Steelers Should Be In No Rush to Extend Emmanuel Sanders


Sanders will be a UFA next spring. Mandatory Credit: Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, Josh Alper of Pro Football Talk reported that the Steelers are currently in contract talks with wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders.

Although both sides are having a discussion, Sanders’ agent (Josh Woy) said that his client and the franchise are unlikely to come to a deal this offseason.  As Alper pointed out in his post, Woy said that it would take “a very good deal” for Pittsburgh’s brass to re-up their now-starting wide receiver at all.  I certainly cannot blame Woy and Sanders for their present stance, especially because Manny will be an unrestricted free agent (UFA) when the 2013 season ends.

While I understand that Sanders figures to be an important piece of Pittsburgh’s offense this fall, I honestly hope that the Steelers are in no rush to re-sign him.  In fact, I believe that the franchise would be better off if they do not offer a long-term deal to their wide receiver until the 2013 campaign ends.

As most of you know, the Steelers are still in a salary cap mess of sorts at the moment and could very well be in one for the next couple of years. Although Pittsburgh has been able to shed payroll over the last two offseason periods, their cap space will nevertheless be limited next spring as they continue to rebuild and retool their roster.

The limited cap space in turn will force Pittsburgh’s brass to make some extremely tough decisions with their younger players over the next few offseasons.  If the Steelers are forced to let some of their younger players walk as UFAs, then I would hope that Colbert & Co. can find a way to sign center Maurkice Pouncey and cornerback Cortez Allen to long-term deals before they even attempt to extend Sanders.

Extending Pouncey needs little explanation, especially because he has played at a Pro Bowl-level during each of his first three professional seasons. He’s far and away Pittsburgh’s most talented offensive lineman, and his athleticism and ability to get to the second-level in the run-game are tremendous assets.  If Pouncey is locked-up long-term, the move would most importantly solidify the interior of Pittsburgh’s young and developing offensive line.

As far as Allen is concerned, he is an integral piece in Pittsburgh’s rebuilding efforts in their defensive backfield.  Not only will Allen be the team’s number two cornerback this fall, he could very well be thrust into the number one role once Ike Taylor retires or is released.  The soon-to-be third year player from The Citadel improved last year by leaps and bounds, and definitely illustrated that he can be a productive player (55 tackles, 2 INTs, 10 PDs, 3 FFs and 1 FR)  for the Steelers’ defense.  There is little to no experienced depth behind Allen, unless one considers William Gay to be adequate depth, and the team has to question whether or not Curtis Brown, Josh Victorian, DeMarcus Van Dyke and Justin King can eventually start at the professional level.

Sanders on the other hand is entering the fourth-year of his career and is still more of a mystery than anything else.  Although he set career-highs in receptions and receiving yards last season, he has still produced less (94 catches, 1,290 yards, 5 touchdowns, 40 games) than Nate Washington did during his first three full seasons in the league (104 catches, 1,705 yards, 12 touchdowns, 48 games).  And while Manny will receive the chance to start in Mike Wallace’s place at the split end position this fall, his injury and fumbling issues could be long-term causes for concern.

In addition to questions surrounding his post-2013 productivity, the Steelers also made a concerted effort in the draft to bolster their wide receiving corps when they selected Markus Wheaton and Justin Brown.  Along with Wheaton and Brown, Pittsburgh will also likely have the option of re-signing veteran Jerricho Cotchery (or even Plaxico Burress) once the 2013 season ends.

Although Cotchery is not as athletic as Sanders is, he is a savvy pass-catcher who can be signed at a fraction of the price of what Manny could make on the open market if he signs elsewhere.  And hey, even if neither of the veterans are considered to be options past this year, the 2014 Draft will give the franchise another opportunity to upgrade their wide receiving corps if Sanders chooses to leave too.

As I alluded to before, I can definitely understand why Sanders and his agent are playing “hardball” right now and waiting on a lucrative contract extension.  I mean, Mike Wallace played like garbage last year, put a garbage attitude on display for the N.F.L. to see, and he was still able to earn a deal worth $60 million from Miami back in March.

While Sanders is not as talented as Wallace, his ability to run routes well and make tough catches in traffic should garner him a good deal of interest on the free agent market if he can stay healthy once again this fall.  Plus, the New England Patriots appeared all but ready to deal away a 3rd round pick for Sanders last spring, and Woy said that other teams were apparently interested in making a RFA-tender offer towards his client as well.

Despite the fact that extending/re-signing Sanders should be on Colbert & Co.’s “To Do List,” I simply believe that there are more pressing matters at hand for them to face if the wide receiver is unwilling to to lower his asking price (in terms of base salary) during the first couple of seasons of his long-term deal.

If Sanders truly wants to stay in Pittsburgh though, I just hope that he at least realizes that he will have to compete with other younger guys like Pouncey, Allen, Marcus Gilbert and possibly even Ziggy Hood or Jason Worilds for the few long-term contract extensions which Pittsburgh’s brass will dole out over the next couple of offseasons.

Colbert & Co. still have another couple of months to negotiate with Sanders, but if I was in their position I wouldn’t stress too much.  If they are able to ink the wide receiver long-term, then I tip my cap to them for the move.  But if they cannot come to an agreement with Sanders before the regular season begins and he eventually bolts next March, then that will simply be more money for the franchise to set aside for important re-building pieces like Pouncey and Allen.

What happens between Sanders and the Steelers will be an intriguing story-line to follow next spring if a deal is not reached over the next couple of months.  For now though, I hope that the front office does not consider the wide receiver to be a “must-extend” priority over some other younger players on their roster.

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