Steelers to let Sanders test free agency

PITTSBURGH -- Kevin Colbert acknowledged what had become apparent in recent weeks: Emmanuel Sanders won’t be among the in-house free agents the Pittsburgh Steelers try to sign before March 11.

Colbert, speaking to reporters Thursday at the NFL scouting combine, said the Steelers will let the market determine Sanders’ price before deciding how much of a run they will make at the fourth-year wide receiver.

Sanders signed a one-year, $2.5 million contract last year with the New England Patriots, but the Steelers retained his services by matching the offer instead of taking a third-round pick in last year’s draft as compensation.

Sanders started last season opposite Pro Bowler Antonio Brown and established career-highs in catches (67), receiving yards (670), and touchdown receptions (six).

“Emmanuel came back and had a nice year for us, and we were happy to have him,” Colbert said in Indianapolis, “and where he goes in free agency and what his market is we don’t know at this point, but he certainly performed for us last year, and we’ll see where it is in the future.”

Sanders’ future, as those comments suggest, looks increasingly like it will play out somewhere other than in Pittsburgh.

The free-agent signing period starts on March 11, and Sanders is expected to draw interest from multiple teams. He is likely to command the kind of contract the Steelers are unwilling to match with second-year man Markus Wheaton waiting behind Sanders, and with this year's draft so deep at wide receiver.

Wheaton played sparingly as a rookie, and Colbert chalked that up to his missing most of the Steelers’ offseason practices -- classes at Oregon State didn’t end until June precluding his participation before then -- as well as injuries.

Colbert said Wheaton suffered two broken fingers last year with both injuries coming after the third-round draft pick had worked his way into the rotation at wide receiver.

“It was just a medical frustration,” Colbert said of Wheaton, “but he’s had some offseason surgeries to correct that further, and we’re hoping he has a nice year next year.”