Recent rumors that the New England Patriots have been talking to restricted free agent wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders should make Pittsburgh fans very uneasy. Thanks to a lack of salary cap space, the Steelers have hemorrhaged players during the 2013 free agency period but have not signed comparable talent to make up for the losses.
As a result, the team can ill-afford to lose more contributing players if it hopes to return to the playoffs next year. Especially not if one of them is Sanders. Him departing to another team would be a catastrophic blow to the team’s 2013 prospects.
For starters, the young wideout had a very effective 2012 campaign and seems poised to build on the successes of last season. In his third year in the NFL, Sanders was by far the most efficient Steelers receiver. He had 141 Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement (DYAR), placing him 32nd among the 86 NFL wideouts who saw at least 50 passes in 2012. This means that over the course of the year, he gained substantially more defense and situation-adjusted yards than a league-average player (Michael Jenkins of the Vikings was the closest to fitting that description last season).
He was even better on a per-play basis, ranking 22nd in Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) with 10.7 percent. Meaning he was considerably more valuable on any given play than a replacement-level wide receiver like Brian Hartline. And more importantly, considerably better than any other Steelers wideout.
Former teammate Mike Wallace had a terrible 2012, finishing as one of the least efficient receivers in the NFL. His -49 DYAR ranked 80th among receivers who got regular usage last year. A DVOA of -17.9 percent placed Wallace 79th. Both figures indicate that he was quite a bit worse than league-average players like Jenkins and Hartline.
Fellow wideout Antonio Brown wasn’t quite as bad, but he didn’t set the world on fire either. He ranked 45th in DYAR with 84 and 51st in DVOA with -2.3 percent.
Obviously, Wallace and Brown had down years in 2012. It is perfectly possible that both will return to the high levels at which they played in 2011. Wallace ranked in the top 10 among receivers in DYAR and DVOA, while Brown placed in the top 35 in both. The fact remains, though, that Sanders showed he was as good as or better than his two more famous peers for at least one year.
So one big reason why the Steelers should worry about keeping Sanders is that he is a very promising young player. But a look at the bigger picture highlights why losing him to the Patriots (or any team willing to part with more than the $1.3 million and third-round draft pick necessary to get him) would really put the club in a bad place.
For starters, Pittsburgh really needs its corps of wide receivers to come up big in 2013, especially at the beginning of the season. If the organization wants its offense to move the ball consistently, those players will have to take on an even bigger role than they have in the past. And they can’t do that without Sanders.
In part, the Steelers’ wide receivers will need to play well to make up for what will probably be another disappointing year for the team’s ground game. The Steelers’ rushing attack was terrible last season, tying for the fourth-lowest yards per attempt and posting the second-lowest DVOA (-18.1 percent) in the NFL. And given that Pittsburgh did nothing this offseason to upgrade its personnel at the running back position, it would be surprising to see a dramatic improvement next year.
Neither Isaac Redman nor Jonathan Dwyer—the only two returning backs who got more than 100 carries last year—relieved much pressure on a passing game that struggled to cope with Ben Roethlisberger’s three-game absence. Both were among the worst running backs who saw regular action in 2012, ranking in the bottom ten in both DYAR and DVOA.
To be fair, poor offensive line play did hinder somewhat their ability to gain yards. The Steelers rarely fielded their best lineup thanks to injuries that cost their linemen more than 30 total games. But even if the line is healthier in 2013 than it was in 2012, Pittsburgh’s running backs were abysmal enough that improved blocking may not make much of a difference.
For example, the Steelers ranked 19th in the league in their ability to pick up first downs or touchdowns on 3rd or 4th-and-short. So in situations in which success largely depended on line play, the team was slightly below-average. The team placed 29th, however, in yards gained after its running backs got five or more yards past the line of scrimmage. Meaning Pittsburgh’s backs were among the worst in the NFL at doing something with the holes created by their line.
The team’s wide receivers will also need to carry more of a load to make up for the absence of Heath Miller. The Pro Bowl tight end blew out his knee in the second-to-last game of 2012 and looks likely to miss the beginning of the 2013 campaign.
The nine-year veteran was a huge part of the Steelers offense last year. Miller caught 71 passes for 816 yards and 8 touchdowns, ranking him first, second and first, respectively, among the team’s pass-catchers. This despite getting only the third-most targets.
Unfortunately, none of Miller’s backups have showed that they are capable of picking up the load during his absence.
Probable replacement David Paulson earned an “incomplete,” at best, for his performance during his rookie year. The former Oregon Duck ran pass routes on only about one-third of his snaps, saw only eight passes come his way over the course of the year and finished the season with seven catches for 51 yards. This output might very well improve with more usage, but it is unreasonable to expect that a player who averaged 7.3 yards per reception will be able to step up and account for 20-30 percent of the Steelers’ passing offense the way Miller did in 2012.
The other two tight ends currently on the Steelers’ roster are even less of a threat catching the football. David Johnson, who missed the entire 2012 season with a knee injury, saw only 14 passes in 2011. He caught 12 of those for 91 yards and a touchdown. Not bad for a guy whose primary role is to block. But not a level of production that suggests he could replace Miller.
Matt Spaeth, the former Steeler who returns to Pittsburgh after two seasons in Chicago, also has mainly been used as a run blocker during his career. The big tight end has never been targeted more than 27 times in a single season. He also has never caught 30 passes or averaged nine yards per reception in any of his six years in the NFL.
So unless Paulson has a surprisingly good 2013 campaign, Brown, Sanders and the rest of the Steelers’ wide receivers are going to have to be ready to take on a bigger share of the workload next year. Doing that without Sanders would make it an even taller order.
Especially given that the group is already weaker than it was last year. Though Wallace is not worth the $12 million per year the Dolphins are paying him, his departure does leave a hole that the Steelers have to fill.
Yes, the mercurial Wallace had a pretty subpar 2012. And yes, he will probably have other years like that during the course of his career. Deep-threat receivers tend to be boom-or-bust propositions. As the Ravens will probably find out to their dismay over the next few seasons, long balls don’t connect very consistently. Sometimes a lot of Joe Flacco’s passes land safely in Torrey Smith’s hands. Sometimes they don’t. And again, that’s why the Steelers were wise not to drop such a hefty sum on a player like Wallace who will always be streaky.
But the simple fact is that the Steelers now need to find a receiver who can replace the 60-75 catches, 1000 yards (give or take) and eight touchdowns that Wallace could be counted on to produce.
Fortunately, Sanders looks capable of doing so based on the numbers he put up in 2012. He and Wallace are obviously very different players who bring different skills to the table. Sanders will never be the deep threat that his former teammate is. However, if he had gotten the 116 targets that Wallace had last year, he would have finished with a healthy 74 receptions and 1049 yards. Even if Sanders saw the 98 passes that went Brown’s way in 2012, he would have snared a respectable 62 passes for 886 yards.
Losing Sanders would not only force the Steelers to have to find another receiver who can make up Wallace’s production, it would make it much harder for Brown to succeed as the team’s No. 1 receiver. After two years of essentially splitting the top wideout duties with Wallace, Brown will be Pittsburgh’s go-to guy in 2013. And he will have to do this without Wallace’s speed pulling opposing defensive backs away from shorter routes. Take Sanders away too, and all the attention gets focused on Brown. In that scenario, it’s hard to imagine how he would ever get open.
Especially given that none of the Steelers’ other receivers look capable of causing much concern among opposing defensive backs. After Brown and Sanders, the quality drops off pretty precipitously. Losing the latter to New England would force Pittsburgh to pick a No. 2 receiver from among some unappealing options and put entirely too much pressure on Brown.
Jerricho Cotchery was an above-average fourth receiver for the Steelers last year, ranking 17th in DYAR among the 67 wideouts who saw between 10 and 49 passes. But there is little indication that he would be an effective second receiver after Brown. The last time the nearly 31-year-old veteran was a team’s primary option was in 2009, when he led the Jets’ dismal aerial attack in receptions and yards with a 57 and 821, respectively.
Even in better days, Cotchery was still nothing special. During the three-year period from 2006 to 2008 that could be called the prime of his career, Cotchery averaged 78 catches, 983 yards and four touchdowns per season. Not terrible, but if that’s his peak, then the Steelers can’t be too excited about the idea of him as the team’s No. 2 receiver.
Likewise, the prospect of counting on the 35-year-old Plaxico Burress to replace Sanders can’t be very encouraging. The lanky receiver was a non-factor last year, appearing in three games and catching three passes. Obviously, Wallace’s departure will increase his role in Pittsburgh’s offense in 2013. And if Sanders were to leave, Burress would get an even larger share of the targets.
But it’s hard to see how the 11-year veteran will be anything more than a situational player for the Steelers next year. In 2011, his last full season in the NFL, Burress was the Jets’ third option, catching 45 passes for 612 yards and eight touchdowns. Pretty good production for a No. 3 wideout. But his -5.5 percent DVOA (58th among the 92 receivers who had at least 50 targets that year) gives little reason to expect improved output with more usage two years later.
So Pittsburgh will have to hope that either the Patriots are not pursuing Sanders seriously or that the team’s front office has the salary cap space available to make a competing offer. If not, the Steelers will have to try their luck in a rapidly shrinking free agent market or pick up a receiver in the upcoming draft and hope he is ready to play from day one. Neither option should sound appealing to fans hoping to see a return to the playoffs next year.