The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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December 25, 2013

Sanders wishing for return in ‘14

PITTSBURGH — It’s not the way Emmanuel Sanders wanted to spend a portion of his Christmas Day, perched on a training table inside the Pittsburgh Steelers practice facility getting treatment for a sprained knee.

The fourth-year wide receiver is hardly complaining. There’s still a chance his balky knee could respond well enough for him to play Sunday in the regular-season finale against the Cleveland Browns. There’s still a shot the Steelers (7-8) could somehow make the playoffs. There’s still an opportunity for Sanders to put off the pressing questions about his future for a few weeks longer.

Just in case, though, Sanders concedes he’ll take a minute Sunday afternoon, scan the stands at Heinz Field and try to breathe in the moment. He’ll certainly play football in 2014. Whether it’s in Pittsburgh, the free agent-to-be has no idea.

“I love this organization and I pray to God we can work out something where I’m comfortable and they’re comfortable,” Sanders said. “But at the end of the day who knows what might transpire in the offseason? I’m not going to say I’m going to be here. I’m not going to say I’m not. But I hope the dots connect.”

Sanders signed a one-year, $2.5 million contract with the Steelers last spring after the New England Patriots tried the unusual move of making a qualifying offer to the restricted free agent. Pittsburgh and Sanders, however, could not reach a long-term deal, and it’s uncertain the Steelers will be able to afford Sanders when he hits the open market in March.

Sanders has already set career highs in receptions (65), yards (714) and touchdowns (six). He had a 47-yard kick return to set up a field goal in last week’s 38-31 win over Green Bay before leaving late in the first half because of a non-contact injury to the knee.

Even if he doesn’t play another snap this year, the 26-year-old believes he’s made a compelling argument to all 32 teams – the Steelers included – that he can be a starting outside receiver for the better part of the next decade.

“When you get a guy like me, I feel like I’m a home run hitter,” Sanders said. “I think at the wide receiver position I can run routes; I can block. I can do everything. I’ve got return capability. I’m just a football player.”

All that progress, however, hasn’t come without its share of bumps. Sanders acknowledges he’s had some drops, perhaps the most painful a failed 2-point conversion in the final minutes of a 22-20 loss to Baltimore on Thanksgiving night. If he hauled in the difficult back-shoulder throw from Ben Roethlisberger, the game would have been tied and maybe the Steelers wouldn’t be heading into the final week of the season needing more than a little help to make the playoffs.

“Everybody’s got those plays,” Sanders said. “A drop here, a drop there. You’re like, ‘Man, I should have caught that.’ But the best of the best have dropped passes.”

It’s a problem that haunted Mike Wallace last year, though that didn’t stop him from earning a $60 million contract from Miami. Sanders lacks Wallace’s speed. Still, his numbers would indicate he could earn a substantial raise somewhere else.

The Steelers already have a No. 1 receiver in Antonio Brown, who is third in the NFL with 101 catches, and drafted Markus Wheaton last spring. Veteran Jerricho Cotchery seems to have found a home in the slot and at age 31 will likely be relatively inexpensive to keep.

At the moment, Pittsburgh still has significant salary cap issues, and with pressing needs along the defensive line and in the secondary, wide receiver might not be at the top of general manager Kevin Colbert’s wish list.

It’s why Sanders won’t make the same mistake he did last year, when an 8-8 season ended with a win over the Browns. Sanders didn’t really contemplate the prospect of Wallace leaving. It wasn’t until Wallace was in Miami that he understood the significance of that cold Sunday in late December.

“You never know what might transpire in the offseason,” he said. “I’m going to reminisce and chill with the guys because I don’t know when I’m going to see these guys again.”

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