For a team that has been looking to upgrade its offense, the Pittsburgh Steelers are certainly going about it in an interesting way, as Emmanuel Sanders could join Mike Wallace and Rashard Mendenhall on the train out of Pittsburgh.
While Wallace and Mendenhall were expected to leave, the same cannot be said for Sanders. Now the Steelers are placed in the difficult situation of deciding whether to match the offer or allow Sanders to walk and receive a third-round pick in compensation.
The draft pick may be enticing, but the Steelers must match the offer and keep Sanders.
Ben Roethlisberger is still in the prime of his career, and losing Sanders could possibly cripple an offense that was already devoid of playmakers.
Over the past two seasons, Roethlisberger had arguably one of the best receiving corps in the NFL. If Sanders leaves, it could be one of the worst.
Minus Sanders, the Steelers’ depth chart is very thin with Antonio Brown, Jerricho Cotchery and Plaxico Burress filling the top three receiver slots.
Brown is a good receiver, but defenses could focus all of their attention on him if Cotchery and Burress are the other two receivers the Steelers throw out on the field. They may bring physical play and size to the position, but they instantly become one of the slowest receiving corps in the league.
Though he is not an elite weapon, Sanders is a quality second option and brings a lot to the Steelers' offense—especially in Todd Haley’s offense, which put an emphasis on the short-passing attack last season.
Sanders is very quick and very dangerous over the middle of the field. He is also the best route runner on the team, evident with the fact that more than 70 percent of his receptions went for a first down in 2012.
Last year was the first time that Sanders was a significant part of the Steelers’ offense, and he began to show why they took him in the third round of the 2010 draft.
He had a career year with 44 receptions for 626 yards with an impressive 14.2 yards per reception—the highest on the team. He also more than doubled the combined production of Cotchery and Burress.
While he may not have the deep speed of Wallace, Sanders still tied for the team lead last season with 11 receptions of over 20 yards.
Despite his production last season, there are some knocks on Sanders that the Steelers will have to consider when making a decision on his future with the team.
First, he has had injury problems and has missed eight games in three seasons. He also has only five career touchdowns, including one last season.
But even with these concerns, there is a lot more to be excited about with Sanders as he only just began to reach his potential last season and he comes at a tremendous value.
Wallace went out and signed a $60 million contract with $27 million guaranteed. By comparison, Sanders would only make $2.5 million.
Signing your No. 2 receiver at $2.5 million is a terrific value, especially when you have no replacement currently on the roster. For this value, the Steelers should get a lot of bang for their buck.
Based on what Brown has done over the past two seasons, Sanders should expect to make 60-70 receptions for 800-1,000 yards and between three and five touchdowns.
But if the Steelers allow Sanders to walk, they would receive a third-round pick as compensation, and they would have to depend on Cotchery, who is nowhere near the threat that Sanders is. They would also have two holes at receiver and would almost be forced into spending two high draft picks on receivers.
Pittsburgh has had success in drafting receivers lately, and they could find another Mike Wallace with that extra third-round selection—or they could draft another Bruce Davis. There is a lot of risk involved.
But even if the Steelers find a gem, can a rookie come in and contribute right away?
Given the production of last year’s crop of rookie receivers, probably not.
Last season, only Justin Blackmon and Kendall Wright had at least 60 receptions. Each player caught 64 balls for 865 and 626 yards, respectively.
The next best production from a rookie receiver came from Josh Gordon and T.Y. Hilton, who each had 50 receptions.
Receiving this type of production from a rookie is not terrible, but that’s only four rookie receivers with at least 50 receptions. Anything less would be too steep of a dropoff this season.
Beyond this, Roethlisberger is still in the prime of his career. Is this the type of talent you want surrounding him?
The Steelers must look toward the future while keeping their focus on succeeding this upcoming season.
By allowing Sanders to go to the Patriots, the Steelers will virtually be in an all-out rebuilding mode when it comes to the skill positions on offense. That is not how the Steelers should treat their franchise quarterback.
Pittsburgh must surround Roethlisberger with the necessary skill position players to succeed, and Sanders needs to be a part of this.
Anything less would be compromising any chances that the Steelers have at success in 2013 and throwing away a year of Roethlisberger’s career.