odell Beckham Jr. before he was sent from the New York Giants to Cleveland instead.
San Francisco spent second- and third-round picks on Deebo Samuel and Jalen Hurd but a top-flight receiver remained one of the few holes on a mostly complete roster.
The Niners rank last in the NFL with just 49 catches from their wideouts and are second to last with 679 yards receiving. Samuel leads all the team’s wide receivers with 15 catches for 168 yards and Marquise Goodwin is the only other wideout with more than 10 catches.
Sanders looked back fondly on his time in Denver as he signed an autograph for a fan outside Broncos headquarters.
"The Super Bowl run was just fun — ’14 and ’15 were some of the best days of my life, best times of my life," Sanders said as he sat in his black Range Rover, ready for another fresh start.