Bengals vs. Steelers: The start of one final push for Emmanuel Sanders

Greg Bartram-US PRESSWIRE

Steelers WR Emmanuel Sanders is looking to enter free agency on a high note. To maximize his value, he'll need to start with fewer drops, and injuries, against Cincinnati on primetime in Week 15.

The last time Steelers wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders faced the Bengals on national television, a sniper picked him off (presumably from the grassy knoll) with a pellet gun.

Sanders was fined $15,000 for the random injury, and the Steelers were docked $35,000.

Imagine if Sanders wasn't supposed to be on the field when it happened. The NFL would have taken away at least four draft picks.

Sanders has career highs in receptions (58), yards (661) and touchdowns (five), including three consecutive games with a score, the longest such streak in his career. That career has been highlighted by potential more than results, and he's banking on the former translating into the latter as he hits free agency this offseason.

Judging by comparable situations in the league recently, as well as the emphasis on the passing game, Sanders can expect something of a raise on his $2.5 million salary in 2013. This will agitate some, but it's realistic to believe a team in need of a solid veteran receiver will offer a mid-tier level contract for Sanders' services.

Maybe that's the Steelers. Pittsburgh's offense has performed well as of late, and while credit can be doled out all over the lineup for that performance - the quarterback, the high-level wide receiver, consistent play despite injuries on the offensive line, the improving health of the tight end position and so on - an argument can be made about keeping the group intact for the future.

That goal, odd and frustrating as it is, is helped, logically, by the dropsies Sanders has acquired and is fighting through over the last two weeks. He dropped a key pass on third down against Miami, a catchable ball that would have moved the chains on a second-to-last-ditch drive late in the loss. While his numbers are relatively decent for being a third option, the drops take the luster off his free agency bid, which will no doubt be shiny and glowing from his perspective.

Also causing him problems is the breakout season of veteran receiver Jerricho Cotchery. He shattered his own career high with nine touchdown catches this year, and is seen as a more attractive and probably more financially viable option to the younger Sanders. The development of 2013 third round pick Markus Wheaton helps that theory as well; sign Cotchery this offseason (he is scheduled to hit free agency as well), and continue to let Wheaton grow from a rookie season in which he missed four games with a broken finger, and hasn't seen the field much.

Perhaps the selection of a wide receiver in the draft is another viable route to take.

All of those things are staring Sanders in his face as he, and the Steelers, prepare for their final three games this year. His first 100-yard receiving game would help, as would an increase in catches-to-targets. This is the time he really needs to turn it on if he wants top dollar in free agency.

Avoiding that sniper who's out to get him in games against the Bengals would help too.

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