Before we dive into that question, we should look back a couple of years first, just to set the stage if you will.
Going into the 2010 season there were question marks surrounding the Steelers receivers. Hines Ward was aging, Santonio Holmes was gone, and Mike Wallace; who had a solid rookie year in 2009 but still you wondered how he would respond in his sophomore year. Antwaan Randle El’s best years were behind him, and two unknowns were just drafted in Antonio Brown (6th round) and Emmanuel Sanders (3rd round). Things were sketchy at best but there were hopes for optimism with young talent in the fold.
Wallace finished 2010 with 60 catches for 1,257 yds and 10 touchdowns. Antonio Brown finished with just 16 catches but made his mark as a returner; 17 kick off returns for 397 yds and 1 TD to go along with 19 punt returns for 197 yds. His circus catches late in the year especially made you think there was more to this kid than just a dynamic returner. Emmanuel Sanders had 28 catches for 376 yds and 2 TD’s.
Fast forward to 2011, and Wallace finishes with 72 catches, 1,193 yds and 8 TD’s. Brown with 69 catches, 1,108 yds and 2 TD’s to go along with his kickoff return yardage of 737 yds and punt returns totaling 325 yds. Sanders also finished with 22 catches for 288 yds and 2 TD’s.
I went back to those stats to point out how well things were going, but now in 2012 there are suddenly question marks about this group and their continued success with the Steelers.
Mike Wallace, we all know he’s lightening fast, but after finishing this past season with 64 catches for 838 yds and 8 TD’s, questions about his attitude on the field and seeming lack of desire to go up for the tough catch combined with his previous holdout make him a huge topic of debate. Can he really take the next step and be the elite receiver that Todd Haley and Ben Roethlisberger need him to be? He’s clearly not the focal point of a Haley offense, something he was with Bruce Arians, so is he better off elsewhere?
If he does go what about Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders? Without Wallace, can they stand up to the extra coverage they’ll see without #17 taking 1 or 2 DB’s down the field with him? If teams continue to play zone against the Steelers will they be able to make the tough catches in traffic consistently?
Brown finished this past season with 66 catches for 787 yds and 5 TD’s; Sanders ended up with 44 catches for 626 and 1. Those stats combined with Wallace are a far cry from 2011 when Brown became the first player ever to finish a year with 1,000 receiving and 1,000 return yards to go along with Wallace’s near 1,200 yds of production.
Emmanuel Sanders, since being drafted in 2010, has missed 8 games. That may not seem like a ton but when you factor in that he also played hurt for much of 2011 and had fumble issues in 2012, how confident are you in his ability to be a solid #2 guy for Ben Roethlisberger?
Jerricho Cotchery is a younger Hines Ward and is as reliable as they come, but he’s 30 years old now as well and won’t last forever. He’s been used sparingly the last 2 seasons, but his role could increase if Wallace leaves via free agency.
There is a ton of potential within that group, but I’m not exactly brimming with confidence at 2013 just yet. Should Mike Wallace seek employment elsewhere; drafting another WR in at least the first 3-4 rounds will become key. How quickly can that new addition step up and be counted on to make an impact, and can the rest of the group hold up their end?
Plaxico Burress was a fine addition late in the year for Mike Tomlin but he was used sparingly also and given his age, 35, he’s not going to be a special teamer like normal 4th or 5th WR’s would be in Pittsburgh. Can they justify bringing him back as mainly a redzone target?
So many questions that will begin to be answered once free agency starts, and then the draft gets here in April. We’ve seen the Steelers pull off deals in the offseason many times but this Mike Wallace situation may just be their biggest to date, other than Roethlisberger’s contract, if by a miracle they can make it happen.
I have to think, as a fan, that this team will be refocused in 2013 and that includes the receivers. A sub par year all around leaves more questions than answers, but sometimes that can be a good thing. Players take it upon themselves to improve in the offseason and take it personally when people question their ability. That wouldn’t be such a bad thing next year if you ask me.