Why Sanders is on the list
Sanders was selected three rounds ahead of Antonio Brown in the 2010 NFL Draft after excelling in June Jones' spread offense at SMU. He bypassed veteran Antwaan Randle El for the No. 3 receiver job as a rookie, increasing the speed and athleticism of the Steelers' receiving corps while playing 70 percent of the snaps from Week 10 through the Super Bowl loss to the Green Bay Packers.
Sanders clearly was ahead of Brown in the pecking order until two foot surgeries and a meniscus repair sabotaged his 2011 season. By the time Sanders fully recovered from the lower-leg issues, he was limited to slot-receiver duties with Brown as an established star opposite Mike Wallace.
Thanks to crisp route running, the ability to separate after the catch and a willingness to go over the middle despite his slight frame, Sanders' game ideally is suited for the slot. The video clip below was a common sight in 2012, with Sanders catching the ball on the run and gaining an extra 15 to 20 yards over the middle due to his speed and shiftiness in tight quarters.
Sanders' name hit the national radar earlier this offseason when the New England Patriots signed him to a one-year, $2.5 million offer sheet as a restricted free agent. Despite grievous salary-cap issues, the Steelers opted to match the offer -- a nod to Sanders' potential as well as their own lack of depth at the position.
Because he largely was relegated to the slot, Sanders didn't make enough plays down the field or outside the numbers last season. The wide-receiver screen is an example of a play the Steelers often called for Wallace, but I only saw it once on Sanders' 2012 film -- in the video clip below.
Working well in tight spaces, Sanders has the speed and quickness to beat defenders on screens and slants. His route tree figures to expand with Wallace out of the picture. Although he can't match Wallace's game-breaking speed to take the top off opposing secondaries and invite consistent double coverage, Sanders' skill set is better suited to offensive coordinator Todd Haley's quick-strike passing attack.
Now that Sanders is slated to start opposite Brown, the Steelers have told him they expect 70 receptions and 1,000 yards this season. "And that's the same thing that I expect for myself," Sanders added.
It's a lofty goal for a player who set career highs with 44 catches and 626 yards last season. Sanders does possess the ability to pull it off. The opportunity certainly is there. The one reservation I have is that Sanders' body might not hold up to the increased snaps and extra hits that come with a featured role in the passing game.
Follow Chris Wesseling on Twitter @ChrisWesseling.