Free Agency 2014: Making the case for Sanders

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

While the Steelers will be fine without Sanders, they'd be better with him (for the right price)

A Steelers receiver wearing No.88 just seems right.

Lynn Swann started the tradition back in the 1970s. Andre Hastings wore it well in the late 90s. Courtney Hawkins was a solid performer in No.88.

Maybe free agent Emmanuel Sanders can keep the Black and Gold double eight uniform a little bit longer.

Yesterday, I made the case that the Steelers should part ways with the fifth year receiver, who made 2.5 million last season after Pittsburgh tendered him. Given how much fat Pittsburgh needs to trim financially and how much money Sanders probably expects, it seemed and still most likely  that Sanders will be somewhere else next season.

Instead of paying a premium for a second of third receiver, I tried to make the case that Pittsburgh will be fine if Sanders takes his talents someplace else. I think most Steelers fans will sleep well with Jerricho Cotchery elevated to the No.2 spot beside Antonio Brown and moving second year man Marcus Wheaton up to replace Sanders. Pittsburgh could decide to use the extra money saved on Sanders to add depth to the receiving corps in free agency.

I said and still believe Pittsburgh will be just fine without Sanders. Sanders will most likely be wealthier and more showcased with another team. But with him, I think both parties would be better together than they would be apart.

Chad Johnson once said it takes four of five years for a receiver to fully blossom into the receiver they are capable of becoming. Perhaps it's due to the complexity of the pro game, adapting to new quarterbacks, the speed of the game and the physicality and advanced techniques by cornerbacks and safeties. Johnson elaborated on his point by saying that learning how to break past a cornerback's jam at the line of scrimmage is the single toughest part of being an NFL wide receiver, and mastering that single task can take years to accomplish consistently.

While it's not always the case, there are strong statistics that support Johnson's theory. John Stallworth started to come into his own during the 1977 season, his fourth in the league. He started and played an essential role in each Super Bowl victory the following two seasons. Yancy Thigpen caught just 46 passes in four years before breaking out in 1995, catching 85 passes for 1,307 yards en route to a Pro Bowl berth. Hines Ward's first of four straight 1,000 seasons came in his fourth year.

Sanders appears to be following the trend of the aforementioned players above. He caught 23 more passes in 2013 than the previous season, with five more touchdowns. He did all this despite Brown hauling in 110 passes, Cotchery grabbing 46 passes and Le'Veon Bell on the receiving end of 45 more. In an offense that spreads the ball around, Sanders probably won't accumulate huge numbers here. But he made his presence felt and (for the most part) took advantage of his opportunities when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger looked his way.

Another year with Ben Ben and offensive coordinator Todd Haley will only help Sanders. If you recall, he was drafted to run Bruce Arians' offense, an offense that wanted to exploit Sanders' peerless speed on deep routes. Speed comes natural to great athletes; route running doesn't.

Sanders wasn't drafted to be a possession receiver; he was drafted to be a modern day Cliff Branch. Like a true professional, Sanders never gripped with the new offensive philosophy that limited his opportunities to show his great speed down the field. He simply adapted and did his best in his new situation.  More time learning Haley's system while gaining a rapport with Roethlisberger would surely be better than bringing in a new face.

While he is one of the best in the game today, the way Roethlisberger plays the position probably doesn't always make a receivers' job easy. It's well documented that he holds the ball longer than most, so receivers need to ad lib to create space between himself and defenders. Heading into his second season as a starter, Sanders and Ben should be more comfortable with each other on the field. Only once has Roethlisberger had the same starting receivers for more than one season (Brown and Mike Wallace started in both 2011 and 2012). I'm sure he'd love to have all three of his top receivers back on an offense that averaged 28 points a game the second half of 2013.

Given what Sanders accomplished in his first year as a starter in 2013, it's pretty safe to expect even bigger numbers and performances from him in 2014. You could argue, with good reason, that the trio of Brown, Sanders, and Cotchery would be one of the better receiving groups in the NFL heading into next season.

Yes, Sanders still has things to improve on. His yards per catch average dipped in 2013 (you could argue that this is due to Haley's more short range passing attack). But if he and the Steelers can find a way to come to terms on a contract that is good for both parties, Pittsburgh's offense-and I believe Sanders' career- will be better off for it.

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