By Matthew Marczi
The Pittsburgh Steelers have their work cut out for them coming off consecutive non-winning seasons. It takes elbow grease to get from 8-8 to a contender, as everybody knows, of course, but this offseason, the issue is more complicated than simply improving, due to some uncommon circumstances.
One of the major story arcs of this offseason, certainly, will be how the Steelers front office decides to go about reconstructing the wide receiver depth chart for 2014, considering they have three impending free agents at the position, including two of their top three targets from last season.
With both Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery set to hit free agency, the Steelers have a lot of production currently sitting outside the organization. Between the two sit over 110 receptions, 1300 receiving yards, and, most importantly, 16 touchdowns, or more than half of the touchdown passes thrown by Ben Roethlisberger in the second-most prolific season of his career.
Roethlisberger’s 28 touchdown passes from a season ago ranks second in both his own career and in the history of the Steelers franchise in terms of most touchdown passes thrown in a single season.
Considering that 24 of those touchdowns went to wide receivers—the most by a receiver group in franchise history—it strikes me as a top priority to assure the franchise quarterback that he will have his weapons at wide receiver. To that end, it is certainly essential to retain at least one of Sanders and Cotchery.
Cotchery is, of course, by far the most likely of the two to be retained easily. As a veteran that understands what it’s like to play with a subpar quarterback, he’s fallen in love with Roethlisberger’s passes and isn’t looking to start over somewhere else. Especially not after a season of catching 10 touchdown passes.
Sanders, on the other hand, may very well price him out of the Steelers’ plans. Remember, last year the New England Patriots were willing to pay Sanders a salary of $2.5 million in addition to a third-round draft pick in order to be a starting receiver for Tom Brady when he’d never been a starter before.
Now that he’s coming off his first year as a starter with nearly 70 catches, over 700 yards, and six touchdowns, you can rest assured that his agent will be looking to cash in on a bigger pay day—because he basically said just that during the season. I would not be shocked if Sanders doubles his salary somewhere, but if he does, it won’t be in Pittsburgh.
What the Steelers do, or don’t do, or are unable to do during free agency to address the wide receiver position should be pretty illuminating as to what their intentions are coming into the 2014 NFL Draft.
As has been frequently speculated—for example, Daniel Jeremiah’s early mock draft has the Steelers selecting wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin in the first round—it is a very real possibility that Pittsburgh could be addressing the position on the first day of the draft.
The biggest boost that they must get, however, is one that comes internally, and that must be the precipitous growth of second-year wide receiver Markus Wheaton, who with Sanders potentially gone could find himself battling for a starting wide receiver position depending on how the rest of the offseason unfolds.
Wheaton comes off as a perceptive and bright young man. On the field, his quickness is obvious, and he seems to have good hands. But his rookie season was derailed by a string of finger injuries sandwiched around the emergence of Cotchery as the slot receiver, and at that point there was no sense in fiddling with something that was already working.
As it stands right now, there are many different directions the Steelers can go to address their wide receiver depth chart, which includes the possibility of retaining Sanders, even though it’s being widely written off. They could address it in free agency with a moderately priced aging starter that can still gain separation, or they could even address it in the draft. It’s certainly a key narrative to follow this offseason.
Previous Articles In This Series
Steelers Offseason Priorities – A Primer
Steelers Offseason Priorities – Finding An Offensive Line Coach
Steelers Offseason Priorities – What To Do With Woodley And Worilds