If the 2013 season was an audition for Emmanuel Sanders to prove to the front office of the Pittsburgh Steelers that he was deserving of a long-term contract, then he obviously failed that audition.
According to Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Steelers never even made an offer to keep Sanders. This could easily have been a story about Jason Worilds had he not come on in the second half of the season. But he did just that, and he was rewarded with a transition tag for it.
Sanders, meanwhile, may have had some of his best statistics, but overall did not impress substantially in his debut as a full-time starting wide receiver. His performance is better described as flashes of highs and lows, rather than consistent.
Now that Sanders is expected to sign with the Denver Broncos, it’s time for the Steelers to work on replacing his production. Of course, given that they evidently didn’t intend to retain him, they surely have been working on this already.
Much of this is expected to come from within, with a re-signing of slot receiver Jerricho Cotchery likely expected to come about any day now. But the big jump should be with second-year player Markus Wheaton.
Dogged by college requirements, injuries, and then, ultimately, the depth chart, the former third-round pick’s rookie season was relatively underwhelming, but the Steelers clearly believe he’s capable of much more.
In fact, general manager Kevin Colbert was asked during the Combine about the prospect of Wheaton replacing Sanders in 2014, and here was his answer:
“Markus had a setback last year. First, he couldn’t be with us for OTAs because of the agreement (the NFL has) with the colleges. So we didn’t get him until the tail end of OTAs in June. He came in behind. He worked his way into the rotation. Then he broke a finger. It heeled. He worked his way back in and broke another finger. It was just a medical frustration for him, but he has had some offseason surgeries to correct that further, and we’re hoping he has a nice year in 2014. You take a kid in the third round, you want him to produce. We expect him to produce. We hope that’s the case.”
With the free agent well at wide receiver quickly drying up, and a complete absence of reports of the Steelers being interested in any of them but Cotchery, one would have to figure that Wheaton will be the primary candidate to replicate, if not exceed, Sanders’ production from 2013, in particular his six touchdowns.
But there have been many reports during the offseason that the Steelers also intend to address the position high in the draft. With wide receiver being one of the deepest positions in this draft, it would stand to reason that Pittsburgh stands a good chance of drafting somebody that will be able to contribute fairly significantly as a rookie, with everything up to and including the first round being open for discussion.
While Sanders may not have set the world on fire, it seemed that Sanders and Ben Roethlisberger were finally starting to develop some chemistry with one another, especially in the red zone, and it’s not easy to replace six touchdowns. Especially when your slot receiver catches 10 of them in a performance that would be shocking to see repeated.
The Steelers must now replace that production, but in truth, it seems those plans are already well under way.