Emmanuel Sanders Stays for One Last Shot at his Potential with Pittsburgh Steelers

Both Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown need big seasons in 2013

After taking as much of the five days afforded to them as they possibly could, the Pittsburgh Steelers decided to match the $2.5 million restricted free agent tender that Emmanuel Sanders signed with the New England Patriots this week. Sanders will remain with the Steelers and immediately returns to his starting spot on offense.

Sanders’ career with the Steelers so far has been full of inconsistency. At times he has flashed the talent to be a true game-changing receiver, but he has also dealt with inconsistencies on the field, repeated injuries and a family bereavement that have all hurt his development on the field.

During his three-year career so far, the former SMU prospect has totaled just 94 receptions for 1,290 yards and five touchdowns with five fumbles. However, statistics tell you little about Sanders’ potential.

As a rookie, Sanders finished with just 28 receptions for 376 yards and two touchdowns. However, for much of the year he was inactive as both he and Antonio Brown battled for the final active roster spot. Mike Tomlin used that competition to try and better both players, while both contributed sporadically in the regular season. As the regular season developed however, it became more clear that Sanders was becoming a more important part of the offense than Brown.

A Week 10 performance against the New England Patriots saw Sanders finish with five receptions for 41 yards and a touchdown. It was his breakout display that would allow him to remain on the active roster all the way to the Super Bowl. Sanders’ high-point of his rookie season came against the New York Jets in Week 15.  After beating up on Drew Coleman early on in the game, he brought the attentions of Darrelle Revis his way. Sanders only caught one pass against Revis, but it went for 29 yards as part of his seven receptions for 78 yards on the day.

Sanders was a major problem for the Jets on the day in terms of match-ups. Matching up to Sanders is where his value lies. As a rookie, teams had to deal with Mike Wallace and Hines Ward, with Heath Miller at tight end. That meant Sanders was often left in single coverage against lesser defensive backs. With his speed and wide catch radius, Sanders was a problem because he could beat defensive backs in various ways.

For that reason, Sanders was consistently on the field and seeing the ball come his way. He had five receptions for 70 yards over the final two weeks of the season, before notching seven receptions for 91 yards in two and a half games in the playoffs. Sanders only played in half of the Super Bowl, a game when many expected him to be a focal point of the offensive gameplan.

Sanders had two receptions for 17 yards, before he injured his feet and left the game.

Those feet issues would dog him for the next six months. Sanders was healthy for the start of training camp, but just the start. After a matter of days, he suffered another injury with his feet and wouldn’t feature again until the final preseason game. Once the regular season came, Sanders had become an after-thought in the Steelers’ offense.

Antonio Brown had developed a strong rapport with Ben Roethlisberger during the preseason, while Sanders and Roethlisberger were consistently misunderstanding each other on the field or not connecting on throws that would come with a better rapport. After six weeks of struggling to figure out what they were doing on the fly, Sanders and Roethlisberger finally found the same wave length when they connected for five receptions, 46 yards and one touchdown against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 7.

Each of those numbers were a season high, until he followed up with five more receptions and 70 yards against the New England Patriots the following week.

But then, another setback came. This time Sanders lost a parent and left the team for three weeks. He returned to a limited role again, before dealing with injuries again to miss three more weeks before the final game of the regular season.

When everything was falling apart in Denver against Tim Tebow’s Broncos, Sanders had another bright day with six receptions for 81 yards. It was something of a melancholic performance from the young receiver, because it showed everything that his season could have been.

The leadup to the 2012 season came and went with no issues. Sanders was healthy and playing regularly. The only change was that he was now playing as a slot receiver in Todd Haley’s offense. No longer was he complementing others as an outside presence, instead he moved inside to incorporate Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown on the outside.

While he can play there, Sanders isn’t best suited to a slot role. He doesn’t consistently catch the ball going over the middle and offers defenders too big a target to be relied on in those situations. He finished a relatively decent season with 44 receptions for 626 yards and one touchdown.

Now that he was been re-signed by the Steelers however, he should return to being an outside receiver. Mike Wallace departed to sign a massive contract with the Miami Dolphins, so the Steelers have just Sanders, Antonio Brown, Plaxico Burress and Jerricho Cotchery.

Presuming Cotchery beats out Burress as the third starting receiver, he should play on the inside with Sanders and Brown outside. If Sanders is to finally reach his potential, it will be in that situation. His struggles to this point can be excused somewhat, but now he has to prove to Steelers’ brass that they made the right decision in keeping him out of the New England Patriots’ clutches.

The talent is there, but the production needs to follow.

You can follow Cian Fahey on twitter @Cianaf

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