Emmanuel Sanders will be entering his third season with the Pittsburgh Steelers when the 2012 season kicks off and it is a critical point in both his NFL and fantasy career. Hampered by multiple lower leg injuries over the course of his first two seasons in Pittsburgh, Sanders has yet to reach the potential he displayed while amassing 285 receptions, 34 touchdowns and over 3,800 yards from scrimmage in his four years at Southern Methodist University. The Steelers selected Sanders in the third round of the 2010 NFL Draft with the 82nd overall pick to be the speedy complement opposite Mike Wallace and eventual replacement to the aging Hines Ward and Antwaan Randle El. After an up and down pre-season in 2010 in which he would post 9 catches for 149 yards with a touchdown, Sanders would suffer a quadriceps injury early in the regular season and miss weeks 2-4. Upon his return he would develop a bit of chemistry with Ben Roethlisberger, managing 28 receptions in the regular season for a total of 376 yards and 2 touchdowns. In the post season, Sanders would add another 7 receptions for 91 yards, including 2 catches for 17 yards in the Super Bowl against Green Bay, before a foot injury would end his day in the first quarter.
Still recuperating from the foot injury he suffered in the Super Bowl, Sanders would be unable to participate in a single preseason game in 2011. Fellow second year wide receiver Antonio Brown would seize the opportunity for more playing time in the preseason to post 9 catches for 230 yards and 3 touchdowns. Sanders had been surpassed on the depth chart by the speedster from Central Michigan and would have to work his way back into the wide receiver rotation. Sanders would manage to put up a modest 18 receptions for 243 yards and 2 touchdowns in the first eight weeks of the 2011 regular season, including back-to-back 5 reception games in weeks seven and eight. Sanders would suffer the loss of his mother and a meniscus injury prior to week nine, the combination of personal tragedy and injury would lead to him missing 5 of the remaining 6 regular season contests for the Steelers. He would return for the final regular season game against Cleveland, then lead the Steelers in receiving during the overtime loss to the Broncos in the playoffs with 6 grabs for 81 yards. During the regular season for his career, Sanders has been targeted 100 times, caught 50 balls for 664 yards and recorded 4 touchdowns, while playing in 24 of a possible 32 games. In that same time span, Antonio Brown would explode for 85 receptions on 148 targets, over 1300 total yards and 2 touchdowns. Sanders will enter the 2012 training camp no longer battling Brown for the #2 wide receiver position in Pittsburgh but veteran Jericho Cotchery for the #3 position.
The addition of Todd Haley as the new offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh will automatically boost the fantasy potential of every player involved in the passing game. The Steelers threw the ball 50.4% of the time in 2010 and then upped that to 55.3% in the 2011 season. The loss of Rashard Mendenhall for a portion of, if not the entire 2012 season and Haley's commitment to improving the Pittsburgh passing attack could see Ben Roethlisberger throw for at least 30 touchdowns and flirt with 4,200 yards through the air. With fourth year running back Isaac Redman and his career 162 carries set to be the number one running back in Pittsburgh, look for Haley to turn away from a ground and pound attack and amp up the passing game. A Todd Haley led Pittsburgh offense will look to challenge teams vertically with Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown on the outside, leaving plenty of space for the underneath routes to be exploited. With Haley as offensive coordinator in 2008 the Arizona Cardinals would see Larry Fitzgerald haul in 96 receptions, Anquan Boldin have 89 catches and third receiver Steve Breaston would have 77 receptions and over 1000 yards. In 2007 the combination of Bryant Johnson and Jerheme Urban would be used as the number three wide receiver and combine for 68 catches, 857 yards and 4 touchdowns with Haley coordinating the offense. With Haley calling the shots, the Steeler offense should easily be able to support three productive wide receivers in 2012.
Sanders must regain the trust of the Steelers coaching staff moving forward by demonstrating that he can stay healthy and on the field. Coach Mike Tomlin has expressed some concern regarding the possibility of Sanders shaking off the multiple injuries he's suffered, "You can't anticipate it's going to stop." Not exactly the ringing endorsement one wants to hear from their head coach. Sanders reportedly took an entire month off from training immediately following the conclusion of last season to allow his feet and knee to recover. Sanders has already been named the primary punt and kick return man for the 2012 campaign, he must now concentrate on securing the starting slot receiver position to enhance his fantasy value. As the younger and faster option, Sanders should have the inside track on beating out Cotchery for the number three wide receiving position moving forward. He possesses plenty of speed, above average hands and has shown he can make the tough catches away from his body. Sanders is adept at utilizing his initial quickness off the line to gain separation on intermediate routes and has earned the trust of Roethlisberger when he has been able to stay on the field for a stretch of games. Injuries have interrupted the opportunity for any consistency that Sanders could hope to develop with Big Ben and he cannot afford for that to be the case this season. There is always the very slim possibility that the sticky Mike Wallace contract situation turns very ugly and Wallace decides to hold out (he has been a no show at Steelers OTAs), adding immediate fantasy potential for Sanders. However, Sanders himself has been quoted that he expects Wallace to be back with the Steelers, "He is a guy that wants to be here." Sanders continued, "It's the business side. It's definitely not because the Steelers don't want Mike here." Hoping that Wallace holds out and that in turn, increases the playing time for Sanders is not a feasible option. As the late, great, Detroit Lions beat writer Tom "Killer" Kowalski was fond of saying, "Hope, is not a strategy."
In determining the fantasy value of Emmanuel Sanders for the 2012 season it all comes down to health. In his brief tenure in the NFL, Sanders has suffered stress fractures in both feet as well as the meniscus surgery last season. Will the month he took off from training at the close of the 2011 season have been enough time for his injuries to sufficiently heal? He is participating in the first set of OTAs, and that is an excellent sign. Having failed to live up to expectations in his first two seasons, 2012 is a make it or break it year for Sanders fantasy wise. The skill set is there, the Pittsburgh passing game is poised to break out and so is Emmanuel Sanders. He is definitely WORTHY of being drafted in 12 team fantasy leagues for the 2012 season.