The Patriots have a golden opportunity to not only improve their dwindling wide receiver corps, but also stick it to one of their biggest rivals in the process.
That’s why New England should sign Emmanuel Sanders to a restricted free agent offer sheet, even if it means giving up a third-round pick. In doing so, the Patriots would give themselves a No. 2 wide receiver, while further depleting the Steelers’ skill players. The Dolphins have already taken Pittsburgh’s No. 1 receiver, Mike Wallace, and if Sanders was gone too, that would leave just Antonio Brown, Jerricho Cotchery and Plaxico Burress among Steelers receivers who recorded a reception last season — and yes, Burress is still 35-years-old, he did not get younger over the offseason.
It doesn’t hurt that Sanders is a quality, versatile player, as well. It’s obvious why the Patriots thought highly enough of him to bring him to Foxboro for a visit.
Sanders has served as the Steelers’ slot receiver for the past 2 1/2 seasons. But he’s not limited to that role. When Brown or Wallace came out of games, Sanders proved himself adept at filling an outside role, and at times, he was even more productive going deep than either player.
The 26-year-old wideout (Happy Birthday, Emmanuel) ran a 4.40 second 40-yard dash coming out of SMU in 2010. His 6.64 second 3-cone time and 4.10 second 20-yard shuttle time are right down the Patriots’ alley. In that draft, Sanders went off the board at No. 82, and New England drafted receiver Taylor Price eight picks later — it’s possible the Patriots would have preferred the SMU product — at least they should have, Price was cut midway through the 2011 season.
Coming out that year, Sanders had the second-best 3-cone and 40 time among wide receivers and third-best 20-yard shuttle time. His vertical jump ranked fifth among wideouts and he had the best broad jump. Needless to say, Sanders is an athletic freak.
The Patriots need a deep-threat target, and while it would be preferable to have a player in that role over 5-foot-11, Sanders got the job done with the Steelers. In 2012, Sanders caught six passes on 15 targets that traveled over 20 yards for a 40-percent catch rate. Wallace had just a 19.4-percent catch rate, while Brown’s was 18.8. For comparison’s sake on the Patriots, Wes Welker caught 36.8 percent of deep balls, Brandon Lloyd 28.1, Deion Branch and Julian Edelman both 25 and Aaron Hernandez 20.
Sanders has also proven to have reliable hands, dropping just three balls in 2012, two in 2011 and three in 2010. His catch rate out of the slot hasn’t been great since 2010, when he grabbed 80 percent of passes thrown his way, but no Steelers player has had a high catch rate in that role the past two seasons.
Sanders is far from an elite player, but for a third-round pick, he’s well worth the value. The Patriots haven’t had a lot of success in the third round lately, and they’ve had a terrible track record of drafting wide receivers. Sanders would be able to fill the No. 2 wide receiver role in New England, and he offers more upside than a player like Lloyd or free agent acquisition Donald Jones.
The Patriots may go more toward a tight end-heavy offense anyway this season with Jake Ballard entering into the fold. We could see Danny Amendola and Hernandez split out wide, while Rob Gronkowski and Ballard fill the tight end roles. Sanders would be able to share snaps with Ballard as an option to take the top off the defense. He can also line up in the slot and really excels on routes in the intermediate portion of the field. Patriots fans should also be happy to hear that his 5.0 yards after catch nearly doubled Lloyd’s 2.6 in 2012.
If the Patriots do acquire Sanders from the Steelers, the Patriots could turn around and trade Ryan Mallett to get that pick back. The team has just five picks in the 2013 draft, and they’ll likely be looking to acquire more.
It may be more “sexy” and cost efficient to use the third-rounder on a rookie, but Sanders will be able to contribute right away, and the team knows what they’re getting with him. Sanders fits into New England’s offense perfectly and should be able to play a number of roles.
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