Steelers Notebook: Sanders’ time with Steelers might end soon as free agency looms

Emmanuel Sanders has reached a lot of benchmarks this season that bode well for someone entering unrestricted free agency. He has posted career highs for yardage and touchdowns in a season and has an outside chance to reach 1,000 yards for the first time in his career.

Sanders also has had some notable gaffes, including two drops in the past two weeks in crucial situations that might have altered the course of close losses to Baltimore and Miami.

He is playing this season on a $2.5 million, one-year contract after the Steelers matched the offer sheet Sanders signed with the New England Patriots in the spring. He will be looking for a long-term contract as an unrestricted free agent, and he knows his time with the Steelers might be coming to an end.

“You try not to think about it,” Sanders said. “I’m just trying to finish this season strong and let the chips fall where they may next year. There’s a lot of gray area next to my name, a lot of question marks next to my name. Honestly, I can’t wait until they get answered. If I’m here, I’m here. If I’m not, for the next three weeks I’m going to try to chill with these guys and appreciate being around the Steelers facility.”

Keeping Sanders is a luxury the Steelers most likely cannot afford. They have Antonio Brown signed to a long-term contract and in April they invested a third-round pick in Markus Wheaton, who is waiting in the wings for a more prominent role in the offense.

Sanders is enjoying his most productive season as a pro. He has 661 yards and five touchdowns with three games remaining. His previous highs were 626 yards and two touchdowns.

“Am I happy about that? Yeah, I guess, but my goal coming into this season was 1,000 yards and I haven’t accomplished that yet,” Sanders said. “I expected myself to hit that mark because last year I was a No. 3 [receiver] and this year I’m a No. 2. I never take it for granted. But I expected that and I expect even more out of myself. One thousand yards is my next goal.”

Left tackle belongs to Beachum

Mike Adams did well in his first start at left tackle since getting demoted after the fourth game this season, but if Kelvin Beachum is healthy the job at left tackle is his the rest of this season.

“I would think he earned the right to be in there right now,” offensive coordinator Todd Haley said. “He played at a pretty high level for us while he was in there against good competition. I think he’s earned every right, as much as anyone else has, to be in there and play.”

Beachum started eight consecutive games at left tackle before getting injured late in the Baltimore game. He sat out the Miami game, but is expected to play Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals.

Beachum is an example of how quality players can be found in the late rounds of the draft. He was a seventh-round selection in 2012 while Adams was selected in the second.

“I think he’s got a great mindset,” Haley said. “He carries a chip on his shoulder. I’ve seen guys like Curtis Martin carry a chip on their shoulder all the way to the Hall of Fame. Getting drafted where they got drafted, whatever they can use to motivate. He’s that type of kid. He’s a mentally tough guy who carries a chip on his shoulder who’s been told he’s not good enough to do different things, and yet he tries to prove everyone wrong and has to this point. I just love having him on our side. He’s great to work with.”

No fine for Clark

Safety Ryan Clark was not fined for his helmet-to-helmet hit on Miami running back Daniel Thomas. Clark said it was the fourth or fifth time he has been whistled for that kind of personal foul, then not getting a fine, which, he said, vindicated those hits as legal.

“I aimed for his waist,” Clark said. “Honest, I didn’t want to shoot his knees. I felt like if I hit him in his waist or his mid-section it would still be a good hit, so that’s what I did.”

Clark said the official explained to him that “when he caught it, he ducked his head, and his head hit you” and that was a penalty.

“It’s reputation a lot, too,” he said of the flags. “I’ve been doing my best to stay out of those situations. I feel like I’ve done a good job.”

Injury update

Defensive end Brett Keisel (foot), nose tackle Steve McLendon (ankle) and safety Troy Polamalu (shoulder) did not practice Thursday. Sanders was a limited participant with a foot injury. All others nursing injuries went through a full practice.

Ray Fittipaldo: and Twitter @rayfitt1.

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