Steelers WR corps more like 'New Money' now
By Gerry Dulac / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
There might have been something to this "Young Money" stuff after all. Even if it was misguided.
Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders bestowed the nickname on themselves when they arrived a year apart as the new receiving corps for the Steelers.
They were young, fast and talented, and the moniker was meant to suggest the trio would be money in the bank for the Steelers offense. And, at various points, it was that and more.
But it also ended up being a precursor to the wealth each has received at a tender stage in their NFL development.
Brown, a sixth-round pick in 2010, was the first to reap the financial reward, signing a six-year, $42.5 million contract last year at the beginning of training camp when Wallace was a holdout.
Wallace, who wanted more than that from the Steelers, left as an unrestricted free agent after last season to sign a five-year, $60 million contract with the Miami Dolphins.
And Sanders, a third-round choice in 2010, received a one-year, $2.5 million contract from the Steelers when they decided to match the offer sheet he received from the New England Patriots.
That's $105 million in wealth for three players who have a combined 10 years experience in the NFL - or one fewer than Plaxico Burress.
But all that money did not reflect the impact - or lack thereof - the young receivers had last season with the Steelers. It was certainly not commensurate with the production each displayed in 2012. Young money provided a bad return, and it created an unsettling atmosphere among the offense.
Even Brown, who has been elevated to No. 1 receiver with the loss of Wallace, conceded the unit underperformed last season.
"Definitely," he said. "We definitely came up short. But we're going to leave last year behind. This year is a new slate. Everyone's got a fresh start. Nobody really remembers last year. It's all out of our minds."
Granted, the trio of Wallace, Brown and Sanders combined for 174 catches, 14 touchdowns and a per-catch average of 12.9 yards last season. But each distinguished themselves more for the mistakes they made and the catches they didn't make.
Wallace looked more like a possession receiver for much of the early part of the season and had big drops, including a potential game-changer in a devastating Week 14 loss to the San Diego Chargers.
Brown finished with five touchdowns after missing three games with an ankle injury, but his season will be remembered for mental gaffes and costly fumbles, including the one in Week 15 in Dallas.
And Sanders will be remembered for the two inexplicable fumbles at midfield on plays that proved to be significant.
"We have to show up and get better," Brown said. "This is where the building process starts. We have to preach to them, not let them forget we were 8-8."
Coach Mike Tomlin is trying to change some of what happened with his receivers with the hiring of Richard Mann as position coach, replacing Scottie Montgomerie.
Tomlin has a history of hiring younger coaches to his staff but made an exception with Mann, 65, because of his demanding, no-nonsense approach. Tomlin was on the same coaching staff with Mann, an Aliquippa native, when he was a secondary coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
"It wasn't an unknown for me," Tomlin said. "His expertise is obvious. He builds great rapport with men. He's a great teacher. He's a team player. All those things were turn-ons to me."
Still, the Steelers have to move on without Wallace, their big-play threat who had 235 catches, 32 touchdowns and averaged 17.2 yards per catch in four seasons with them. His departure will have the most significant impact on Sanders, who now becomes a starter.
The Steelers had hoped to talk to Sanders about a long-term contract extension after matching the Patriots' offer. But they believe he wants to test the free-agent market at the end of the season.
"It felt good to be wanted," Sanders said. "When the offer came, I had to make a decision. As much as I love Pittsburgh, I had to do what's best for my family and for me. And I felt like since they're offering, I might as well take a shot. I felt it was a great opportunity for me.
"I was happy Pittsburgh matched the offer because they're the team that drafted me and gave me an opportunity in this league. So I was thankful for it. I'm happy to be here."
The Steelers are hoping rookie Markus Wheaton, a third-round choice from Oregon State, can help replace Wallace. He has the same type of deep speed as Wallace - Wheaton was clocked at 4.3 in the 40-yard dash at the NFL combine - and has the same body type (5-11, 182) as Brown and Sanders.
"He's a speedster and he loves to play football," Sanders said. "Anytime you get a guy like that in the room, I always welcome him."