Two of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ most productive wide receivers from the 2013 regular season will hit the free agent market this March.
Emmanuel Sanders, the team’s number two pass-catcher last fall, set career marks in catches (67), receiving yards (740) and touchdowns (six). At only 26 and with room to still improve, Sanders could be a sought after commodity when he becomes an unrestricted free agent (UFA). The New England Patriots were interested in Sanders last spring, and they signed the wide receiver to a third round restricted free agent (RFA) tender before the Steelers matched it.
Due to his age and his projected price tag, I think that the team will have a much easier time signing Sanders’ teammate and fellow UFA Jerricho Cotchery to a new deal. Nevertheless, interest in Cotchery could be high among franchises in need of a savvy, secondary receiver. Cotchery enjoyed his most productive season since 2009 (46 catches and 602 yards), and the veteran set a career-high last fall with 10 touchdown receptions.
Although the Steelers’ brass will do their best to sign Sanders and Cotchery, their current cap situation will probably prevent them from bringing both back for long-term deals. Even if one of the two returns, the Steelers will still need some of their younger wide receivers to step up during the 2014 regular season.
Markus Wheaton, the team’s third round draft choice from last April, should be a candidate to step up and fill any potential void. Although his rookie campaign was marred by finger injuries, Wheaton was one of Pittsburgh’s preseason bright spots (nine catches, 139 yards and one touchdown). In fact, Wheaton racked up more stats during preseason play than he did during the 12 games (six catches for 64 yards) he suited up for during the regular season.
Two other receivers on Pittsburgh’s current roster could be primed to step up in their second seasons with the team, Justin Brown and Derek Moye.
Despite the fact that he spent most of his rookie season on the practice squad, big things could be expected from Brown in 2014. The former Penn State and Oklahoma pass-catcher has a large frame (6’3″ 209 lbs.), had a productive 2013 preseason (six catches for 44 yards), possesses experience as a punt returner and has drawn rave reviews for his play on the scout team along with Moye last fall.
Although he was inactive for eight of the team’s 16 games, Moye still performed well enough (two catches, 20 yards and one touchdown) to stay on Pittsburgh’s 53-man roster for the entirety of last season. Moye led Pittsburgh in receiving (10 catches, 149 yards and one touchdown) during preseason play, and he was even utilized in the red zone during the team’s loss on Monday Night Football in Week 2.
If the front office and coaching staff are not comfortable with the back end of their current depth chart, then they could elect to fill their potential wide receiver needs through the upcoming draft process.
Physically imposing targets like Mike Adams of Texas A&M could be available in the first round, and speedsters with big-play ability like Marqise Lee of Southern California could still be on the board at number 15 overall as well. Although they would be newer to the team than Wheaton, Brown and Moye, those guys could come in and compete for a starting role almost immediately due to their talented skill-sets.
Even if only one of Pittsburgh’s top UFA receivers leaves this spring, the door will be open for one or even two young players to find niches for themselves in Todd Haley’s offense.Although many will focus on whether or not UFA outside linebacker Jason Worilds will stay, I am just as intrigued to see what the Steelers’ brass decide to do with their number two and number three receivers this March.
Projecting who stays or who goes aside, the departure of Sanders or Cotchery will create a void for someone to step in and step up for this rebuilding franchise. Thus, the battle between Wheaton, Brown, Moye and even a rookie or two for potential playing time should be interesting to watch during the coming months.
Like “NPC” on Facebook: Nice Pick, Cowher