Key to Steelers' receiving corps is Emmanuel Sanders and his ability to stay healhy, consistent

Vincent Pugliese-USA TODAY Sport

Many people ask how Antonio Brown can fill in for Mike Wallace in terms of being a key receiver for the Steelers. It's not Brown, it's Emmanuel Sanders who needs to accept a larger role.

This time of the year brings with it requests for insight on the team from other media outlets. There's a certain list of questions one can reasonably expect to be asked.

If it comes to non-Fantasy Football, the combo platter of "how will the team fare without Mike Wallace/can Antonio Brown step into a No. 1 role?" will invariably come up.

My response is usually "What about Emmanuel Sanders?"

Teams playing the x-receiver in Pittsburgh have done pretty well since 2004. Combining the stats of Plaxico Burress and Antwaan Randle El, the X had 78 catches for 1,299 yards and eight touchdowns.

In 2005, Randle El and Cedrick Wilson combined for just south of 1,000 yards on a team that didn't throw for a huge amount of yards (roughly 3,100, including 67 from Randle El). Probably part of the reason the Steelers drafted Santonio Holmes in 2006, and with the emergence of Nate Washington, the Steelers' vertical game became more prominent. After Washington's and Holmes' respective departures, Mike Wallace came in and bumped the bar even higher.

So what about Sanders? History says two things: 1. He's in a position that's generally seen higher-end producers, and 2. he usually doesn't play anywhere near 16 games.

So which will it be? That seems like the more pertinent question. It's not Brown, a proven receiver who's caught 135 passes the last two seasons - the guy who has the contract. Sanders is the receiver dealing with more pressure heading into this year. No contract, no consistency, but has the prime position to rectify both of those situations.

If - and it's fairly a big if - he can stay healthy and hold onto the football.

If he can't, he's looking at a low-level free agency deal, maybe outside Pittsburgh. If he can, the Steelers will have to put up a fight to retain him. As for this season, though, Sanders has the ability to make himself a lot of money, and make this offense something a bit more potent than it has been the last two seasons.

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