SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The big things -- like receiving yards, touchdown receptions, even touchdown passes -- are obvious.
Those are the easily quantifiable ways in which wideout Emmanuel Sanders has bolstered the San Francisco 49ers' offense since his arrival via trade from the Denver Broncos. To be sure, no offensive player acquired in a midseason trade has had more impact than Sanders, who drove home that point in last week's road win against the New Orleans Saints.
In a matchup that loomed large in the NFC playoff chase, Sanders had seven receptions for 157 yards and a touchdown, including a 75-yard score that tied a career-long. He also threw a 35-yard touchdown to running back Raheem Mostert, becoming the first 49ers player to throw for and catch a touchdown in the same regular-season game since the team joined the NFL in 1950, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
But the depths of Sanders' contributions since arriving in the Bay Area just before Halloween run deeper than the stats. To truly understand what Sanders has meant to the Niners, one must talk to his teammates, particularly the impressionable group of young receivers for whom he is the de facto mentor.
"I watched Emmanuel Sanders growing up," receiver Kendrick Bourne said. "That's what's crazy about it. ... He came in and made an impact immediately so us seeing that, it just motivates every wideout in the room more because there's always competition every single day, even after camp. Having him go that hard, seeing it at the age he's at, is amazing. So just taking all those traits is the best thing we can do as young wideouts."
In the week leading up to the New Orleans game, Sanders didn't hesitate to recognize the weight of the showdown and emphasize that to his younger teammates. While others might shy from anything except one-game-at-a-time cliches, Sanders' big-game experience left him embracing the challenge.
During the team's week in Bradenton, Florida, Sanders stood in front of the younger receivers and told them what they were in for. After all, Sanders has a championship ring and has played in eight postseason games, including two Super Bowls.
"I try to be here to be the voice of letting them understand why they feel the way they feel, because obviously, you get in those games and you're like, 'Man, this didn't feel like Week 4,' " Sanders said. "Every single play matters and you've got to think that. ... When you're playing playoff football, [there are] no breaks in plays. Every single play you are trying to dominate your opponent, so we have to have that mindset from here on out if we're going to do something special."
In seven games since joining the Niners, Sanders has 28 receptions for 407 yards and three touchdowns. His 14.5 yards-per-catch average is his highest number since 2015 and would be the second highest average of his career.
To put that in perspective, Bourne led all 49ers receivers in yards last season with 487. Sanders hasn't played half a season with the team and could pass that total Sunday against the Falcons.
"You feel it, you see it, it's everything," quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo said. "Even if he's not saying anything, guys are just watching him before practice, warming up, how locked in he is in meetings. Whatever it is, the guy just does a great job. Some of it I think is just natural. I think just being himself and it comes across as being a leader. It's awesome having a guy like that. It makes everyone better and really helps everyone pick their game up."
The trickle-down effect of Sanders' presence has also been evident in the increased production of his fellow receivers. Sanders and tight end George Kittle command the most attention from opponents, which opens up more opportunities for the likes of Bourne and rookie Deebo Samuel. Samuel has 32 of his 47 receptions, 472 of his 640 receiving yards and two of his three touchdown catches since Sanders' arrival, and all five of Bourne's touchdown receptions have happened since Sanders was acquired.
Beyond the additional attention Sanders demands, he's been instrumental in helping teammates learn the finer points of the position. With limited practice time, Sanders and Garoppolo forged instant chemistry.
Part of that was Sanders' knowledge of a similar offense from his time in Denver with coordinator Rich Scangarello, the former Niners quarterbacks coach. The other part came from extra work put in after practice and Sanders' precision route running, which offers tells for Garoppolo on when he's coming out of his break.
Watch Sanders closely and you'll see he has mastered the art of the "kick step," which is a way of extending his foot back that serves as a cue that he's about to come out of his break, which tips Garoppolo off to throw. In the Niners' first meeting with Arizona, Garoppolo threw a deep out for Sanders in which he let it fly before Sanders had come out of his break. As soon as Sanders turned, the ball was on him and he made the catch. Two weeks into their time together, Garoppolo saw the kick step and knew when to let it go.
It's a subtle movement that is difficult to pick up, but it's something Bourne is watching closely.
"It's just little things like that I can take from his game," Bourne said. "When you get to that point, that's where you are elite."