Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert know that’s Emmanuel Sanders who wears No. 88 and not Lynn Swann, right?
That uniform number made Sanders look like Hines Ward in his rookie season, but that’s only because that second “8” looked like a “6” when Sanders caught passes over the middle in 2010. Steelers fans weren’t used to seeing the No. 88 on the field because it had been eight years since anyone with that number saw significant playing time. Terance Mathis caught 23 passes in his one year as a Steeler in 2002.
Sanders might be better than Mathis, but he’s no Swann. He’s no Ward. Heck, he’s no Mike Wallace.
But the Pittsburgh Steelers matched the New England Patriots’ one-year, $2.5 million offer for Sanders on Sunday, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Had they not matched the offer, Sanders would have become a Patriot and the Steelers would have received a third-round pick in the upcoming draft as compensation.
Instead of investing in their future with an extra draft pick, the Steelers decided they couldn’t lose a receiver with an injury history who’s never caught more than 44 passes in a season. That career-high came last season, so it would be nice to think the 26-year-old Sanders is on the verge of a breakout year. Then you look at December. When the Steelers were fighting for their playoff lives, Sanders had just 10 catches in the last five games. Two of them came in the meaningless season finale.
Sanders’ bout with fumble-itis didn’t help, either. He dropped two balls, turning one of them over, in the Steelers’ costly and embarrassing 20-14 loss at Cleveland Nov. 25. He got away with a lost open-field fumble the following week in the Steelers’ win at Baltimore.
The Patriots might have put their Spygate past behind them (we think), but they beat the Steelers in the offseason poker room by putting their chips on the table for Sanders. They forced the salary cap-strapped Steelers to give him a raise for the 2013 season. Had the Patriots not signed Sanders to an offer sheet, the Steelers only would have had to pay him the $1.323 million restricted free agent tender they used on him.
Sanders becomes an unrestricted free agent next year. The Steelers risk losing him in 2014, especially if he does have that breakout year. Losing Sanders likely would get the Steelers a compensatory pick somewhere in the middle rounds of the 2015 draft. Had they been willing to part with Sanders a year earlier, they’d have been guaranteed a third-round pick, No. 91 overall, in the draft next week.
The Steelers could have had two picks in the third round of the 2013 draft and left the Patriots with just four picks in a draft that’s not necessarily strong at the top but deep, according to Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. That third-round pick would have been a hot commodity.
The Steelers could have had four picks in the first three rounds, and nine picks in the entire draft, to address their pressing needs at outside linebacker and running back as well as their lack of depth at inside linebacker and safety. They also could use a tight end now that Heath Miller is on the wrong side of 30 and coming off a major injury. Bruce Gradkowski is a nice pickup, but how about drafting a backup quarterback with a little upside?
And just because they’re keeping Sanders, it doesn’t mean the Steelers are set at wide receiver. Antonio Brown, Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery are their top three at the position. They finally might use Cotchery the way he should be used, but behind that trio is Plaxico Burress, who is so old that he was born when Jimmy Carter was president. Add depth at wide receiver to the Steelers’ shopping list for the draft.
Not only do the Steelers not have an extra third-round pick to help fill one of those holes, but they’re spending $2.5 million more in cap money than they would have if they had taken the pick for Sanders. According to the Post-Gazette, they’re about $700,000 under the salary cap. They’ll get $5.5 million in cap space after June 1 because they cut Willie Colon, but most of that will go toward signing their draft picks.
Now if the Steelers want to sign someone like Ahmad Bradshaw, they’d have to restructure yet another contract and add another cap headache to the ones they’ll already have in 2014 and beyond.
Bradshaw’s health would have to check out, but now it’s harder for the Steelers to sign this running back who had 47 catches in 2010, three more than Sanders’ career high. Bradshaw also has two more Super Bowl rings than Sanders or any other member of the ballyhooed Young Money Crew.
Wallace is gone, but at least the Steelers still have a Young Money Duo with Brown and Sanders.
Now all they have to do is add a hyphen between those eights on Sanders’ jersey, because his performance in 2012 was emblematic of an 8-8 team.