By Cian Fahey
Back in February, Emmanuel Sanders revealed that he had been told he would be returning kicks and punts for the Pittsburgh Steelers this season. Quite a lot has happened with the Steelers\’ roster since then which has given the Steelers a lot more flexibility with Sanders.
Despite how good he may be in the role, ideally Sanders would not be needed as a returner to avoid exposing him to any more injuries. After injuring himself in the Super Bowl at the end of his rookie season, Sanders has had multiple issues with his feet that limited him as a second year player.
He showed his potential towards the end of the season last year which culminated in a strong performance against Denver in the playoffs. Sanders had six receptions for 81 yards that day, both season highs.
I have always contended that Sanders was the better receiver than Antonio Brown since they both arrived in Pittsburgh as rookies. Sanders\’ height and soft hands, combined with his speed and agility, give him the potential to be an elite receiver. Last year his biggest issue was not enough time with the offense. Sanders repeatedly was on a different page to his quarterback.
Often Ben Roethlisberger missed him with throws because of miscommunication or Sanders simply wasn\’t as fast as his quarterback expected him to be out of a break/in stride. This was largely due to his inactivity during the preseason.
Once he began to get on the same page as his quarterback, Sanders put up big numbers with 10 receptions in Week 7 & 8. Then however Sanders\’ mother passed away and his season was once again stalled before it really got going.
If Sanders can avoid those kind of issues next season, 2012 will be his breakout year.
Asking Sanders to take on special teams duties seems an unnecessary distraction right now because the Steelers drafted two players capable of effectively carrying out that role. Running back Chris Rainey and wide receiver Marquis Maze both arrived to the Steelers as rookies this off-season.
Rainey was drafted in the fifth round and is expected to make the roster. The 24-year-old is a very versatile player who could feature as both a wide receiver and running back in Todd Haley\’s offense. Rainey\’s speed and elusiveness is what he will rely on at the professional level to make plays. Those plays could easily extend into a special teams role.
In college, Rainey was an all-american track runner and a record breaking special teamer with six career blocked kicks. Most importantly, Rainey averaged over 25 yards per kickoff return, nine yards per punt return and scored two touchdowns on 44 total returns during his career.
If Rainey isn\’t capable, or if the Steelers don\’t want him to be overextended, the undrafted rookie out of Alabama Maze proved himself as a special teams ace for the national champions averaging 16.4 yards on 77 total returns including 12.7 yards per punt and over 26 yards per kickoff return.
Maze is a small body who will be similar to Brown as a rookie in that he will not be a major contributor on offense early on. If Maze is to make the team then it will solely be as a special teamer early on.
While it may not be a major role for Sanders to fill, there is no point in adding more exposure for him to potentially get injured or ask him to spend time at practice not focusing on offense. Considering Brown has seemingly been taken off returns after a Pro Bowl year there, the Steelers should do the same with Sanders who could be just as important for this offense next year.
The Steelers should be passing the ball a lot more next year. Not just because they have a new offensive coordinator, but also the ambiguity that surrounds the running back situation with Rashard Mendenhall expected to be sidelined early on. With Mike Wallace\’s mindset not a certainty, the Steelers\’ wide receiver depth will be vital once again.
Sanders should be told to forget about special teams and concentrate on offense now.
You can follow Cian on Twitter at @Cianaf