The Steelers should oblige.
For the second consecutive offseason, the fifth year receiver will test the free agent market. Other teams, including the New York Jets, have expressed interest in Sanders to help bolster their respective passing games.
According to Forbes.com, the average NFL salary is 1.9 million per season. Sanders made 2.5 million last year as the Steelers No.2 receiver. With the Steelers already needing to rework several contracts that include Troy Polamalu’s, it appears that Sanders already has both feet out the door.
This should suit Steelers fans just fine. In a "money year", Sanders had a solid but unspectacular season. He started 11 games in 2013, hauling in 67 passes for 740 yards. He scored six touchdowns after catching five in his first three seasons combined. But there’s still something that’s yet to be desired with Sanders. He seems to lack the big play ability, the ability to make the critical catch when his team needs it most.
The second Baltimore game last year comes to mind. Down two in the closing seconds, Ben Roethlisberger went to Sanders to convert the 2-point conversion. It wasn’t the best pass, but Sanders-who was single covered- couldn't pull it down to tie the game. Pittsburgh eventually lost and fell to 5-7 in a game that helped keep the Steelers out of the playoffs.
It wouldn’t have been the easiest catch, but those are the kind of catches premier receivers make. Pittsburgh fans in the ‘70s can recall Stallworth and Swann making far more difficult catches on the game's biggest stage. That’s why they’re in the Hall-of-Fame. Ditto for Hines Ward, who made a career out of hauling passes in regardless of the difficulty. He’s had a few nice moments- I’d be remiss not to mention his big reception that helped the Steelers beat Baltimore in the 2010 Divisional Round- but not consistently enough to warrant a big contract.
The emergence of receiver Jerricho Cotchery makes the decision to let Sanders walk a no brainier. Cotchery started five less games but recorded four more touchdown grabs than Sanders. Cotchery also averaged over two more yards a reception. He’s a proven receiver that shouldn’t have any problems taking over the Steelers No.2 receiver spot opposite Pro Bowler Antonio Brown if necessary.
This move also helps the Steelers out financially. With Cotchery making significantly less than Sanders at $825,000 a year, Pittsburgh will have more breathing room to negotiate with Polamalu, Brett Kiesel and other players that need to have contracts adjusted. They could also use the spare cash to bring in another veteran receiver to add more depth.
The Steelers have let receivers whose talent exceeds Sanders go in the past. Pittsburgh parted ways with Yancy Thigpen after his second All-Pro season in 1997, a move that surely helped stunt Kordell Stewart’s development as a quarterback (but that's for a different article). The Steelers said goodbye to Pro-Bowler Plaxico Burress in 2005, and a year later bid adieu to Antwaan Randel El in 2006 despite his great play on both offense and special teams during the teams remarkable eight game run to the Super Bowl victory over Seattle.
They let Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes-the most athletically gifted Steelers receiver I’ve seen in years- walk a year after making one of the greatest catches in Super Bowl history, and last year let former Pro-Bowler Mike Wallace take his talents to South Beach. If Pittsburgh was content seeing these talents leave, they surely can stomach watching Sanders leave town.
Letting receivers go has rarely gone back to bite the Steelers. Thigpen never again matched the success he had in the Black and Gold after he left. Randel El was a disappointment in Washington. Holmes has been mired in several controversies and injuries that have plagued his time in with the Jets. Wallace's numbers declined in his first season in Miami when compared to his final season in Pittsburgh.
Randel El and Burress eventually returned to Pittsburgh to finish out their careers. Maybe they realized how good they had it playing in arguably the best franchise in professional football with one of the best quarterbacks of his era in Big Ben. The Steelers shouldn’t have to wine and dine players to stay. Pittsburgh should want players to feel privileged and honored to play there.
The NFL is a business, and both Sanders and the Steelers seem to have determined that what’s in both of their best interests is to part ways. Who says breakups can’t be mutual?