Is Emmanuel Sanders Ready to Pass Hines Ward?

Matt Williamson from Scouts Inc. is going around the AFC North and examining players that could have a breakout season in 2011 (whenever it starts). His selection for the Steelers: wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders who, as Williamson writes, “could be poised to go right past Hines Ward on Pittsburgh’s depth chart next season.”

The easiest comparison for Sanders will be Mike Wallace and his meteoric rise. Both players were third-round draft picks, both players made impacts as rookies as the No. 3 wide receiver in the Pittsburgh offense. Wallace took a major step during his second season and not only became the top pass-catching target on the Steelers, he also became one of the most valuable wide receivers in the entire league. I don’t think anybody expects Sanders to follow exactly in Wallace’s foot steps and become an elite deep threat in 2011, but is he ready to pass Ward? And as long as the Wallace comparison is out there, how exactly did their rookie seasons stack up?

Let’s start with the Wallace-Sanders rookie comparison.

Here’s the quick breakdown…

(Rec = Receptions, Targets = balls thrown to player, YPC = Yards Per Catch, YPA = Yards Per Attempt, DVOA = DVOA, % Passes = Percentage of Steelers passes thrown to player)

Mike Wallace vs. Emmanuel Sanders: Rookie Comparison
Player Rec Targets YPC YPA DVOA % of team Passes
Mike Wallace 39 72 19.4 10.5 29.6% 13.4%
Emmanuel Sanders 28 49 13.4 7.6 5.4% 10.2%

The more traditional metrics like yards per catch favor Wallace as he was an instant deep threat in the Steelers offense, while the Football Outsiders Metrics absolutely loved him (and still do). Wallace was also used a bit more than Sanders, not only because the Steelers threw the ball more in 2009 as opposed to 2010, but also in terms of a percentage of the overall passes thrown. Wallace was clearly the more dominant player and is an absolute freak at the position.

That’s not to diminish what Sanders provided in 2010. As his rookie season progressed and went into the playoffs, his role, along with the role of fellow rookie Antonio Brown, started to grow.

Will his role continue to grow to the point that he passes the Steelers’ all-time leading receiver in 2011? Well, it depends on how you’re looking at it.

I don’t think the “depth chart” really means much to Bruce Arians and the Steelers offense when it comes to the wide receiver position. Like most teams (and I’ve argued this point in the past) they have so many different packages and formations that being the “starter” only means you get to run out of the tunnel and hear your name called before the game. There will be formations where Wallace and Sanders are the only receivers on the field. There will be formations where Sanders and Ward are the only receivers on the field. There will be formations where all of them are on the field. The more important question, for me, is how often each player will actually be targeted in the passing game.

Leading up to the AFC Championship game against the Jets, JJ made the observation at FanHouse that the Steelers passing game really started to take off once the rookies became more involved, and over the last eight weeks of the season, including the playoffs, Sanders was targeted on 40 passes (catching 22). Ward, by comparison, was targeted on 48 (catching 31). This after Sanders was targeted on just 19 passes over the first 10 games compared to 57 for Ward. The gap clearly closed, and will likely continue to do so. After all, as Williamson correctly pointed out, Sanders’ arrow is pointing up while Ward’s is pointing down.

(For what it’s worth, of all the “what if” scenarios we asked after Super Bowl XLV one of the biggest questions I keep going back to is whether or not the outcome would have been any different if Sanders finished the game?)

Both players will play large roles in the passing game in 2011, and I don’t think it’s out of the question for Sanders to see just as many, if not more passes than Ward. And regardless of what happens this season, the Steelers appear to have set themselves up quite well for the future at the position.

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  • geo

    Just imagine if we can get a full season of practices with Wallace, Ward, Sanders and Big Ben.

  • Randy Steele

    Sanders had better start surpassing Hines Ward. After all, Ward’s career is almost over. And if Sanders isn’t worthy of Ward’s role, the Steelers had better find someone who is–and find him pretty soon.