By retaining Emmanuel Sanders, not only did the Pittsburgh Steelers secure depth at the wide receiver position, but the move also impacted the team’s draft plans.
Without Sanders, the Steelers would have been in trouble at wide receiver. The trio of Antonio Brown, Jerricho Cotchery and Plaxico Burress would have represented one of the least threatening receiving corps in the league.
But now the Steelers will have at least two young, fast receivers for Ben Roethlisberger and they can still look to add more talent through the draft. However, now they won’t be as pressured to reach for a receiver early.
Brown and Sanders will be the starters entering the 2013 season with Cotchery third on the depth chart. That eases the pressure off of any rookie receiver that the Steelers may select to start early.
The Steelers would have been taking a major risk if they were counting on a rookie receiver starting this fall. While they can be successful, it is difficult to count on a rookie as a “go-to” guy in year one.
Last season, only four rookie receivers had at least 50 receptions. Justin Blackmon and Kendall Wright led all rookie receivers with 64 receptions. That would have tied for third on the Steelers with Mike Wallace.
Third on the depth chart is an ideal spot for a rookie receiver. It is an opportunity to get them on the field, but not in a feature role from the outset.
For instance, Wallace had 39 receptions for 756 yards and six touchdowns as a rookie in 2009. He was a major contributor to the team, but also did not have to rush into a full-time role. Instead, the Steelers’ limited what he had to do on the field and allowed him use his strengths.
As a result, Wallace was able to earn a starting job in his second season when he exploded with 1,257 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Wallace accomplished all of this as a third-round selection. The Steelers can take a similar approach now that they have depth at the position.
Rather than force an early pick on a receiver in the first or second round, the Steelers can address other areas of the team.
This may mean drafting one of the better defensive prospects in the draft, such as Kenny Vaccaro, Jarvis Jones or Desmond Trufant. Maybe they could find a future replacement for Heath Miller by selecting Tyler Eifert in the first.
The key is that they now have flexibility.
The same can be said for the second round as the Steelers could look at the top inside linebackers on the board, particularly if Arthur Jones or Kevin Minter fall. An outside linebacker like Jamie Collins or running back Eddie Lacy could also be considered.
Flexibility makes the options nearly limitless. No longer do the Steelers need to take a top-rated receiver, but that does not mean they should avoid one either.
By having two dependable starting options, the Steelers could take a bit of a risk at receiver.
That could mean taking a raw, but talented Cordarrelle Patterson in the first or his teammate Justin Hunter in the second.
Cordarrelle Patterson really jumps off the tape as soon as he has the ball in his hands. A true home run hitter, he is the epitome of an electric game-breaker after the catch.
When discussing the physical specimens in this year’s wide receiver class, Justin Hunter may top the list. At 6’4” 196 pounds, he possesses ideal size and is a former track athlete with tremendous speed and leaping ability.
However, both have questions such as Patterson’s need to improve his route running and Hunter’s decline after suffering an ACL injury in 2011.
Another risk would be Keenan Allen, who has medical and drug-related red flags.
But if he is there in the second round Allen would be more than worth the risk, as he is one of the best route runners in the draft, though he does lack elite speed.
Without the necessary depth at receiver, the Steelers may not have been as willing to take a risk on a prospect who needs time to develop and instead take a safer, but less talented option.
Though the Steelers may not have received a third-round pick in compensation for Sanders it does not mean they didn’t get help in the draft.
Now with Sanders returning for another season, the Steelers have more flexibility on draft day and will not have to reach for a player to fill an immediate need, but can instead get the best available player.
All stats courtesy of NFL.com.