The loss of Emmanuel Sanders was not unexpected. To that end, Ed Bouchette’s tweet says it all:
Steelers never made Sanders an offer. Matched Patriots $2.5 as RFA last year, turning down 3d rd draft pick. No move to try to keep him
— Ed Bouchette (@EdBouchette) March 16, 2014
- You can’t retain someone you never make an offer to.
But “Expected” doesn’t mean “without consequences” as Emmanuel Sanders departure leaves the Steelers with almost zero experienced depth at wide receiver behind Antonio Brown. Big things are expected of Markus Wheaton. That’s all well and good.
- But perhaps the case of Will Blackwell is instructive.
Entering the 1997 NFL Draft Tom Donahoe had Yancey Thigpen’s impending free agency in mind. He drafted Blackwell in the second round with an eye toward replacing Thigpen with Blackwell in 1998. Blackwell had 23 receptions for 149 yards and no touchdowns in 14 games as the 4th wide receiver in 1997.
- For comparison’s sake, Wheaton had 6 catches for 64 yards in 12 games.
As expected, Yancey Thigpen departed to as the Tennessee Titans took their turn at overpaying departing Steelers free agents. So far, so good. However, come summer at St. Vincents things did not go according to plan. Will Blackwell failed to win the starting job in training camp.
(Editorial aside – Steel Curtain Rising’s Watch Tower has been a frequent critic of Bob Smizik, yet to his credit he sounded the alarm bell on Blackwell early.)
- In fact, during 5 years with the Steelers Will Blackwell only started two games.
None of this of course means that Markus Wheaton is doomed to failure. Far from it. But it does underline that precarious nature of counting on players to make a significant jump from their rookie to sophomore seasons.
In the case of Will Blackwell, the Steelers had a backstop of sorts, in the from of Courtney Hawkins.
- Hawkins had been brought in as a third wide receiver but did a serviceable job as a starter.
And with Jerricho Cotchery in the fold, the 2014 Steelers would have (had?) a far sturdier backstop than the 1998 Steelers had in Hawkins. Emmanuel Sanders could have served that role as well, although Sanders final deal with Denver shows that he clearly was expecting and getting offered the kind of money that you don’t pay a third wide receiver.
Should the Steelers lose Cotchery, a very realistic possibility, they essentially leave themselves with a budding super start at wide out, an unknown second year player, Derek Moye who only dressed for eight games. The Steelers are said to be planning to draft Ben Roethlisberger a tall wide out early in the 2014 NFL Draft, but counting on a rookie is less advisable than a second year man.
Steel Curtain Rising entered the 2013 off season saying that the Steelers should lock down Sanders to a long-term deal while he was cheap.
- This faith in Sanders was justified by his play as a rookie and his play during the first half of 2012, when he in many ways looked like a young Hines Ward.
While Sanders play in 2013 in his first year as a starter was solid, he did nothing to conjure images of Ward. In that light letting the Denver Broncos pay him 6 million dollars a year looks like a wise decision on the part of Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin.
But if Jerricho Cotchery bolts to Carolina, the cost of losing Sanders increases significantly.