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.