Few teams have put more of their eggs into the NFL Draft basket than have the Pittsburgh Steelers, a team that rarely indulges in free agency and prefers to retain their own players with big-money contracts instead while supplementing their ranks with the next class of college prospects.
The one area in which they have shined more than any other over the course of the past decade has been in picking up quality players at the wide receiver position. While Limas Sweed was a big miss in the second round in 2008, Mike Wallace as a third-round pick a year later began an impressive run.
A run that reached its peak in 2010 with the selections of Emmanuel Sanders in the third round and Antonio Brown in the sixth. Truly, it was primarily the mere fact that he was overshadowed by Brown that Sanders didn’t have more success in Pittsburgh, though he also had some injury issues.
By now, Sanders has gone on to spend more time with the Denver Broncos than he has in Pittsburgh, but as his ‘new’ team prepares to host the team that drafted him, he has had some time to reflect on where it all began.
“Everybody reminds me of when I was number 88”, he said, having worn number 10 since going to Denver. “I’m like, ‘oh snap, yeah’. It feels like I’ve been a Bronco my whole career, but I still remember the days there”.
One thing in particular that he seems to remember is his conversation with Head Coach Mike Tomlin likely during his final exit meeting with the team. A year earlier, as a restricted free agent, the team chose to match a one-year, $2.5 million offer the New England Patriots submitted for him.
“I remember Mike Tomlin telling me they didn’t have the money to pay me, but he still wants to see me balling, scoring touchdowns and having fun, and things of that sort”, they said. The Steelers had just paid Brown by that time, and drafted Markus Wheaton as well. To supplement his loss in 2014, they added Darrius Heyward-Bey and drafted Martavis Bryant.
During his first three seasons with the Broncos, Sanders caught 256 passes for 3571 yards and 20 touchdowns, earning a pair of trips to the Pro Bowl in the process. Denver has been hard up at the quarterback position in recent years, so his numbers have taken a hit, but he is still one of their most potent offensive weapons.
So far, he has 60 receptions for 763 yards and three receiving touchdowns. He also has four carries for 53 yards and another touchdown, in addition to a 28-yard touchdown pass. It was the first pass he has attempted in Denver, though he had two dropbacks while in Pittsburgh—one 15-yard completion and a sack.