AFC East: Emmanuel Sanders
Earlier this month, the Denver Broncos (7-3) were poised to enter a stretch of three consecutive road games with their sights set squarely on the AFC’s No. 1 seed. After that road trip ended with a 1-2 record, including a surprising loss in St. Louis this past Sunday, the Broncos are now in a scrap just to win their division.
The Miami Dolphins (6-4) come to Denver having won four of their last five games. They have surrendered 56 points in those five games combined. ESPN Dolphins reporter James Walker and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold discuss Sunday’s game.
Legwold: James, Ryan Tannehill was a player the Broncos took a long look at leading up to the 2012 draft as they looked for a quarterback prospect to pair on the roster with Peyton Manning. What’s been the key for his improvement this year and how he’s handled things?
Walker: Tannehill is on pace for a career year. I’ve watched all 42 career starts, and this is the most decisive I’ve seen him with the football. His play speed is better and offensive coordinator Bill Lazor has done a good job of accentuating what Tannehill does well and avoiding where he struggles. He’s posted four games with a triple-digit passer rating, including the most recent win over the Buffalo Bills. However, the Dolphins’ offense is getting away with a lot of short and intermediate passes, and I’m surprised defenses haven’t worked harder to take that away. The biggest issues with Tannehill are inconsistency and lack of a deep ball. These are areas that have haunted Tannehill for three seasons, and it doesn’t appear it will change anytime soon. Yet teams haven’t challenged Tannehill to consistently throw deep. I’m curious to see how Denver plays Tannehill.
The Broncos have lost two of three and both losses have come by a wide margin. What is the mood of the team heading into Sunday’s game?
Legwold: The mood from the Broncos players and coaches is, essentially, they got what they deserved in losses to the New England Patriots on Nov. 2 and to the St. Louis Rams this past Sunday. They've owned up to it and unveiled the usual vows to repair the mistakes. But perhaps most troubling, for a team that has designs on a Super Bowl trip, is they didn’t have a response after some early trouble in either of those losses. They simply didn’t show the kind of bounce-back capability on the road that any team is going to need if they want to go deep into the postseason. The Patriots had a 24-point second quarter filled with Broncos mistakes and the Rams went up 10-0 in the first quarter. In both cases, the Broncos were wobbly and stayed wobbly. They know they didn’t execute on offense. They let pressure get to Manning, and defensively the Broncos had moments, but never really slammed the door to get the team back in the game. And now with the Kansas City Chiefs at 7-3 as well –- the Broncos have a Week 2 win in hand, but go to Kansas City Nov. 30 –- the Broncos know every week matters as they pursue their fourth consecutive division title.
Keeping with one of the Broncos’ trouble spots of late, defenses have tried to rattle Manning in the middle of the formation. How aggressively do you think the Dolphins will rush Manning, and what’s that mean for Cameron Wake?
Walker: The Dolphins are definitely bringing the pressure. They’ve done that against every quarterback they’ve faced, whether it’s an elite talent such as Aaron Rodgers or a developmental rookie such as Blake Bortles. Manning’s constant audibles and adjustments at the line of scrimmage could provide reason for Miami’s defense not to dial up as many blitzes. But the team knows the best way to win is to get hits, sacks and pressures on Manning. Several players I spoke to were impressed with the way the Rams defended the Broncos’ offense last week. St. Louis provided a nice blueprint, especially with its defensive line. This will be a big game for Wake, Olivier Vernon, Jared Odrick and others on the defensive line to win those one-on-one matchups.
Miami’s pass protection has been an issue lately. What are your thoughts on the Dolphins’ offensive line pass protecting against the Broncos’ front seven?
Legwold: The Broncos are at their best in the pass rush when they move into a six-defensive back look -- a dime package that really plays more like the average five defensive back (nickel) package when safety T.J. Ward moves down and plays at a linebacker spot. They have speed all over the formation, with Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware moving around some. As a result, Miller is tied for fourth in the league with 10 sacks and Ware is tied for eighth with nine sacks. They use plenty of pre-snap movement, moving players toward and away from the line of scrimmage, to give the quarterback some indecisiveness, and it’s been a productive personnel grouping. However, some teams have found ways to convert some long third downs; the Chiefs converted seven third downs on third-and-8 or more, while the 49ers and Chargers each converted three times at third-and-6 or more and the Rams converted two third-and-10 situations this past Sunday. Tannehill can extend plays and that will be an issue for the Broncos to consider. But at home they play fast on defense as Ware and Miller have repeatedly caved in the edges of the pocket.
Overall, the Dolphins have had plenty of drama over the last year –- the Broncos had Richie Incognito in for a workout last week -– how has coach Joe Philbin done in the swirl?
Walker: This was a major storyline in the offseason and throughout training camp. But at this point in late November, more than a year since Jonathan Martin left the team and Incognito’s subsequent suspension, the Dolphins have moved on from the fiasco. Miami made the right call to remove both players from its locker room in the offseason. The team didn’t re-sign Incognito and traded Martin to the San Francisco 49ers. That set the tone for a better locker room culture to develop. This year’s team is together, and I think winning six of 10 games has helped. In some ways, earning a playoff spot would validate the thought that they learned from the situation and became better for it.
Denver suffered a lot of injuries last week against the Rams. What’s the latest update on tight end Julius Thomas, receiver Emmanuel Sanders and tailback Montee Ball?
Legwold: That’s been the dark cloud hanging over this team this past week. Sanders, who has been one of the best free-agent signings in the league, is the team’s second-leading receiver with 67 catches to go with 954 yards. He’s now under the guidelines of the league’s concussion protocol, so the Broncos have to simply wait until he is cleared to return. Ball re-injured his right groin as he played just four snaps against the Rams, an injury that kept him out of the previous five games. He is expected to miss, at minimum, two to three weeks. And Thomas suffered a sprained ankle in the first quarter against the Rams. While Thomas’ injury wasn't nearly as serious as the team initially feared at the stadium Sunday, he has had ankle troubles before in his career and will be watched closely. His impact in the offense is no small matter. Thomas played just 13 snaps against the Rams and he still leads the league in touchdown receptions with 12, or at least two more than any other player.
The Broncos don’t have a fullback on the roster, so they can’t simply go to a two-back look to cover for some injuries. Tight end Virgil Green and running back Ronnie Hillman were out last week and Hillman is expected to miss additional time. That means young players such as C.J. Anderson and rookie Juwan Thompson have to be ready to be the guys at running back and rookie wide receiver Cody Latimer should get some snaps in the offense as well.
Position: Wide receiver
2013 stats: 67 receptions for 740 yards and six touchdowns -- all career highs. He averaged only 11.0 yards per catch, a career low. He played in 796 offensive snaps (75.7 percent).
2013 salary: $2.5 million.
Sign him up: The New England Patriots thought enough of Sanders last year to sign him to an offer sheet. They would've surrendered a third-round pick, but the Steelers decided to match the one-year, $2.5 million offer. Sanders responded with his best year, which included a long touchdown reception against the Jets -- a play in which he torched Antonio Cromartie. He had only two drops last season out of 112 targets, per ESPN Stats & Info -- one of the lowest drop percentages in the league. Obviously, the Jets need help at the position. Sanders is an ascending player (he turns 27 on March 17), although some believe he's already close to his ceiling.
Reasons to stay away: Sanders might have been a fit for the Patriots, who like smallish, slot receiver types, but the Jets already have a Sanders-like player in Jeremy Kerley. Sanders is steady, but his stats -- everything from yards after catch to catch percentage -- were no better than the league averages last season. He'd upgrade the receiving corps from a depth perspective, but for at least $5 million a year (the going rate for a wideout of his ilk), you expect better than average.
The Pittsburgh Steelers' decision to match the New England Patriots' one-year, $2.5 million offer for Emmanuel Sanders won't cause shockwaves in Foxborough. The Patriots always viewed Sanders as a luxury, not a necessity. They offered a team-friendly contract to see if Pittsburgh would match. It was a calculated risk the Patriots were willing to take.
Now that New England knows Sanders is staying in Pittsburgh, the Patriots can shift their attention to the draft. New England, as a result, will retain its third-round pick. The Patriots own just five picks total this April.
The Patriots still need depth at receiver. New England lost starters Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd in one offseason. The group of Danny Amendola, Michael Jenkins, Julian Edelman and Donald Jones won't put fear in opponents. Now that Sanders is out of the picture for New England, adding the right rookie receiver in the draft could make this group work.
There are pros and cons to each scenario, which is why Pittsburgh is taking the full five days to decide. The Steelers are tight against the cap and would be paying approximately double Sanders' original salary to keep the receiver. On the other hand, Pittsburgh already lost receiver Mike Wallace to free agency with the Miami Dolphins and doesn't want to lose another potential starter.
ESPN.com senior writer John Clayton recently reported that it's "50-50." Some in the Steelers’ organization want the draft pick, while others want to keep the player. New England made its move and obviously feels Sanders is better and more proven than any receiver it can get in the third round.
Sanders caught 44 passes for 626 yards and one touchdown last season.
- Will the Miami Dolphins draft Oklahoma left tackle Lane Johnson?
- Will the Pittsburgh Steelers match the New England Patriots' $2.5 million offer for restricted free agent Emmanuel Sanders?
- Would the Buffalo Bills consider drafting USC quarterback Matt Barkley?
- Here is a partial list of pre-draft visitors to the New York Jets.
Here is a partial transcript:
@espn_afceast Is Sanders basically a insurance policy for the porcelain china doll Amendola?— NFLxyz (@NFLxyz) April 10, 2013
That's one way to look at it, NFLxyz. Let's be honest: Not many expect Danny Amendola to play 16 games. He doesn't have that track record.— James Walker (@espn_afceast) April 10, 2013
WR Emmanuel Sanders can play in the slot and outside. I think that versatility interests the #Patriots.— James Walker (@espn_afceast) April 10, 2013
I disagree, JD. This is not mind games. Money and salary-cap implications are involved and the #Patriots made their decision.— James Walker (@espn_afceast) April 10, 2013
New England put a lot of thought into this move. The #Patriots visited with Emmanuel Sanders weeks ago and didn't make a quick decision.— James Walker (@espn_afceast) April 10, 2013
@espn_afceast okay.. does this rule out T.O. or Moss being on the team? And I don't want that "never had a chance before this" either.— Mr. Trill (@Justin_Perkins) April 10, 2013
Well, the truth is T.O., Moss never had a chance regardless. Owens' workout with Tom Brady caused an overration. They're not on NE's radar.— James Walker (@espn_afceast) April 10, 2013
@espn_afceast potentially losing the third rounder for Sanders had to almost guarantee the Pats look to trade their first and second right?— Billy (@BillyBobGDFF) April 10, 2013
I think the #Patriots are a strong candidate to trade out of the first round for more picks regardless of Pittsburgh's decision w/Sanders.— James Walker (@espn_afceast) April 10, 2013
Thanks for the fun chat. We will be doing more live chats through Twitter and other avenues of this when big news happens in the AFC East.
Earlier on Wednesday, New England presented an offer sheet to Pittsburgh Steelers restricted free-agent receiver Emmanuel Sanders. Less than two hours later, the Patriots re-signed Julian Edelman, according to USA TODAY.
It's becoming clear that New England is looking to replace lost 2012 starters Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd with a committee of wide receivers.
Edelman, Danny Amendola, Michael Jenkins, Donald Jones and potentially Sanders are not household names. But New England is building as much depth and competition as possible at receiver and will let the position sort itself out during training camp and the regular season.
Edelman briefly flirted with the New York Giants before re-joining the Patriots. Edelman knows the system well, and he was once considered the heir apparent to Welker in the slot before suffering a season-ending foot injury last year.
Outside of Edelman, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady will have a lot of new receivers to throw to. Quickly developing chemistry will be key for the Patriots' offense to remain dominant this upcoming season.
Like Brown, Sanders isn’t the biggest receiver around, but he is extremely quick and very good after the catch -- which is a must in the Patriots’ timing-based offense that Tom Brady runs so very well with great precision and accurate throws.
Sanders also has some deep-ball ability, and can line up outside the numbers or in the slot, although New England is pretty set with slot options Danny Amendola and Aaron Hernandez. But we all know that Bill Belichick craves players -- at any position -- with a wide skill set and capable of contributing in many ways. Sanders fits that, and is a great potential pickup for the price.
Not only would Sanders be a strong addition to the Patriots, but the move would also weaken a fellow AFC contender. With Wallace now in Miami, wide receiver is as great of a need for Pittsburgh as any other position. Sanders appeared to be set up to show what he could do as a starter opposite Brown. New England has far more salary-cap space and overall flexibility than the Steelers.
But worst of all for Pittsburgh, Sanders’ signing of this offer sheet forces the Steelers to make a decision they did not want to make. This is not the type of organization that wants other franchises to negotiate contracts for it -- which is essentially what New England did if Pittsburgh chooses to match, and matching could force the Steelers to further shuffle their roster and salary cap.
Also, I don’t think that the Steelers are excited about dealing a young, promising starting wide receiver for a very late third-round pick. Although they are not the clear contender the Patriots are, the Steelers are not in rebuilding mode, and who knows how much longer Ben Roethlisberger can continue playing at a high level with all the punishment he has withstood.
How will Pittsburgh respond? None of us know, but my hunch is the Steelers are not especially happy about either option presented to them.
New England presented a one-year offer sheet to Sanders, who is a restricted free agent. Pittsburgh has five days to match the offer, or it can accept New England's 2013 third-round draft pick.
This is clearly a win-win scenario for the Patriots.
New England set a price it is willing to pay for Sanders, who is more proven than any receiver whom the Patriots could land in the third round of this draft. At the same time it pressures the Steelers, an AFC rival, into paying more than they wanted to keep Sanders on their roster. If Pittsburgh doesn't match, the Patriots add quality depth to their thin receiver position.
The Steelers might have no choice but to match the Patriots' offer. Losing Sanders would be a second blow to Pittsburgh's passing game. The Steelers already lost their best deep threat -- Mike Wallace -- in free agency to the Miami Dolphins. Losing Sanders would mean the Steelers have lost two of their top three receivers for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Pittsburgh still has receivers Antonio Brown, Jerricho Cotchery and Plaxico Burress on its roster.
New England is searching for ways to replace the immense production lost by the departures of Pro Bowl receiver Wes Welker and starter Brandon Lloyd this offseason. The Patriots added receivers Danny Amendola, Michael Jenkins and Donald Jones in free agency. But is that enough for a team that wants to contend for a Super Bowl?
Sanders, who had 44 receptions for 626 yards and one touchdown last season, would be a nice addition to New England's receiving corps. But we won't know which team Sanders will play for in 2013 until the Steelers make a decision over the next five days.
New England has to upgrade its thin group of receivers. It can come via the draft or with what’s left in free agency.
Let’s take a look at who is available:
2012 stats: 44 receptions, 626 yards, one TD
Thoughts: The Patriots hosted a visit with Sanders and are considering an offer sheet for the restricted free agent of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Sanders would be a nice find for New England. The Steelers have a tight salary cap and would be hard-pressed to match a good offer. If Pittsburgh cannot match, it would cost New England a third-round pick. The Patriots are keeping this option in mind.
2012 stats: 21 receptions, 235 yards, three TDs
Thoughts: Edelman was showing solid growth in New England last season. He’s a terror on special teams and was making strides as a slot receiver. But both roles have been filled by New England in free agency. The Patriots signed return specialist Leon Washington to take over the kick return duties, and Amendola to fill the slot. There might not be a role left for Edelman in New England except to add depth.
2012 stats: 74 receptions, 911, four TDs
Thoughts: Yes, the Patriots just released Lloyd. But the reasons were financial, not schematic. New England wanted Lloyd on the roster, but simply did not want to pay him a $3 million roster bonus. The sides could not reach a resolution in time and parted ways. Lloyd’s priority is to see if he can get a sizable contract elsewhere. But if nothing attractive comes to fruition, it’s not impossible for Lloyd and the Patriots to talk about a reunion at a team-friendly rate.
Thoughts: It's not a top-heavy draft for receivers this year. But there is depth available for New England, which has the No. 29 overall pick. Receivers such as Cal’s Keenan Allen and Baylor's Terrance Williams are possibilities. The issue with the draft is New England is in “win-now” mode. The Patriots don’t have a year or two to wait for a rookie to get up to speed. They need to draft one of the most NFL-ready prospects at receiver.
Lloyd’s release means New England will continue a drastic makeover at receiver. Lloyd joins Pro Bowler Wes Welker as starting receivers who will not return to the Patriots in 2013. Patriots backup receiver Julian Edelman also is an unrestricted free agent.
Lloyd caught 74 passes for 911 yards and four touchdowns in his only season with New England. Those are solid numbers. However, Lloyd struggled at times to get on the same page as quarterback Tom Brady. Lloyd wasn't the consistent force on the outside the team expected.
The Patriots already found Welker’s replacement with Danny Amendola. But who will replace Lloyd?
This could set the table for New England to make a push for Pittsburgh Steelers receiver and restricted free agent Emmanuel Sanders. The Patriots hosted Sanders for a visit on Friday, and according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, they are deciding whether to make an offer.
Pittsburgh has a tight salary cap and could have trouble matching a potential offer from New England. If Pittsburgh declines, it would cost the Patriots a third-round draft pick for Sanders.
Other than Sanders, there are not many free-agent options for the Patriots to land a starting-caliber receiver. The draft also isn't top-heavy at receiver. So the Patriots might have to get creative to replace Lloyd.
Our colleague Rich Cimini of ESPNNewYork.com has the latest. He reports that Revis has been cleared for physical activity but will not practice Wednesday. Revis is making solid progress and this is a good sign that he could be ready for Sunday’s huge matchup against the Pittsburgh Steelers (0-1).
The Jets (1-0) need Revis to beat Pittsburgh. The Steelers have a bevy of good receivers, including Pro Bowler Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders. The Jets can pick and choose which receiver to put on “Revis Island” if the cornerback plays in Week 2.
In other Jets news, receiver Jeremy Kerley was named the AFC Special Teams Player of the Week. Kerley had a 68-yard punt return for a touchdown against Buffalo.