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Emmanuel Sanders and the Steelers: Reunion Possible?

Emmanuel Sanders is looking for a new team. Could the Steelers want him back?

Gregory Shamus

It’s only fitting that one of the stranger seasons in NFL history is paired with an equally unique and volatile off-season. With the salary cap down significantly, many teams have been forced to make tough decisions regarding roster construction. While the Steelers have managed to navigate their way through a tricky situation, as Kevin Colbert and company have done many times in the past, other teams haven’t been able to as effectively; one of these teams being the New Orleans Saints. Among several other difficult cuts, Emmanuel Sanders, former Steelers wide receiver, was released. As a result, Sanders has been mentioned as a possible free agent target for Pittsburgh. The more it seems that Juju Smith-Schuster will be parting ways with the team, the more intriguing various wide receiver options become. If Colbert and the front office decide to dip into free agency to bolster the depth at wide receiver, is Emmanuel Sanders the obvious choice to do so?

Sanders joining the team that drafted him in the twilight of his career makes sense, as the Steelers have a young group of receivers. A veteran presence who continues to be a contributor on the field may be valuable. On top of that, Sanders has a history with the team and has worked with Ben Roethlisberger in the past. While Sanders didn’t really break out until after joining the Denver Broncos, he had a few solid years catching passes from Roethlisberger. An important part of the “Young Money Crew” receiving corps, Sanders topped 700 yards and had 6 touchdowns in 2013, his final year with the Steelers. After that, his career really took off, as he joined Peyton Manning and the Broncos and notched his first, and only, 100+ reception season while topping 1,400 yards and nearly reaching double digit touchdowns.

Sanders has been a solid number two receiver since then, though his production dropped off in 2016 albeit following 3 straight seasons with over 1,000 yards. In his final full season with the Broncos, Sanders tore his Achilles, a devastating injury for any athlete. However, he bounced back the following year and was traded to the San Francisco 49ers, joining them for their Super Bowl run in 2019. After that, he signed a 2 year contract worth $24,000,000 with the Saints in their last ditch effort to get Drew Brees a second Super Bowl.

Now Sanders sits in free agency with a very impressive resume, looking for a new team. At first look, he seems like an excellent fit with the Steelers receiving corps. However, Sanders is 34 years old and has had a very serious injury in the recent past. On top of that, while he worked with Ben Roethlisberger in the past, it doesn’t seem as though their relationship was necessarily a good one.

After leaving the Steelers and joining Peyton Manning in Denver, Sanders was quoted as saying, “I feel Peyton is a far better leader”. Furthermore, in the 2018-2019 season, Sanders was one of the former Steelers criticizing Roethlisberger’s radio show comments about his other teammates, saying Ben was “disrespectful” and that he “threw [James Washington] under the bus”. Making the initial comment in the first place showed some disdain for his former quarterback, but doubling down certainly made it seem like that stayed with him.

Just last off-season, before Sanders signed with the Saints, he was asked about rejoining the Pittsburgh Steelers, to which he responded “I would love that... but me and Ben don’t have the best relationship. I believe that bridge is burnt”. However, he did concede that he had heard “[Roethlisberger]’s grown up a lot”, so the possibility of a reunion still exists.

The relationship between Roethlisberger and Sanders is just one small factor in the hypothetical decision to sign the former Steeler/Bronco/49er/Saint this off-season. A major consideration has to be his age and price tag. Sanders will be 34 at the start of the season, which is getting up there in age for any position in the NFL (aside from Punter, Kicker, and in recent years, QB). Sanders was the 6th oldest player at his position to register a reception in 2020, following Larry Fitzgerald (37), Danny Amendola (35), Ted Ginn Jr. (35), Julian Edelman (34), and Desean Jackson (34). Ted Ginn Jr. barely played all season, and Julian Edelman and Desean Jackson spent most of the season injured.

In the 2019 season, only three WRs over 33 years old recorded a reception and just two did in 2018. WRs don’t appear to remain productive into their mid-30s. However, Sanders is coming off a 60+ reception, 700+ yard, and 5 TD season at the age of 33. That production indicates he has more than enough in the tank to continue to be a contributor. Furthermore, he is more than one season removed from his major injury, so it isn’t clear if that has any impact on the player he is now.

What this situation really comes down to is whether the Steelers can sign a different vet, like former Bills WR John Brown, who has mentioned Pittsburgh as one of his preferred destinations, or draft a receiver, which they famously have been very effective at recently, to fill that role with a cheaper contract. However, Brown will come into 2021 following an injury-plagued 2020, and a rookie wide receiver wouldn’t add much in the way of a veteran presence. Whether Sanders makes sense as a free agent signing remains to be seen, but assuming Juju Smith-Schuster moves on to a new team, not a guarantee, Sanders has to be a consideration to step in as part of the Steelers 2021 passing attack provided the bridges aren’t burnt and the price is right.