“That dude grinds,” Sanders said with a laugh over the phone while he’s self-quarantined with his family at their home. “And it sucks right now because I see him and he’s got his own gym, and it’s like, ‘Damn, I should have built my own’. Especially during these times.”
Sanders is currently working out in and around his Denver-area home without any proper gym equipment. Even if he wanted to bring something in to help his training, he can’t get it.
“I’m trying to order one of those Peloton bikes, but they’re on back order,” Sanders said.
So the veteran wide receiver, now going into his 11th NFL season, is spending his days doing pushups and wall sits around the house. Daily footwork drills in the backyard and running routes in an empty field near his home is the new normal. The 33-year-old, who signed a two-year, $16 million contract with the New Orleans Saints in free agency, says his focus is on health and muscle strength so he can avoid injury whenever team-based workouts start up. He wants to be available for every workout so he can start building a rapport with the third future Hall of Fame QB of his career, Drew Brees.
With so much uncertainty around how the offseason will play out, there is a growing conversation among players and coaches around the league regarding the difficulties that could arise with the loss of team workouts. Especially for guys who changed teams over the last few months and are learning a new playbook and system.
Sanders and Brees have never actually met. And while the veteran receiver of course wants to get up to speed with his new QB, he’s not overly concerned they’ll be behind the curve when they finally do hit the field together.
“Truthfully, I think people put way too much emphasis on chemistry,” Sanders said. “I think the ultimate thing that me and Drew have in common is that we both love the game of football. If you take guys that love the grind of football and who are passionate about football, it should click regardless if they have the proper talent. I know Drew loves football and I know I love football. I just feel like that chemistry is going to be there from the jump because we are both down to work our butts off because we both know what we’re trying to accomplish and that’s [winning a] Super Bowl ring.”
Although he’d prefer to have some more workout equipment handy, the two-time Pro Bowler is rather comfortable training in isolation, for more reasons than you know. While many players typically spend their offseasons using state-of-the-art facilities and working with highly sought after personal trainers, Sanders actually does it all himself. For the last six years, he says he’s created his own offseason routine and workout regimen.
“I just feel like if I push myself and I kill myself, then I have self-discipline within myself,” Sanders said. “That’s how you turn into a true pro. Instead of somebody hounding you with a schedule telling you you have to be here or there. I just kind of do my own thing, which has made me feel like a better player, a better pro because I’m in control of it. I don’t have anybody who is pushing me to do something — I’m pushing myself.”
Self-motivation has always been a calling card for Sanders. In 2018 he tore his Achilles in December. While recovering, he had surgery to repair a lingering issue in his other ankle. Eight months later Sanders was back on the field for the Broncos‘ third preseason game against the 49ers, the team he would be traded to later in the year. The Texas native prides himself on his self-discipline, which has enabled him to train and rehab as vigorously as he does. He’s now using that restraint to protect his family as the world grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are still a number of players who have been training alongside other players and hopefully are doing so while being as safe as possible. The above-mentioned Antonio Brown, who currently isn’t on an NFL roster, was in South Florida throwing with the league’s MVP, Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, last week.
“I can’t do stuff like that,” Sanders said. “I can’t put my son at risk. I’m just going to wait out the storm. As bad as I want to go to a gym and work out, and I see other players doing it, I can’t do that right now. I can’t put my family at risk. My son already has a respiratory problem. He has asthma. I’m not risking going to a gym and doing all that stuff, as much as I want to.”
It’s a case of making sure being a parent takes priority over your profession while still trying to get your work in. Millions of Americans are going through the same balancing act. And as Sanders continues to work on his craft, he at times combines the two. When he runs ladder drills in the backyard, his 5-year-old son Princeton is right behind him in cleats and receiver gloves.
While at home, the Super Bowl 50 champ has been watching clips of the New Orleans offense on YouTube to get an idea of what to expect. He’s even going back and studying how former receiver Lance Moore was used within Saints coach Sean Payton’s system. Sanders is now on his fourth NFL team, so he knows a few things about walking into a new building and being prepared.
For now, the only passes Sanders catches are from one of his best friends who lives nearby. He’s comfortable being patient because he expects to catch plenty of balls when the season rolls around. How much the Saints throw is one of the main reasons he selected New Orleans. The prospect of being closer to home and playing a good chunk of games in a dome didn’t hurt either. Sanders doesn’t know exactly how Payton envisions using him, but was sold on the fit immediately after speaking with him. Sanders says after he hung up with Payton, he literally stopped answering his phone when other suitors called.
“I’m excited to be there in a pass-happy offense,” Sanders said with noticeable excitement. “That means everything. These are the types of offenses where you really can showcase your talent. I’ve waited almost four years, ever since 2014 with Peyton (Manning), to be back in a pass-happy offense.”
After spending four seasons with Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh, Sanders signed with Denver in 2014 and had three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons with Manning. The former Bronco was one of the first people to text him and welcome him to Denver all those years ago just as Brees did last month when Sanders signed with the Saints. Also similar to his situation in Denver, Sanders arrives in New Orleans as the second option in a high-octane offense. In his first season with the Broncos, Sanders finished with a career-high 101 catches for 1,404 yards, but finished behind teammate Demaryius Thomas for the team lead in both categories. Last season in New Orleans, All-Pro receiver Michael Thomas led the NFL with 149 catches and 1,725 yards. Thomas finished with 119 more catches than the next closest receiver on the Saints.
“I’m looking forward to getting in that building and showcasing my talents and seeing what Sean Payton does with both of us,” Sanders said of playing with Thomas. “I feel like watching Mike, he’s a baller, and I know what I’m capable of, too. So we’re going to see how it all clicks. Hopefully a year from today we’ll be talking about how we came together and did something special as a wide receiver unit like me and Demaryius did.”
Follow James Palmer on Twitter @JamesPalmerTV.