After Mike Wallace jumped ship to Miami in the offseason and Sanders, himself, garnered restricted-free-agent attention from the Patriots, expectations for the fourth-year receiver were pretty high. And, honestly, Sanders didn't live up to it.
With that said, Sanders did finish the season with career highs in starts (11), receptions (67), receiving yards (740) and touchdowns (6). Sanders finished second on the Steelers' 12th-ranked pass offense in each of those categories, as well, with the exception of touchdowns.
So there is a case to be made for the Steelers to bring Sanders back into the fold for the foreseeable future. Clearly the team liked what it saw in previous seasons, as it turned down a third-round pick from New England for his services.
However, Pittsburgh can't break the bank to bring Sanders back to the Steel City. And here's why...
1. Slim Funds Better Spent Elsewhere
It's no secret that the Steelers have had some cap problems over the last few seasons, and the 2014 offseason will be no different. The projected 2014 salary cap is expected to be around $126 million. As it stands, the Steelers are currently hovering around $139 million without re-signing any free agents.
After an 8-8 season, that's obviously not good.
The Steelers could also be losing guys like Jason Worilds, Brett Keisel, Ziggy Hood, Ryan Clark, Jerricho Cotchery and Fernando Velasco to free agency, and they may be better served putting some of those players ahead in the queue.
Undoubtedly Pittsburgh will have to make some tough decisions this offseason to manage its money, and Sanders could end up being a casualty of that situation.
2. Suitable and More Affordable Replacements
Another reason the Steelers could stand to cut Sanders loose this offseason is the fact that there are suitable replacements on the roster and affordable ones that aren't.
Last season, Pittsburgh took Oregon State speedster Markus Wheaton in the third round of the draft. Wheaton only saw sparse playing time and six receptions in 2013, but it has been rare for a first-year receiver to succeed in the Steelers system.
Wheaton's skill set is much more suited to replace the electric speed and downfield threat the team lost with the free-agency departure of Wallace. Instead of having a guy like Sanders, whose career yards-per-catch average is just over 12, play an unsuitable role of deep threat, Pittsburgh may be wise to pass the torch to Wheaton and save some money.
The Steelers also saw the reemergence of former 1,000-yard receiver Jerricho Cotchery. The former Jet hauled in team-high 10 touchdown receptions on 46 catches this season. Cotchery proved to be a great third option for Ben Roethlisberger and would cost Pittsburgh a lot less than Sanders.
3. Sanders Doesn't Fit What the Steelers Need
When glancing over the Steelers receiving corps, it's painfully obvious that Pittsburgh is lacking in one specific area. Size.
Of its top four receivers on the team (Antonio Brown, Sanders, Cotchery, Wheaton), Cotchery stands the tallest at a towering 6'1". Obviously that "towering" comment was slathered in sarcasm, but it points to the fact that Pittsburgh could use some size on the outside.
The 2014 draft is loaded with talent at the receiver position, and a lot of those guys have the size Pittsburgh should desire. Some of the top guys, like Mike Evans, Kelvin Benjamin and Allen Robinson, all stand over 6'3" and would be an immediate upgrade in the red zone for Ben and the rest of the offense.
Because of the straining cap situation and their ability to replace him, it doesn't really make sense for the Steelers to make a big play for Sanders. He's most likely going to command a sizable contract elsewhere and that's money Pittsburgh could use to make the entire team better.
So when it comes time to re-sign and release, expect the Steelers to, at least, let Sanders test the market. And if he does, he'll be as good as gone.