Back in the off-season of 2006, the New England Patriots were in pursuit of a little-known restricted free agent from the Miami Dolphins. In the end, the Patriots traded for that receiver instead of signing him to an offer-sheet. Of course, that receiver turned into Wes Welker. During the same off-season that Welker's Patriots' career has come to a close, the Patriots are targeting another restricted free agent wide receiver.
This time that receiver is Emmanuel Sanders, a former third-round pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers who has three seasons of indifferent production as a professional.
Sanders is a very talented receiver who became an important piece for the Steelers as a rookie back in 2010. He competed with fellow rookie Antonio Brown at the time for his roster spot during the regular season, but by the time the playoffs came around he had solidified his status as the team's third option ahead of Brown and Antwan Randle El. Entering the Super Bowl against the Green Bay Packers, Sanders was expected to play a prominent role in the Steelers' gameplan.
However, that game would alter the course of his career to this point.
Sanders suffered a foot injury during that game that would linger into his second season. He missed training camp and most of the preseason after off-season surgery. Having missed out on his preparation for the season, Sanders and his quarterback Ben Roethlisberger were noticeably not on the same page to begin the regular season. Roethlisberger would overthrow or underthrow Sanders regularly with the ball just out of his reach, while Sanders would run the wrong routes or not adjust to hot routes on other occasions.
Not until Week 7 did Sanders finally appear comfortable on the field. That week saw him catch five passes for 46 yards and a touchdown against the Arizona Cardinals. The following week, Sanders would start against the New England Patriots. He again caught five passes, but this time he finished the game with 70 yards. After that game however, a family bereavement would stop Sanders' season abruptly.
When his mother died after that Patriots' game, Sanders would miss the next three weeks to spend time with his family grieving. Just as his season was getting back on track, all of the momentum he had built up had died and his rapport with Roethlisberger had ripped apart again. Sanders would play three more games during the regular season, but only one during the final quarter.
He entered the playoff game against the Denver Broncos with just four receptions in nine weeks. However, like he had been in the Super Bowl, Sanders proved to be a vital piece of the Steelers' gameplan in Denver. He caught six passes for 81 yards. As the Broncos' secondary focused in on Antonio Brown and Mike Wallace, Sanders was able to take advantage of single coverage.
As a third receiver, Sanders will have a matchup advantage against over 75 percent of the defensive backs he faces. He is physically strong, very quick and while not tall, he does have a very wide catch radius with the ability to pluck the ball out of the air with his fingers.
Last off-season Sanders finally got healthy. Big things were expected as Todd Haley's new scheme came in and Sanders was starting in the slot. Alas, along with the rest of the Steelers' offense, Sanders' season was full of inconsistent play and poor execution. Sanders wasn't wholly a victim of the Steelers' dysfunction, he didn't live up to his potential.
However, that potential remains. The Patriots will be attracted to Sanders because he is another matchup problem who can take advantage of the situations when teams flip their coverage towards Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Danny Amendola or Brandon Lloyd. Not only can Sanders beat defensive backs deep with his speed, but he can run every route, make tough catches and also offers a physicality as a blocker to help the running game or as part of screens.
The Patriots crave all-around ability in their offensive weapons. Sanders perfectly fits that mold and offers more promise and experience than the third round draft pick that they will have to part with to sign him.
Although he has the ability to play in the slot, presuming he signs and Brandon Lloyd doesn't leave, Sanders should stay outside across from Lloyd while Amendola mans the slot. Amendola and Sanders could often swap roles, which adds another dimension to the Patriots' offense, but they should primarily stick to their more natural positions.