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Free agent snapshot: Emmanuel Sanders

01.28.14 at 1:26 pm ET
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When free agency begins in early March, there are a handful of players across the league who could appeal to New England. Over the next two weeks –€” with the understanding that the status of these players could change because of the franchise or transition tag — we’€™ll look at 10 possibilities for the Patriots to consider. We have to stress that these guys aren’€™t necessarily considered the elite of the free agent class ‘€” instead, they are players we think would be a good fit in New England. We started our series with a look at Anquan Boldin. Today, it’€™s wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders:

EMMANUEL SANDERS
Position: Wide receiver
Age: 26 (will turn 27 on March 17)
Height: 5-foot-11
Weight: 180 pounds

The skinny: The Patriots were hot after Sanders last offseason, going after the wide receiver (who was a restricted free agent) by signing him to an offer sheet. The Steelers ended up matching the offer, but that likely doesn’€™t change the fact that New England is likely still intrigued by the SMU product, who has 161 catches for 2,030 yards and 11 touchdowns in four seasons with Pittsburgh and is now a free agent. (That included a career-high 67 receptions for 740 yards and six touchdowns last season.) There’€™s a plethora of reasons for the Patriots to be interested in someone like Sanders — he not only has terrific straight-line speed (he had a 4.4 40 as a collegian), but also has great agility, posting a 6.6 time in the 3-cone drill while at SMU. The Patriots covet quickness in their receivers (draft picks like Josh Boyce, Deion Branch, Chad Jackson and Julian Edelman all had stellar 3-cone times as collegians), and Sanders is as fast as they come. It’€™s also worth mentioning that Sanders has some positional versatility, having played in the slot and outside the numbers, and has special teams value — he averaged 26.8 yards on his 10 kick return chances in 2013. It’s certainly a skill set that would intrigue the Patriots.

By the numbers: For a fast receiver, his 11 yards per catch last year was a little odd. One of the reasons that number could have dipped in 2013 was the fact that Pittsburgh utilized more screens and short passes this past season than they have in previous years, but for a guy who is known as something of a burner, those numbers are curious. (For a closer look at Sanders’€™ work in 2013, check out this excellent breakdown on how he was used and what the Steelers’€™ perspective might be on whether or not they’€™d be interested in retaining his services.)

Why it would work: The Patriots were really interested in Sanders last year, so much so that they took the rare step of signing him to an offer sheet, a move that would have cost them a second-round pick in Pittsburgh didn’€™t match. We all know that Bill Belichick looks at draft picks like currency, and so the idea of him being willing to part with a top 50 selection in exchange for Sanders should tell you all you need to know about how he feels about him. With salary cap issues — and youngster Markus Wheaton waiting in the wings — the Steelers may be interested in moving on from Sanders.

Why it might not work: One thing that really jumped off the page for Sanders when you’€™re talking about his 2013 season was the fact that he was a little underwhelming. With the departure of Mike Wallace, he was thrown into the role of No. 2 receiver and consistent starter for the first time in his career. While he had career-best numbers, he wasn’€™t the transformative offensive presence that some people believed he could be. While he wouldn’€™t likely be asked to be the No. 1 option in the passing game if he signed with New England, there’€™s some question as to whether or not he lived up to his $2.5 million deal, and what sort of receiver he could be going forward.

Quote: “I’€™d say that he’€™s an explosive player and he’€™s fast. He had a kickoff return, I don’€™t know how far it was, about 107, 108 yards against Baltimore and you could really see his speed and explosiveness and big play ability on that play. They ended up calling him, saying he stepped out of bounds, but it was a heck of a play. Then he had the two-point play last week against the Raiders where again he got out in space and he juked a couple guys and showed his speed and acceleration to get to the goal line. I think that’€™s kind of what he’€™s been able to do. He’€™s dangerous on catch-and-run plays like tear screens, which they run a lot of, reverses and kick returns, things like that, however he can get the ball in his hands. He’€™s also a good route runner with quickness and obviously speed and big play ability. He’€™s been a productive guy for them.”€ — Belichick on Sanders, Oct. 29, 2013.

Our take: Of course, a conspiracy-minded individual might try and tell you that the reasons the Patriots signed Sanders to an offer sheet last year was because they wanted to screw with the Steelers and make a bad cap situation in Pittsburgh worse. From this viewpoint, that probably played into their thinking a little, but it wasn’€™t the overwhelming reason New England decided to chase Sanders. He’€™s an 3-cone receiver who also showed great straight-line speed, as well as an occasional ability to stretch the field. He’€™d also likely come at a reasonable price, as he’€™s not expected to be one of the elite free-agent receivers on the market this spring but could still be had for relatively reasonable money. You throw in some special teams value, and from a New England perspective, all these things would appear to make him a good fit in Foxboro. On the surface, Sanders clearly intrigued the Patriots front office last season, and unless something dramatic happened over the course of the 2013 season happened to change their minds, it’€™s reasonable to think that New England would at least kick the tires on him this time around. The occasional issues he had last year mean he shouldn’€™t expect a flood of interest, but it seems clear that Sanders and the Patriots would make an interesting pairing.

Read More: Emmanuel Sanders, free agent snapshot,
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