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Do the Patriots See Something in Sanders the Steelers Don't?

Mainstream reasoning would tell you that Emmanuel Sanders was the weakest of the Steelers' former 'Big Three.' The numbers tell a much different story.

Gregory Shamus

The Patriots aggressive pursuit of WR Emmanuel Sanders during the offseason came somewhat out of left field. It wasn't a surprise the Patriots were pursuing a young, cost-controlled wideout on the open market to refresh their ailing position, but you'd be hard-pressed to find an "expert" out there linking the Patriots to Sanders. After all, Sanders was the least prolific of the Steelers' Big Three (or Young Money Family, if you prefer)--that is, Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Sanders. If the Patriots were to knock on Pittsburgh's brazen doors, it would be to take a closer look at Wallace, possibly filling that 'deep threat' void they've succumbed following the departure of one Randy Moss.

Wallace, predictably, came at too high a price for the Patriots to manage and they were thought to set their sights onward. Plucking from the remainder of the Steelers' crop was unlikely seeing as Antonio Brown had just signed a lucrative five-year deal just a season prior and Sanders was given a third-round tender as a restricted free agent. That's cost-prohibitive for the penny-pinching Patriots, who typically hoard their draft selections like a dragon covets gold.

Suddenly the Patriots were on to Sanders, third-round pick compensation be damned. The logic was sound if you'd been paying attention; surrendering something as unproven as a third-rounder for a player who has proven he can compete at the highest level didn't seem like a terrible exchange. Given the Patriots pitfalls in drafting wide receivers, most fans would shout from the roof tops to hand over the entire 2013 Draft if it meant netting a guy who could legitimately catch a pass.

A depth move, maybe. Fleecing a cash-strapped conference rival, possibly. Belichick thumbing his nose at the third-round possibilities, likely. After all, the Patriots have been taking steps in all but placing themselves out of the running for this year's sweepstakes, including trading up during the first round last year--twice. But is there something more the Patriots see in Sanders beyond a role player with some upside and fresh legs?

How much attention you personally give to the number-crunching sources that are out there seemingly determined to establish sabermetrics for football will determine how much weight you place on the statistics; but if they are to be believed, Emmanuel Sanders is Pittsburgh's most effective receiver.

Football Outsiders has created a DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement) category, which is extremely similar to baseball's WAR (Wins Above Replacement). In a nutshell, it records how valuable an individual player is to a team based on how they compare to a replacement-level player; that is, your average NFL JAG (typically not a starter). DYAR assigns this value to each player in the form of "yards"--a collection of targets, receptions and touchdowns that highlight the player's greater role in a team's offense.

DYAR is also similar to FO's oft-cited DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average), but they simplify the main difference with this:

The simple version: DYAR means a wide receiver with more total value. DVOA means a wide receiver with more value per play.

If you put stock in DYAR, it gives you a pretty good idea on the type of player you truly have in your offense if he's ranked highly on that list. Which Sanders is. In fact, his 141 DYAR sandwiches him between Miles Austin (143) and Brian Hartline (139). It's telling that Austin and Hartline have both spent significant time as their respective teams' No. 1 receivers. Perhaps even more telling, however, is how highly Sanders is ranked above his Steeler colleagues that were almost unanimously considered superior talents. Sanders' 32nd rank bests both Antonio Brown (45, DYAR 84) and Mike Wallace (80, DYAR -49).

To make an even stronger argument for Sanders, Advanced NFL Stats holds him in even higher esteem using their WPA (Win Probability Added). WPA, according to ANS is as follows:

WPA is the measure of a play’s impact on the outcome of a game. An individual player’s WPA is the sum of the WPA of the plays in which that player was directly involved

In short, a player's fingerprint on the result of a game through his impact on total offense. Sanders is way up on this list, coming in at 17 with a WPA of 1.57 (a shade under Dez Bryant). Some names that find themselves ranked lower than Sanders on this list? Marques Colston, Michael Crabtree, Roddy White, Eric Decker. And again, even more telling, Antonio Brown (27) and Mike Wallace (78).

You'd have a difficult time convincing most football fans that Emmanuel Sanders is the most effective receiver on the Steelers' offense. After all, he doesn't grab headlines, has plenty of noticeable flaws in his game and has a hard time staying on the field. Numbers never tell the entire story, especially in a sport that has traditionally shunned the mathematically analytical route. But if they tell just part of it, it becomes increasingly possible that there is more to Emmanuel Sanders than what meets the eye, and that his role on the Patriots could surprise more people than their offer sheet ever did.