PITTSBURGH -- The Patriots liked Emmanuel Sanders enough that they were willing to part with a third-round draft pick for a wide receiver who has never had a 100-yard game in the NFL.
Bill Belichick explained why the Patriots signed Sanders to a one-year, $2.5 million deal last April (the Steelers matched it and thus kept the player who was a restricted free agent.)
“He’s an outstanding player,” Belichick said of Sanders. “He’s fast, he runs well with the ball in his hands, he gets open, he’s a hard guy to cover, a hard guy to tackle and has value in the kicking game. I think he’s got a lot of things going for him.”
Sanders could very well end up in New England in 2014.
He will be an unrestricted free agent after this season as the Steelers didn’t see enough from the fourth-year veteran to sign him to a multi-year deal. That is something they typically do with core players who are going into the final year of their contract.
Sanders acknowledged that it was flattering to have a team as accomplished as the Patriots covet him last offseason.
“It was pretty cool what took place not only the New England Patriots wanting me but the other teams that were also involved with the deal,” Sanders said. “I work extremely hard and when Mike [Wallace] and Antonio [Brown] were here I was the No. 3. I felt like I was hidden a little bit, but it felt good to know that other teams recognized my talents.”
Sanders’ talent is undeniable, but the Steelers need him to do more than just flash it from time to time -- as he did in catching a 55-yard touchdown pass against the Jets or nearly breaking a 107-yard kickoff return against the Ravens.
The increased opportunities that were supposed to come with Sanders moving into the starting lineup have not translated into consistent production from the former third-round pick.
Sanders has caught 31 passes – 25 less than Antonio Brown – for 396 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
The Steelers need Sanders to step up more in the second half of the season, particularly with teams paying more attention to Brown.
What happens with Sanders in the future remains to be seen. And Sanders said he won’t be thinking about how close he came to playing for the Patriots this season when he lines up against them on Sunday.
“Right now I’m playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers and we’re searching for win No. 3,” Sanders said. “That’s all that’s on my mind.”