These two facts have been well established for some time now: that former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace is gone, and that the Steelers intend to rely on fourth-year pro Emmanuel Sanders to replace him in the starting lineup. What is yet to be understood is what we should expect to see out of Sanders as a full-time starter.
Drafted in the third round in 2010 following the trade of Santonio Holmes to the New York Jets, Sanders was drafted to bring depth and youth to the wide receiver room with Hines Ward in the twilight of his career at the time. Only it was Antonio Brown, Sanders’ draft classmate, who emerged as the starter alongside Wallace.
Now with Wallace gone, it is the 2010 duo’s time to shine with Brown and Sanders slated to line up as the starters at wide receiver in 2013. We have already seen what Brown can do. Over the past two seasons, he has started 13 of the 29 games he has played in, accumulating nearly 1,900 yards in the process.
Though a midseason ankle sprain somewhat derailed his first full season as a starter, Brown was on pace to have his second consecutive 1,000 yard season seven games into the year. After the week nine injury against the New York Giants, he missed the next three games.
One positive that came to light from the tail end of his year following the injury was his emergence as a red zone threat. He scored a touchdown in each of his last four games, with three of them coming from within nine yards of the goal line. It was an underappreciated concern for the post-Wallace offense, as no wide receiver other than Wallace had more than two touchdowns in 2011.
Now the question that must be answered is about Sanders and what he can offer the Steelers offense as a full-time starter. Though he had career highs in starts, total snaps, yards, and yards per catch, and also managed to play in all sixteen games for the first time in his young career, he also had a career-low one touchdown and also fumbled a career-high three times.
Despite playing in every game and participating on 68% of the team’s total offensive snaps (which was 7% more than Brown’s year-end total), his utilization was disproportional to his playing time.
Now, Sanders, as the team’s best run-blocking wide receiver, was often left in on running plays with Brown and Wallace on the sidelines, which is no small factor. Another thing to consider is the fact that Sanders’ replacement of Brown in the starting lineup a season ago coincided with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s injury, which no doubt hurt his production. These and other factors make it all the more difficult to project what Sanders might be able to do as a full-time starter.
Nevertheless, here are some facts. In 2012, Sanders was targeted on 4.7 passing plays per game, and he averaged 2.8 receptions, which was good for a nearly 60% completion percentage. According to Advanced NFL Stats, Sanders had the highest Success Rate among Steelers receivers despite being targeted on a significantly higher percentage of passes down the field.
As a starter in 2013, and the addition of the speedy Markus Wheaton, it is unlikely that Sanders will see nearly 40% of his targets come down the field, as he did in 2012, which should increase not only his targets, but also his catch rate.
Of course, it is one thing to look to the past in an effort to project the future. The reality is that there are more questions than answers about what Sanders will do in his new role, questions that can only be answered on the field.