Average draft position: 174.81
Mike ’60 minutes’ Wallace took his talents to South Beach last week, leaving a void in a once dangerous Steelers’ receiving core behind him. With Antonio Brown primed to slide into the No. 1 spot, there’s plenty of room for another receiver to enter the fantasy picture.
Enter Emmanuel Sanders. Currently a restricted free agent, there’s no guarantee Sanders will be a Steeler in 2013. Pittsburgh tendered Sanders at his original pick, but New England has expressed strong interest in the former third round pick. So currently, it appears Sanders’ fantasy value hangs in the balance between the two teams. Each team could possibly lead him down a very different career path based on the team’s different style of offense.
No. 1 receiver Mike Wallace was embedded in a contract dispute last season, causing him to miss all of training camp. And, more importantly, the opportunity to learn Todd Haley’s new offense. Sanders benefited from this, starting seven games and turning in the best season of his career with 626 receiving yards on 44 catches and one touchdown.
A reliable receiver, Sanders averaged 3.3 receptions in 2012. He also tallied 42 receiving yards per game, good for about 7 points a week in PPR leagues. While he was consistent, he was hardly productive enough to make an impact in even the deepest of leagues.
In the red zone, Sanders was equally non-prolific. He saw only 5 targets for 16 yards and one touchdown. He accounted for 6.8 percent of targets in the red zone, which pales in comparison to tight end Heath Miller, who accounted for 19.2 percent of red zone targets. Both Wallace and Brown saw more targets in the red zone as well. Obviously, Sanders is likely to see more targets with Wallace out, but he failed to make a big enough impact during his seven starts last season to increase the likelihood of those numbers improving.
Sanders size is perhaps his biggest weakness. At 5’11, 186lbs, he lacks the ability to out jump defenders and simply doesn’t possess a big enough body to shield himself like an Anquan Boldin. His biggest strength lies in his speed and uncanny ability to change direction all while displaying good body control. He would flourish in a West-Coast style offense where he would be required to run a lot of short, quick routes in addition to straight-line sprint races with defensive backs down the sideline. But he’s not a move-the-chains, over-the-middle type guy.
(With New England) — With bust Brandon Lloyd and PPR fiend Wes Welker out of the picture, the Patriots find themselves with room on the outside and in the slot. Both positions Sanders could find himself in if he lands there.
The only serious competition for Sanders in New England would be recently signed receiver Danny Amendola. A Welker-clone, only taller with better long speed, Amendola was on a crash course to a Pro Bowl nod in 2012 with 351 receiving yards in his first four games before a SC separation derailed his season. Though he only missed five games, he was a shell of his former self upon his return. Injuries are Amendola’s one knock as he’s only played 12 games in his last two NFL seasons.
Amendola, like Sanders, is another player that can play both the slot and outside. Dating back to Troy Brown, and more recently with Welker, slot receivers have had great success in Bill Belichick’s offense since both put together multiple 1,000 receiving yard seasons during their stints with the team. (check this whole paragraph)
Depending on how the Pats would use him, whether in the slot or outside, Sanders fantasy value would shoot up in an explosive passing offense with Tom Brady.
With Wallace now out, it seems only logical the Steelers would want Sanders to be its next No. 2 guy. But is this the best situation for Sanders?
The Steelers missed the playoffs with an 8-8 record last season. Some of that can be blamed on Ben Roethlistberger’s injury, but the Steelers are still a team with many questions on offense.
Their offense ranked a paltry 21st in yards per game (332.8) and 22nd in total points (336) in 2012. They preferred a two-running-back system with plodders Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman and shelved their once viable Rashad Mendenhall because he couldn’t hang on to ball. The Steelers will likely sign someone to fill its running back void (Ahmad Bradshaw, perhaps?), but right now it's in shambles.
Without a premier running back, Sanders will face a lot of bump and run on the outside from cornerbacks and won’t be a factor in the deep game due to double coverage.
Bottom line: If Sanders is expected to break out this season in Pittsburgh, he’ll have to be a playmaker in the deep game on a team filled with questions. We got a semi-glipise of what Sanders could in Pittsburgh last season. New England presents the best-case scenario for Sanders as a fantasy option since he’ll be operating in a proven system for his skill set. As a likely No. 2 receiver in both situations, he’s definitely worth a late-round pick either way. But New England gives him the best chance to do the most damage.