Pittsburgh Steelers 2014 Free Agents Analysis: WR Emmanuel Sanders – Unrestricted

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.

About the Author

Matthew Marczi

Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.

  • steeltown

    2 for 17 outside the numbers deep???

    I understand the concern regarding depth if Sanders leaves, but there’s no way he plays for $2-3MIL per, which I assume is what we’d offer. Re-sign Cotchery and with Wheaton in his 2nd season there is still some decent depth there, plus we have Miller and Le’Veon is capable of 50reception in a season. Draft WR maybe another one in the 3rd Rd since we seem to draft well there and maybe try and target a young TE in the draft as well. Plus I know some are not big on J.Brown but im not ready to pass judgment yet, he could make a perfect #4 or #5 guy, especially if he starts contributing on special teams


    I’m in line with your think steeltwn…but the list of DEF guys I would take @ 15 is not that long… Ebron would be hard to pass up for me. 47 is where I think the best potential big playmaker is…considering the 3rd is l probably 98 or 99…we can find a guy I’m sure, but I’m not really wanting another developmental guy.

    J.Brown…I’m not either but I think the OFC is close to being complete with a productive RZ player.

  • Jason

    I’m a big Ebron fan as well. A dynamic TE who can also block is just as valuable if not more than a big WR.

  • Luke Shabro

    I’m not usually one for drafting a WR higher than the 3rd round because the Steelers have done so well there and Limas Sweed was such a bust but Kelvin Benjamin looks like the truth. I would not be upset at all about the Steelers grabbing him in the first round. He doesn’t look to me like just another guy and he has size, ability and seemingly durability. I really don’t want them drafting Lee or Evans.

  • srdan

    The eagles are 20 mil under the salary cap. They have Maclin who is always injured about to be an URFA. There is no reason to assume that they wouldn’t target sanders over him. I am just throwing this out as an example of why I don’t think we will be able to pay him what other teams will.

    I felt a change in Manny from the drop in Baltimore. He finished the season strong. I will be somewhat upset to see him leave. Mid season I was indifferent.

    This will be two off-seasons in a row that we will lose a young player that will start and make an impact on another team. This year has a potential to be 2 (out of Sanders, 93, and hood). We should re-brand the term to the “salary cRap”.

  • blackandgoldBullion

    They should have let him go to the Pats’ last year and taken the 3rd round pick. I don;t give a damn if they experimented with Cotch, Wheaton, even Mioye or justin Brown in replacing Sanders, because they would be that much farther ahead in figuring out who could do what. And even who might need to go.

    2 for 17 outside the numbers deep! right, Steeltown? Hell, Wheaton will do much better than that and the safety will crap themselves almost as much as when Wallace went deep. AB will end up with more single coverage on the other side.

    Anyway, just let him go this year, because there are many more future needs.

  • harding36

    I sort of see Sanders as “just a guy” at this point. I mean, he doesn’t really do anything exceptionally well. Size, average. Hands, okay. Speed, decent but not great. I just don’t see it. He’s not a bad player at all, but we drafted Wheaton in anticipation of losing Sanders, and I think that Wheaton can give us the same production that Sanders did. Plus, we’ll get a compensatory pick for Sanders if he leaves.

  • Brendon Glad

    At 2.5mil/yr…he’s fine. At 5mil/yr he is not. And it probably will be in the middle…so it will be a tough decision for everyone involved, including the other teams and Sanders himself.

  • dgh57

    We need a WR that has their head in the game and are focused on the play till the whistle is blown. When need a WR that is more dependable than 2 of 17 outside the numbers. Sorry, but Sanders doesn’t fit the bill on either count and certainly not worthy of the money he got last season!

  • David Edward

    Ideally, Sanders is a #3 type WR who can also serve as a KR. As I mentioned previously, I’d rather see him in that capacity and as a backup to Brown rather than starting opposite him. I think some team will end up giving him #2 starter money, and that’s fine by me. I’d say 3yrs/$10M is the low for him and 4/$22M the high. As the stats show, he really wasn’t successful as a deep threat, and he doesn’t have the size to be the type of WR that is “open” even when he’s “covered”. Cotchery should be prioritized over Sanders.

  • srdan

    Who was better when they hit free agency, Nate Washington or Sanders?

    I didn’t like hte drops he had either, but I don’t sell him short. He is very talented. More than an adequate number two, especially if the number one is a prototypical tall WR.

  • Jefferson_St_Joe

    This guy is a good young player who has gotten better every year. He can fill the role of a #2 receiver. If you can get him for somewhere in the $3m/year range, you definitely keep him. $5m is too much. $4m would probably have me looking for a bargain #2 from other cap casualties later in free agency, but I wouldn’t rule it out.

    It takes time to develop receivers and for receivers to get in sync with their QBs. With Wheaton or anyone else, you are starting from scratch and young receivers cause turnovers.

  • steeltown

    I have to say, im not sure even after 3-4 yrs that Sanders and Ben are on the same page or “in sync”

  • David Edward

    I could see a team like Detroit signing him to pair with Megatron. The drops aren’t necessary why I grade Sanders as I do (even #1s have drops). His route running, slight build, and lack of deep threat ability make him more of a garden variety 3rd WR/ KR type…or a #2 with Calvin Johnson or in NE where the really don’t have #1s.

  • harding36

    I agree. It seems like when the play breaks down, Ben seems to find AB or Cotchery, but rarely Sanders. I’m not sure why that is, but Sanders doesn’t seem to be a very good “sandlot” player, which is needed with the way Ben plays sometimes.

  • JesMan

    Art Rooney said On Steelers dot com that they plan to approach free agency this year just like they have in the past, not by diving in the opening the days but by being “opportunistic” , that troubles me some, keeping in mind we may lose an ever important draft pick I agree somewhat that not being a big spender and looking for good deals can work, but maybe buck the trend this year and get a big name marquee game changer on offense or defense? It doesn’t sound like they are going that way, but I would like to at least see them TRY to sign someone in the opening days at least this year to makeup for loss of draft pick. They may call it opportunistic but I call it being cheap and stubborn to old ways.

  • Matthew Marczi

    I’m thinking the same thing myself. Should be interesting to see how they go.

  • Matthew Marczi

    They haven’t had the money in years to make a splash in free agency. They’re already going to have to make cuts (Levi Brown, Larry Foote), restructures (Antonio Brown, Lawrence Timmons), extensions (Ben Roethlisberger, maybe Heath Miller or Troy Polamalu), and/or pay reductions (Ike Taylor) just to get their basic stuff done and to retain Jason Worilds. I can’t see them keeping Worilds in addition to making a notable signing in free agency from another team with the way their cap situation is; seems like it’ll be one or the other, if either.


    Sanders just isn’t that good. His production can be filled by the “the next man up”.