Here's a closer look at Steelers wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders in a Q&A with Neal Coolong from Behind the Steel Curtain.
Is there any chance the Steelers would want to keep Sanders? What will they miss if he left?
Behind the Steel Curtain: It's probably not quite Lloyd Christmas's one-in-a-million chance, but it isn't great either. That is to say lots of teams would want to keep 60-catch receivers who aren't yet 27-years-old, but not all of them are willing to pay market value.
That's the Steelers.
Between Sanders and veteran Jerricho Cotchery, the Steelers are looking at seeing a decent chunk of their 2013 receiving production exit via free agency. Sanders is younger, a little bigger and probably faster in a footrace. Cotchery, though, showed enough last season that, with a more healthy price tag for the bottom line, strongly suggests he's a better shorter term option.
Sanders can get more on the open market, and will likely produce more, but the Steelers have an established receiving option in Antonio Brown as well as a good possession threat in tight end Heath Miller.
Is there a downside to Sanders' game that they'd not want to meet his price?
BTSC: This is a team that's really starting to come out of a rocky time in terms of the salary cap. In that rocky time, the team seems to have forgotten how to play consistent defense, and will need dollars available to find help on that side of the ball. Not that the re-signing of outside linebacker Jason Worilds will bring upon the resurrection of the Steel Curtain, but this is an offense that scored around 28 points a game over the second half of last season (6-2). Sanders was a part of that, but if Sanders is the only player missing next year from that offense, fans would have to be optimistic about their chances.
In fact, in one of those losses, a 22-20 brawl with division rival Baltimore, Sanders dropped two passes, including what would have been the game-tying two-point conversion. Not to suggest Sanders is defective in any way, but for the sake of his free agency bid, he can probably be the only person associated with the Steelers who is happy the lasting headline from that game is the Tomlin Two-Step.
What sort of offer do you think he's expecting?
BTSC: I would imagine his agent would be feeling pretty good about calling the deal given to Tampa Bay WR Mike Williams a fairly good comparable - six years, $39.6 million, $14.6 million guaranteed. They're both 2010 draft picks, but Williams (2013 aside) has been much more consistent. Sanders was injured a decent amount his first few years, but he played 16 games last year and put up numbers similar to Williams's career averages from 2010-12.
The $14.6 million guaranteed will be attractive to teams banking on a healthy Sanders from the start of the year to the finish, and it's a good number for a guy who could reach that 70-catch, 1,000 yard and eight touchdown range in a decent passing offense.
What's the best place or situation for Sanders to land in order to be successful?
BTSC: Depends on how you want to use the word "successful." I don't think Miami was the right destination for Mike Wallace to be a "successful" receiver, doing what he does the best. I think Wallace and his $40 million guaranteed would disagree with me.
As far as fitting into an offense, I think Sanders is a solid outside-the-numbers receiver but he can be used on deep crosses and slants from the wide position very effectively. Just by that, I think Denver or New England could get him a lot of high percentage looks. Maybe Philadelphia as well. Kansas City could work too.
Wherever it is, a quarterback who can deliver accurate timing throws seems to be more in line with Sanders' skillset - not that a receiver does better with an inaccurate quarterback (just ask Torrey Smith how well it works), but Sanders isn't a good deep ball tracker, and has better feet than hands. He'll get open but he's not strong enough to battle in the air or technically adept enough to redirect on balls in the air away from him.