What Does 2012 Hold For Emmanuel Sanders?

By Christopher DiMarino

There has been more than enough wide receiver talk within the Pittsburgh Steelers organization lately. One of the key players left out of most of these conversations is Emmanuel Sanders. Looking forward, he is slated to become a restricted free agent at the end of the season. Looking back, he entered the 2010 season primed to be the Hines Ward replacement with his solid route running skills and consistent hands. Yet now he’s somewhere in between. How did so much change? He went from being the next big Steeler wide receiver to a guy that only some Steelers fans know. The emergence of Antonio Brown, injury issues and consistency have all been key factors.

Though he’s been criticized for health, I remain a Manny Sanders enthusiast. In his rookie season he showed skills that take receivers years to perfect. Mix that in with his speed and short area quickness and you had a guy ready to take the league by storm. The injuries have really set him back. Last season he seemed off a little and I think consistency is a big factor for receivers. Like goalies in hockey, receivers need to be able to bring their A game on a regular basis. Take Dez Bryant for example. The guy makes Calvin Johnson like plays in the first quarter then disappears for the rest of the game.

The media and general public like to create animosity between teammates that are competing for the same job. I have a mixed view. I think there will always be some kind of spite towards another person trying to limit your success, but these players are professionals. The longer they are in a system, the more they realize they are parts that sum to a greater whole and that sparks camaraderie to help the other succeed. I think that Brown’s emergence is a function of his time with Sanders. Brown’s route running seemed much more crisp in his sophomore year and the fact that he’s a threat to go all the way every time he has the ball further adds to his value. The two are very different receivers though so I don’t think there is a competition.

Though others may not know about him, or some may have forgotten, I think Sanders is a key part of the Steelers plan on offense moving forward. The two biggest trends for offenses in the NFL are pass catching, speed tight ends and short, quick slot receivers. Having a route running technician in the slot working on linebackers and nickel backs in pass coverage is a good situation for Sanders. Resigning Jerricho Cotchery was good for injury insurance, but he isn’t a long term answer like Sanders is. I think Todd Haley will focus on getting Ben Roethlisberger to settle for intermediate routes and not going deep every chance he gets. While Brown and (hopefully) Wallace present viable options deep, certain situations require the chains to be moved. Sanders will be a key part of these plays along with Heath Miller.

While there is potential for him to excel in the pass game, only time will tell. His other facet of value is tied to the return game. I really don’t think he’s a great return man. He’s far from bad, but he doesn’t give me the same excitement Brown did. The Steelers must feel similarly because they drafted Chris Rainey and signed Marquis Maze, who went undrafted. That doesn’t spell the end of Sanders in the return game, but it will limit his ability to be an impact in games.

Overall, my forecast is murky. It’s hard to see what will happen over the next 10 months for Sanders. He could crush it in the slot or he could get aggravate that foot problem and miss considerable time. He could step in for a Mike Wallace, should he hold out any, and have his production shoot through the roof. He could have an average year in the slot and lose all considerations in the return game. I think he will have a few returns in the early going of preseason and he has to prove something there. I don’t think he will (not his fault) because Rainey is just exciting on special teams. I think he will have a good year operating out of the slot and I project about 40 catches for just over 500 yards and 3 touchdowns.

  • Jwahl912

    I sure hope we get to see the “Young Money” crew practice/play together for a full season. If they can get the new offense down, all that speed could be deadly! Stay healthy and focus guys….this could be a special year for Steeler Nation.


    If he can get and stay healthy, Sanders will be the most complete receiver of the three.

  • Kenneth Wilt

    To me Sanders is still a better route runner than Brown. I expect big things from him this year, assuming he stays healthy. This is for multiple reasons…

    1. In the new offense, he will make the transition smoother than Brown due to his better route running.

    2. I expect an increase in receptions for a higher completion % from Ben in addition to the # of attempts getting closer to 575. This is accomplished mostly from including the RBs in the passing game and increased TE catches.

    3. I expect our big 4 receivers to get around 225 catches. I could see the following:

    Wallace: 75
    Brown: 60
    Sanders: 55
    Cotchery: 35

    That still leaves about 150 catches out there for the RBs, TEs, and #5 receiver.

  • CR

    I personally think if he stays healthy his stats will be better than the 500 yard 3 TDs. He had almost 400 for 2 his rookie season. 650-700 for 4 TDs is probably more likely, again given he plays the whole season.

  • Jprankster2005

    With all the injuries he has had…… I think it would be smart to have him just focus on recieving…… With Rainey or Maze you still got the speed…. And it’s more important to have a helthy 3rd reciever than a returner that we have a guy that can be just as good….

  • SteelerDave

    I agree 1,000%

    Sanders has all of the tools to emerge as a top receiver, putting up stats in receptions equal to Brown – if he stays healthy.

    I simply do not see Wallace at the level he was in the first half of last season. I predict Brown and Sanders at about 1100 yards each this season and Wallace finishing 3rd at a meager 700.

  • JohnnyV1

    Like the first line in your 3rd paragraph, spot on! He’s just an unknown b/c of his injuries. Some guys are frail and/or have bad luck with injuries, some don’t. Hopefully Saunders gets passed the injuries and just plays. I personally think Brown is better in the slot, as he’s quicker and tougher.

  • Wingo78

    Wallace with only 700 yards? Only if he holds out the first 6 games.

  • Cols714

    I predict you are wrong. Wallace and Brown will once again go over 1000 but Sanders will probably be around the 500 yards.

  • Pete

    I’m looking forward to Sanders having a great year. They guy is really talented and has had some bad luck with the foot problems. But I expect we’ll see some great things from him this year.

  • Menace_501

    Honestly I see Sanders, Cotchery, Brown getting the most catches and Wallace the least out all. Sanders and Brown should have the most by far and are the best route runners barring any injuries. Wallace will get his one or two long passes a game but other than that he needs to improve in the short routes.

  • Even though Brown had a hugely productive year in 2011, I think Sanders still will get the opportunity to compete for the second WR spot.

  • Kenneth Wilt

    I think Wallace is going to have to get used to going over the middle more. There will be a lot of slants in this offense which will be timing patterns. We didn’t have a lot of timing stuff in our last offense.

  • Kenneth Wilt

    I don’t think so, but I do think they may move Brown around more in this offense. When they go 3 wide, they may slide him into the slot and allow Sanders to stay out wide. It should be interesting to see how it goes.

  • I think Sanders fits the 3 spot better with the talent we have, but if he’s healthy, I expect him to have a very good year.

  • SteelerDave

    I do see Wallace holding out the first 6 games which allows Sanders to show what he can do like he did against Denver.

    We need Brown and Sanders both to stay healthy and having Wallace does help keep the opposing DB’s deep.

  • I don’t think Wallace will ever be an over the middle WR. I think that is one reason why they haven’t paid him yet.

  • SteelerDave


  • I have a lingering fear that his foot issue is going to be a career long thing, and I REALLY hope I am wrong. If he is healthy, I expect a big year from him, which I think we need, because I don’t think Wallace will be back after this season, and I want us to be ready to roll with Brown, Sanders and Cotchery.

  • Why not? Sanders beat out Brown during their rookie season, and If Sanders had stayed healthy last year, he would have been ahead of Brown on the depth chart.

  • Except that Sanders is faster, has better hands, leaping ability, and just has a better over all skill set than Brown.

  • He ran a faster 40 time at the combine, but I don’t think he plays faster (Brown clearly had a terrible combine if you look at the numbers). Brown is nearly as fast as Wallace out on the field. Sanders is a better route runner and has better hands, and is probably the most well rounded of the three young WRs, but I don’t think he’ll see a lot of time at #2 this year.

  • Why is everyone counting out Wallace for being there day 1? The other teams have spoken loudly that they aren’t paying top dollar for him. Steelers will either sign him long term, or give him the 2.7 for the year which he will have no option but to accept. I don’t think he will go without a paycheck. Make him show other teams what he is worth (or not) this year.

  • You are posting as if those two things are related, and they are not. Sanders beat out Brown with good reason as a rookie, but by all measures, Browns 1st and 2nd years were night and day. Brown got so much better last year that it is impossible to say what would have happened.

  • I should hope so, since year two is typically the year when a WR shows the most improvement. Both players are starting at the same point, in regards to learning the new offense. Sanders is a superior athlete to Brown, and there is nothing to suggest that he doesn’t have the tools, or ability, to compete with Brown.

  • If read my original comment, I never said that I predicted who will be the #2WR. I said that Sanders will get the opportunity to compete with Brown for the #2 spot.

  • I wasn’t implying otherwise. I think he fits better in the three spot when considering all three players. I am not saying he isn’t a #2, just that in my opinion, and it is clearly stated as opinion, he best fits at 3.

  • You are right, other than his injury hampering his progress last year. He didn’t make anywhere near the progress from year 1 to 2 that Brown did. That is not to say he isn’t capable of it or doesn’t have the tools, but due to circumstance, his is behind in terms of experience a bit.

    You are comparing them in terms of potential, but you are leaving off the fact that Sanders is still mostly potential while Brown has shown he can do it, which will count for something in the race.

  • Why 6 games? If he holds out (he won’t IMO), it would likely be for the maximum 10. He accomplishes nothing with a 6 game hold out.

  • Rosenthal Michael A

    Great article. I even like your Sanders stats prediction for ’12. The only thing I think I would change is his touchdowns from 3 to 7. His quick feet in tight areas have already shown that he is a viable threat in the redzone, particularly on broken plays. I expect that Haley already knows that about him from the tape.

  • Mancoljduf11

    this was a great article, but if i can make one suggestion i would say it is time to thake the if away from Wallaces name and more likewhen because if he has a playbook there is no reason to beleive that he will holdout

  • SteelSpine

    Your article nailed it I think. I recall it was good to hear Steelers coaches implied during Sanders’ first year that Sanders was advanced as a route runner.

    The challenge for Sanders isnt just his injuries tho, but now being in a squeeze in middle of depth chart at WR. That’s not a problem, just a situation. I agree he did not look special as a special teams player. A minor drawback is WRs need to be good contributors on special teams, as either a good returner or have a knack as a good tackler on special teams. So preliminarilly looks like Sanders best chance is after this year when Wallace & Brown might both leave as free agents. Too early to think about that. For now his goal could be just beat out Cotchery for 3rd (slot) reciever, & I agree thats the good numbers he could get there.

    Dont forget if Haley can shorten Ben’s release & do more 3-step drops to save Ben’s life(!), that could see more passes for whoever is the 3rd/slot reciever.

  • Blitzum

    I see Sanders as the best bet to be a long time Steeler. Wallace will be gone after this year. Brown has the flash, and the smile, for teams to take a chance on him after next year. I think Sanders will be solid, Hines like, for years to come. I just hope we continue to develop young talent, like Sanders, Maze and Clemons to keep the offense rolling for a few years while Ben is still in his prime