By Matthew Marczi
Player: Emmanuel Sanders
Position: Wide Receiver
Experience: 4 Years
Free Agent Status: Unrestricted
2013 Salary Cap Hit: $2,500,000
2013 Season Breakdown: Emmanuel Sanders was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the third round of the 2010 NFL Draft, and bided his time behind Hines Ward, Mike Wallace, and then Antonio Brown before finally getting his chance to enter the starting lineup for the 2013 season.
But before he even got there, he nearly found himself in Foxboro playing for the New England Patriots. Sanders was a restricted free agent last year, and the Steelers hoped to retain him on an original-round tender. The Patriots offered him a one-year, $2.5 million contract, and when the Steelers matched, it virtually doubled his cap hit.
As a starter for the first time in his career, Sanders naturally put up career-best numbers virtually across the board. His 67 receptions was far beyond the 44 that he managed in 2012, while his 740 receiving yards also bested the 626 that he also gained the year prior.
Most significant, however, was his work in the end zone, more than doubling his prior career total with six touchdowns in 2013. He entered the season with just five total for his career, with just one the year prior. He finished the season with a touchdown in four of the team’s last six games.
On the other hand, his yards per catch average dropped to a career-low 11.0. His catch percentage suffered only a small drop compared to last season, but it was still an improvement over his career average.
Interestingly, both figures are likely influenced by certain changes in the schematics and logistics of the offense this year. The Steelers used more short passing and screens in 2013, which would account for some of the drop in yards per catch.
Additionally, with the loss of Wallace, Ben Roethlisberger targeted Sanders down the field more, usually to poor effect. While he completed four of six passes down the field between the numbers, Roethlisberger was just two for 17 outside the numbers wen targeting Sanders deep.
I don’t believe the Steelers learned as much about Sanders as a starter as they’d hoped to. While he has accounted for some big moments, such as the two-point conversion run against the Oakland Raiders, he has also shrunk at crucial times, as in the dropped two-point conversion against the Baltimore Ravens. He can make things happen after the catch, yet at other times it seems that Roethlisberger has a hard time getting him the ball, and that has led to some interceptions. It’s hard to say just how this will affect the market for Sanders, and teams’ interests in the wideout, including Pittsburgh.
Sanders was entering a season in which he needed to answer a lot of questions, but some questions remain. We still don’t know where his ceiling is. Right now he seems like a tweener: not quite good enough to be a quality starter, but better than just a slot receiver.
Free Agency Outlook: The Steelers need wide receivers behind Brown, which should at least keep them interested in Sanders, but if he’s looking for much more—if any more—than the salary average that he received this year from Pittsburgh, which was already double what they’d planned to allocate to him, I fully expect him to be elsewhere next season.
There are reliability concerns with Sanders, but parting ways would be problematic for the Steelers. That would more likely than not thrust either Markus Wheaton or Jerricho Cotchery into the starting lineup, and neither of those are ideal scenarios—plus, Cotchery isn’t even under contract. Wheaton didn’t have much chance to show anything in his rookie season, and Cotchery is a slot receiver. Lack of other options for now keeps Pittsburgh’s interest in Sanders.