After a disappointing end to the Pittsburgh Steelers' season, most of the offseason talk has begun with speculation surrounding a future Hall of Fame receiver on the roster who's days as a Steeler could be coming to an end.
Whether Hines Ward retires or not, the Steelers should be set at the position even if Ward's replacement, Jerricho Cotchery, leaves in free agency.
Cotchery entered this season as the team's fifth receiver before beating out Ward to move to third on the depth chart. It was that kind of competition that made the Steelers receivers the best group in the NFL for 2011.
There was also another receiver that Cotchery surpassed after recovering from off-season back surgery.
Off-season surgery prevented Cotchery from signing with another NFL team for more money, it was also what prevented Emmanuel Sanders from breaking out into a star receiver for the Steelers.
While Antonio Brown established himself this season, and will surely enter next season as the starter across from Mike Wallace, people appear to have already forgotten that it was Sanders, not Brown, who played an integral part in the Steelers' offense during their rookie season together.
As rookies in 2010—in which Brown was drafted in the sixth round and Sanders the third—Mike Tomlin forced the young receivers to compete with each other for the last active roster spot on game days.
Sanders entered the season winning the competition, being active in Week 1 against the Atlanta Falcons, before Brown took over for the next three games because of his special teams ability. After the team's bye week in Week 5, Sanders' name never found it's way to the inactive list again, while Brown only became a part of the offense later in the year.
Brown finished his rookie season with only 16 receptions for 167 yards in the regular season and five receptions for 90 yards in the playoffs. For the most part as a rookie, Brown was only running go routes or catching quick screen passes. He has developed into an all-around receiver after his second season but didn't show the potential that Sanders did as a rookie.
The former SMU product finished his rookie year with 28 receptions for 376 yards and two touchdowns. He also tallied seven receptions for 91 yards in the playoffs. Statistically, there is not much difference between Sanders and Brown; on the field, however, his importance to the Steelers' offense dwarfed Brown's.
When the Steelers faced off against better pass defenses, such as the New York Jets and Baltimore Ravens, Sanders became a greater focus of the offense. His size advantage over Brown meant that very few corners could handle him one-on-one.
Because of his combination of size and speed as a rookie—as well as his huge wingspan and ability to snatch the ball out of the air after adjusting to it—defenses found it almost impossible to match up to Sanders without moving a starter onto him.
When the New York Jets visited Heinz Field for the first time that year, Sanders was predominantly shadowed by Dwight Lowery early in the game. However, in the second half after Sanders had already picked up four of his seven receptions on the day, the Jets moved Darrelle Revis onto Sanders.
This was telling later in the playoffs, as when the teams met once again in the AFC Championship, Revis spent a lot of time trying to shut down Sanders as opposed to Mike Wallace.
You could say that Antonio Cromartie took Wallace because of his speed, But neither cornerback followed the same corner all game, unfamiliar for a Rex Ryan-defense that always places Revis on the team's number one receiver—unless there is too much talent around the field.
Sanders' rookie season was scheduled to have the perfect finish, as he entered the Super Bowl as a focal point of the Steelers' offensive gameplan. Because of Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams covering on the outside, Bruce Arians was looking to Sanders' matchup with Sam Shields to break the game open.
Despite going out early in the second quarter, Sanders had two receptions for 17 yards in the game. One of which was a crisp route in-front of Tramon Williams for a first down. Sanders showed during his rookie season that he was a handful to contain. He had at least 49 yards in four games and quickly became a favored target of Ben Roethlisberger's.
After last season's Super Bowl disappointment, Sanders was expected to prove his potential wouldn't go to waste. Unfortunately, the foot injury that ruined his Super Bowl also ruined his second season with the Steelers.
While repeated issues with his feet only kept him out of five games this year, his effectiveness was greatly reduced. In 11 games, Sanders managed only 22 receptions for 288 yards and two touchdowns.
He was never 100 percent healthy, and that was obvious to see on the field as his burst was lacking. But more importantly, he was never able to get his timing or understanding down with Ben Roethlisberger after missing training camp and preseason.
Sanders and Roethlisberger regularly read situations differently which would result in the ball sail away from his spot on the field. Roethlisberger also threw many passes his way where he appeared to expect Sanders to be faster out of his cuts or simply running his route.
The puzzled look between the two became routine during the regular season. But Sanders' talent was still there.
The two were finally beginning to develop an understanding as Sanders was able to stockpile receptions with five in each game during Weeks 7 & 8 against the Arizona Cardinals and New England Patriots.
After that Patriots game however, Sanders' season took another turn for the worse as his mother passed away. He missed the next two games while grieving over his mother's death in Texas. He missed the next three weeks before returning for the Monday night matchup in Kansas City in Week 12.
Two weeks went by before Sanders' foot injury sparked up again, which caused him to miss the next three games. He did get an outing against the Cleveland Browns during the final regular season game ahead of the playoffs.
What is encouraging for Steelers fans, is the fact that Sanders came up big in the playoffs against the Denver Broncos. He looked healthy and didn't seem to be out of sync with his quarterback.
Sanders led his team in receiving with 81 yards on six receptions. The Broncos overlooked the threat of Sanders, instead focusing on Antonio Brown and Mike Wallace as you would expect. Sanders then consistently worked his way past players like Chris Harris, DJ Williams and Rafael Bush to repeatedly take off chunks of yardage.
While Antonio Brown will remain the greater threat to outrun defenses and hit big plays, Sanders is the more polished receiver while still having a huge amount of potential. In fact, the pair together—along with Mike Wallace—are perfect complements to each other.
Sanders has already said that focusing on resting his feet and being fully healthy at the start of next season is his goal this offseason. Provided he can do that, then 2012 will definitely be Emmanuel Sanders' season to explode on the NFL level.
With Brown and Wallace already scaring the life out of defensive backs, expect most defenses to try and force the ball elsewhere.
While that works with most teams, say if you force Titus Young and Nate Burleson to beat you in Detroit, or ask Kevin Walter and Jacoby Jones to carry the Texans' offense, you should see some level of drop-off. Just like in Green Bay, New Orleans and, to an extent, New York Giants, the Pittsburgh Steelers have players that can beat you spread across the field.
Antonio Brown's breakout season this year was a surprise to most of the national media, who just saw Brown as another sixth-round special teams pick. However, to those who had watched the receiver in both preseasons and last year's regular season, it was an obvious pattern just waiting to develop.
Expect Emmanuel Sanders' play next season to be a similar obvious surprise. A pleasant pattern that can only be held back by the offense around him (Read: Bruce Arians).
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