Monday, May 27, 2013

The Steelers Wide Receivers: Will Emmanuel Sanders & Markus Wheaton Look To Reinvent "Young Money"?


by Jayden and Jason

"I know my talent," said Emmanuel Sanders. "I'm really good when I get the opportunity."

Ask and you shall receive.

The veteran wide receiver was a restricted free agent this offseason and was tagged with an original-round ($1.3 million) tender. He signed an offer sheet, but the Steelers matched it and, according to Sanders, there is talk of a potential long-term deal between the two camps.

“Of course, and those conversations are going on right now,” Sanders said on The Fan Morning Show last Wednesday after the day's OTA session.

Will the Steelers be able to afford him? Is a player who has never started worth what he may want? That will be covered in part 2 of this discussion. For now, we're looking only at the field of play and whether "Young Money" can become "Future Dividends."

First off, it is not a stretch to expect Manny Sanders to augment his numbers next season. Last year was his most productive as he caught 44 passes (22 in 2011) for 626 yards (288 in 2011). If he does as expected and has another solid jump in production next season, as If It Ain't Steel recently wrote, a season of 60 receptions for 800-900 yards season is completely feasible. Manny says, however, that the sights are set even higher.

"They're expecting 70 catches for 1,000 yards, and that's the same thing that I expect for myself," Manny said a couple of weeks ago.

Manny caught at least one pass in 15 out of 16 games in 2012, and demonstrated that he can make the clutch catch on third downs. So, lofty though they may be, the expectations from the Steelers are within reach. However, Manny did turn the football over twice, fumbling in back-to-back weeks against the Cleveland Browns and the Baltimore Ravens. So, while his production is important, his ball security is also.

So, moving forward, Manny will most likely be the Steelers' starting split end, with rookie Markus Wheaton pushing Jerricho Cotchery for the honors of the slot position. As we said in a previous post, Wheaton will likely line up both wide and in the slot. If he lives up to his billing and college production, he should also adequately fill the role of erstwhile Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace.

Wallace is very good at what he does, and his production will be missed. But, as Pro Football Focus pointed out, the legend is a bit less ethereal and a bit more earthly when scrutinized. As they covered in a recent posting, though 'considered to be the best vertical receiving threat in the NFL, Mike Wallace simply wasn't anything close to that during his final season with the Steelers.'

"Wallace finished second-to-last in deep passing catch rate. Of the 21 eligible receivers for the stat (50 percent or more of team's total deep targets, or passes that travel 20 or more yards in the air), Wallace finished 20th."

They went on.

"Steelers quarterbacks targeted Wallace on deep passes 31 times (accounting for over a quarter of his total 2012 targets) and completed just six of those passes. Wallace dropped two of the eight catchable attempts."

Wallace finished 2012 with a total Pro Football Focus grade of -4.5, far and away his worst finish to a season in his professional career.

Wallace was obviously much better in previous years, but his steep drop off in 2012 was obviously a sign that he'd already mentally left the team.



So, can Wheaton adequately fill the vacancy left by Wallace? The immediate answer is no. In his rookie season, Wallace only had 39 receptions, not between 60 and 72 catches. The current Steelers offense also takes fewer shots down the field, so a 20-yard per catch average won't likely be seen, either.

As the season progresses, though, and as Wheaton becomes more familiar with the offense, he definitely has the ability to make defenses have to account for him. He has the requisite hands, tenacity and route-running ability to make his presence felt as soon as he sees the field regularly. He also has decent size and the willingness to give up his body to make a play.

Wheaton can be as good eventually, mainly because should play with more hunger than Wallace showed in 2012. If so, Wheaton's numbers could look similar, with some expected drop in yardage. The main issue at that point, though, is the impact of those numbers and the fear factor Wallace brought. Though, if everything else falls into place, that will come in time.

The two wide receivers are talented, to be sure, but making certain that translates onto the field in the form of production and wins is the bottom line of this ledger sheet signed by the reinvented Young Money, Inc.

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TIDBITS: Speaking of Wallace: "Why does #Dolphins Mike Wallace continue to disparge the #Steelers, the city of Pittsburgh and Ben Roethlisberger?" - http://t.co/lB4ve3WTSq

As one of the subscribers to If It Ain't Steel's Facebook Page said, "His attitude is just like Burress'. Plaxico left and found that life can be great when you're a team player. Wallace will grow up or he'll burn out like 85 [Chad Johnson/OchoCinco/Johnson] and T.O."

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Veteran safety Ryan Clark envisions finishing career as a member of Steelers.

“I want to be here. I would love to be a Steeler until I retire,” Clark said. “But I don't want this to be my last year. I did the ESPN thing because it's smart to do it. I didn't do it because I'm ready to stop playing football.”

As the article says, "Clark's level of play has not dropped. The 2012 season was one of the best of his career, with 74 tackles, two interceptions and an important role on what again was the NFL's No. 1-ranked defense." - http://t.co/c0vv6taktO

But how much time left does he have before the degree of diminishing returns is too high? I love RC25, but I know that time left is reduced.