After The Draft Emmanuel Sanders Should No Longer Be A Returner

By Cian Fahey

Back in February, Emmanuel Sanders revealed that he had been told he would be returning kicks and punts for the Pittsburgh Steelers this season. Quite a lot has happened with the Steelers\’ roster since then which has given the Steelers a lot more flexibility with Sanders.

Despite how good he may be in the role, ideally Sanders would not be needed as a returner to avoid exposing him to any more injuries. After injuring himself in the Super Bowl at the end of his rookie season, Sanders has had multiple issues with his feet that limited him as a second year player.

He showed his potential towards the end of the season last year which culminated in a strong performance against Denver in the playoffs. Sanders had six receptions for 81 yards that day, both season highs.

I have always contended that Sanders was the better receiver than Antonio Brown since they both arrived in Pittsburgh as rookies. Sanders\’ height and soft hands, combined with his speed and agility, give him the potential to be an elite receiver. Last year his biggest issue was not enough time with the offense. Sanders repeatedly was on a different page to his quarterback.

Often Ben Roethlisberger missed him with throws because of miscommunication or Sanders simply wasn\’t as fast as his quarterback expected him to be out of a break/in stride. This was largely due to his inactivity during the preseason.

Once he began to get on the same page as his quarterback, Sanders put up big numbers with 10 receptions in Week 7 & 8. Then however Sanders\’ mother passed away and his season was once again stalled before it really got going.

If Sanders can avoid those kind of issues next season, 2012 will be his breakout year.

Asking Sanders to take on special teams duties seems an unnecessary distraction right now because the Steelers drafted two players capable of effectively carrying out that role. Running back Chris Rainey and wide receiver Marquis Maze both arrived to the Steelers as rookies this off-season.

Rainey was drafted in the fifth round and is expected to make the roster. The 24-year-old is a very versatile player who could feature as both a wide receiver and running back in Todd Haley\’s offense. Rainey\’s speed and elusiveness is what he will rely on at the professional level to make plays. Those plays could easily extend into a special teams role.

In college, Rainey was an all-american track runner and a record breaking special teamer with six career blocked kicks. Most importantly, Rainey averaged over 25 yards per kickoff return, nine yards per punt return and scored two touchdowns on 44 total returns during his career.

If Rainey isn\’t capable, or if the Steelers don\’t want him to be overextended, the undrafted rookie out of Alabama Maze proved himself as a special teams ace for the national champions averaging 16.4 yards on 77 total returns including 12.7 yards per punt and over 26 yards per kickoff return.

Maze is a small body who will be similar to Brown as a rookie in that he will not be a major contributor on offense early on. If Maze is to make the team then it will solely be as a special teamer early on.

While it may not be a major role for Sanders to fill, there is no point in adding more exposure for him to potentially get injured or ask him to spend time at practice not focusing on offense. Considering Brown has seemingly been taken off returns after a Pro Bowl year there, the Steelers should do the same with Sanders who could be just as important for this offense next year.

The Steelers should be passing the ball a lot more next year. Not just because they have a new offensive coordinator, but also the ambiguity that surrounds the running back situation with Rashard Mendenhall expected to be sidelined early on. With Mike Wallace\’s mindset not a certainty, the Steelers\’ wide receiver depth will be vital once again.

Sanders should be told to forget about special teams and concentrate on offense now.

You can follow Cian on Twitter at @Cianaf

  • kerror

    Another great one! I have to see that the interest in the steelers is low right now… But read all of your articles!
    AND I would love that scenario with Sanders as a 800+yds receiver and Maze is the Returnern – Rainey would also be nice, but I think Haley likes him as his situation back and in punts (place kicks also) I would rather see him trying to block the ball! And in my opinion maze is the better (e.g.more agil and elusive) returner

  • Intropy

    I think Maze is probably under 50/50 at making the 53, and even less to be one of the active 46. So if he’s out and assuming Rainey does make the team, which I think is probable, then I think you’re right that Rainey and not Sanders is returning kickoffs. But what about punts? Rainey is noted as being a very talented punt blocker so you’d like to see him in that role at least sometimes. Who does that leave to returns punts?

    Side note, predicting special teams players is tough because you’re intentionally picking players closer to the borderline on making the team.

  • Paul

    Steelers set @WR, Sanders will be a star. I have no doubt, he is an astute student of the game

  • SteelerDave

    Ideally Maze should be the punt return man and Rainey and Maze both back deep splitting the kick off return duties with Rainey getting more KR’s. However will there a spot on the active roster for both players?

    I do agree that Sanders has the potential to have an amazing season. I would not be surprised at all to see him get 1,000 yards, Brown get 1,000 yards and Wallace only about 750 yards in a diminished role due in part to his own greed and the emergence of Sanders. We all love Wallace’s speed but he still has yet to show soft hands or the ability to run routes consistently and to find the soft spots in the defense.

  • Shannon Stephenson

    Wallace isnt as good as we would like to think…Sanders is the best WR on the team…injuries could make him a unemployed best WR if he cant stay healthy.

  • Jimmy-fowler

    Coach Tomlin has already designated Kick-offs and punts to Sanders. A rookie will not start in that capacity for the steelers.

  • Wdmason

    I agree Wallace doesnt always find the soft spots, doesnt have good hands, cant fight for the ball and doesnt seem to like to block but he does somehow manage to catch the ball albeit into his body or by running underneath it. Wallace is a good player no doubt and he works hard but I wonder if he has been an overachiever?

  • kerror

    Therefore Maze!
    He was even critizied at the begin of his college career but he developed to the Go-to-receiver and one of the top-returner of the country – I think he’ll fight hard and earn his spot!
    Rainey is too nice as an blocker..

  • kerror

    I agree with that!
    Also, steelers always proved that they draft the next generation of starters for the time when the diva’s rookie contracts are finished and we didn’t even know, because we hadn’t see them play very often before..

  • Jprankster2005

    I hope Brown and Sanders have good yrs……. But after those good yrs. don’t have there head blown up with wanting ridicolous money……. If so all three of these players could be out of here in 2014……… I hope Sanders and Brown sign a 5 to 6 yr. deal after this season, that’s team friendly and they are happy……….. These 2 are the most important of the bunch I believe…. Then if Clemons can do a good job and keep a spot he could be the endzone guy they need……. And Rainey and others lining up when needed………If money doesn’t become an issue with all these young guys when there deals run out……… I see us being a contender for a good while……… I would also wait til last week in Preseason and if Wallace didn’t sign an extension I would see if I could get brown and sanders to sign a deal and maybe get them a little cheaper then they would the following yr……..

  • Jprankster2005

    But I’d be happy if Rainey and Maze make the team and then best man win the job…… Gotta love both of there blazing spead…….And Maze could turn into a deep threat if given a shot at WR….. Then maybe we would have Wallace’s replacement….. Lol

  • Mancoljduf11

    after three months i still cannot understand how steelers fans continue to undervalue mike wallace and what he can do, people talk about how he does not have soft hands but yet he has more yards in his first three seasons then some of the greatest receivers ever, but when he has one drop that will be talked about repeditly suddenly he is a diva who does not fight for the ball, he played before 2011 and made some great catches during that time butt all anyone thinks about is the drop against denver

  • SteelSpine

    That would be great if your opinion becomes true that “Emmanuel Sanders is a better receiver than Antonio Brown.” It would have to be proven on the field, instead of based on characteristcs at a small school (SMU). His injuries gave Brown the chance to Brown is the more electric & the more special of the 2 of them.

    I think the reason Sanders wont be returning kicks is because Baron Batch will probly do that. That’s nothing but my hunch If Baron Batch doesnt then Jonathan Dwyer will. Backup running backs need to earn their pay returning kickoffs.

    I’m amazed everyone assumes Rainey is a lock to make the team. Rainey’s position will be that of our former Stefon Logan: return specialist. People forget Logan was also listed as the 6th receiver & 4th halfback, same as Rainey will be. The position of 5th-6th receiver & 4th halfback is easy to find & there will be competition from others for those this preseason Any too-small player kept to be the return specialist needs to make long returns in preseason because they are too small to play halfback & running back in the NFL, One can say there is a player Rainey’s size in the NFL, & we’re counting on Rainey to be that, but that is far from a lock, folks.

  • tequila0341

    I find it very difficult to believe that the Steelers will start a rookie KR/PR, unless they are genuinely electric. The Steelers, rightfully so, are conservative in their ST philosophy and would rather trust a steady, sure pair of hands than risk TOs w/players they don’t know.

  • kyle

    I sometimes wonder what you guys are watching when the games are on. The Steelers have had rookies in the return game several times: Holmes (those he was a fumbling liability that first season), Wallace did some of it his rookie year, Logan was technically a rookie. It has happened a bunch of times. I think even the dreaded Willie Reid was a returner his rookie year, as was Colclough.

    Also, there were no indications that Batch would be a returner last year, and now with 3 to 4 legitimate returners on the roster he won’t even be in the mix for it, most likely. Dwyer’s feet are nowhere near quick enough to be a return man.

    Clay does not have good speed or feet. He didn’t get drafted because his 40 time was unbelievably bad. He has feet like concrete blocks.

    Sanders is not the best WR on the team. It makes me laugh when people talk about how much trouble it will be to re-sign Brown and Sanders next year. As though Sanders has earned a big contract. He would have to have a year surpassing what Brown did last year to get anything decent.

    Finally, Wallace is not a diva. He’s not greedy. He’s not overrated. He’s the best game-breaking WR the Steelers have had in quite a while. Brown makes the tough catches but he and Sanders get the drops more often. Wallace had fewer drops than Brown last year, despite being targeted fewer times. And you know several of those drops were Ben underthrows.

    Happy Mothers’ Day.

  • Woodleykills56

    Sanders is the best receiver on the team? I think you forgot about a guy named Brown

  • Jprankster2005

    It’s probably the stupidity of asking for more money than Fitzgerald…… And also saying that he wouldn’t mind of playing for the Patriots or 49ers…… When your a true Steeler you don’t say stuff like that……. And all he is, Is a deep threat, Sanders and Brown have the all around game…… Maze could easily turn into a reciever like Wallace in my opinion, He can blaze past people and really I believe once his speed slows he won’t be any good……He’s no Moss, And I don’t think he’s even worth the money that Jackson got…….. Just saying not signing the tender and all the crap that is going on…… Steeler fans don’t like that……. We are looked at around the country as blue collar fans and most of the players are Blue Collar players…… There not all about the money…… I’m sure he’s been offered a contract that will set him up for life, But when people aren’t worth what they want, The Steelers wont’ overpay…… they will find a replacement for him and he will be not needed just like Holmes, Burress….. I don’t see him being here after the yr. and would be happy with the starting bunch if he was traded before the season for a 2nd or 3rd round pick……..

  • Jprankster2005

    U see Dwyer recieving them lol…. I don’t think there’s any way in hell Dwyer would be a returner……….And I think they drafted Rainey for a reason to fit in Haley’s offense, he will be haley’s special weapon…… They are hoping he will be like Sproles…… And I would love to have a player like that…… there’s alot he can do…… and he’s a lock in my opinion……

  • SteelSpine

    Right on Mancol. Wallace is not a diva. Previously Wallace was judy a deep threat because: 1) He is a blazer, 2) We had Hines Ward for short plays designed to just throw for a first down, 3) We didnt have any other blazer with decent hands.

    Then coaches even said Wallace added more to his game by being able to take short passes & turn them into big plays.

    Wallace is not the diva Desean Jackson is. Eagles overpaid Desean because they are too dependent on him. Vs Steelers, thanks to development of Antonio Brown (& cheap Jerrico Crotchery who might even have starter ability) (& Sanders) we are not dependent on Wallace therefore didnt need to franchise$$ Wallace like the Eagles did with Desean. Losing Wallace after this season is not much of a reflection on Wallace, it is a reflection Antonio Brown in the pros developed himself into a special talent & Crotchery is good & cheap & if Sanders is healthy then Steelers have more-than enough starting WRs. I agree with what the Steelers will do which I think is Wallace will probly not be signed to a long-term deal because of Stelers surprisingly excellent depth at WR.

    The realization we’ll probly lose Wallace is apparently what makes some people feel better by now bashing Wallace, that’s all it is. Even anyone exaggerating what Brown said in simply answering questions people asked him, Brown actually didnt go overboard with any answer. Doubt Wallace demanded to be paid more than Fitzgerald. And Wallace plays whatever plays are sent in to the huddle so he’s a tough as needs to be in the plays that were sent in. Maybe it makes some people feel better to create an image of Wallace being any diva etc. Wallace will go the way of Holmes & Burress as free agents but the reason isnt same. The reason is the great depth we have at WR, & that’s the reason I & the Stelers won’t miss Wallace.

  • Jb

    Sir… I’m sorry, but, as far as the receivers that you mentined, you do not know what your talking about.

  • IsraelP

    Well, I don’t think he needs to worry about another season where his mother dies, so that’s off the board.

  • Ericmi1

    Sanders started in the kick return role as a rookie.

  • kerror

    Too disrespectful, imo..

  • kyle

    You have a point. I mistyped. Wallace had fewer drops despite being targeted MORE often. Brown has shown he can be a topnotch receiver but he had more drops on fewer passes than Wallace. Sanders still messes up his routes. I’m not stating opinion.

  • steelchambers

    Honestly I think that Rainey is a quality player and he has the potential to be similar to D. Sproles from the Saints. If that is true then he can play where ever he likes. I think he will get the starting S.T. job and work from there. He has played with Pouncey since high school and has never played on a team that he wasn’t the fastest guy on it, til now maybe. Plus if we play him as Sproles has always played in his career, we have another huge weapon in this little guy

  • Your comments about Sanders being the better pass catcher than Brown is way off base my friend. The Steelers Team voted Brown the teams MVP last year. He is a Ward with great hand and speed. Can break off routes and gets open and you can count on him in the Redzone.

    Sanders fumbles too much and doesn’t run good routes. Yes he gets hurt all the time. They were going to not have Brown run back kicks so he wouldn’t have to take the extra beating. They need him on the offense.

    Brown is the #1 guy. Ahead of Wallace and all the rest. He will have another great year.Ben loves this guy. You can count on him just like Ward. Over half of Wards 1000 catches were in the Redzone and Brown brings that to the table every week. GO STEELERS !!!!!!!!

  • Right on. Brown is the real deal. Also the teams MVP for last year voted by the players. Glad somebody is paying attention. Sanders is maybe #3 and not that with thenew guys. Time will tell. You can’t count on Sanders.

  • When the teams went to a 2 stag defense against Wallace his numbers dropped like a rock in the second half of the season. He is a crotch rocket and that is it. Sorry. He also causes problems for Ben because Ben wants to throw the bomb and make the ESPN highlights and throws into double coverage and passes up first downs to make a big play. Lots of incompleted or int passes or gets sacked trying for the big bomb. Lets his ego get in the way. How many games we mess around for over 3 qtrs and then try to come from behind. Get back to basics—–control the ball and the time-move the chains and get into the Redzone and score. Steeler football.

  • IsraelP

    Same thing happened to me last year. Glad it only happens once. To me or #88 or anyone else.