Emmanuel Sanders lined up in Mike Wallace's old spot during the first week of offseason team practices. Barring an injury, the wide receiver will line up there as the starter in the Sept. 8 opener against Tennessee.
And if Sanders can produce the way Wallace did, he can cash in during unrestricted free agency next year just as Wallace did in March when he signed a five-year, $60 million contract with the Miami Dolphins.
It is unlikely Sanders will command that kind of money, but receivers have become some of the most coveted players for NFL teams in free agency and the draft as coaches continue to utilize their franchise quarterbacks and take advantage of the pass-friendly rules the league has implemented over the years.
Sanders has never been a starter in the NFL and has battled injuries that have prevented him from posting gaudy statistics, but he was sought by New England last month in restricted free agency. The Steelers matched the one-year, $2.5 million offer Sanders received from the Patriots, essentially making the 2013 season a stage on which Sanders can audition for the other 31 teams in the league.
"It felt good to be wanted," Sanders said. "But at the end of the day, I'm still a Pittsburgh Steeler. I have one more year here, and hopefully, it can continue into a long-term deal because I want to be here."
The Steelers could sign Sanders to a long-term contract before the start of the season, but if they do not, Sanders will become an unrestricted free agent after the season.
Sanders' agent, Jordan Woy, indicated to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last month that unrestricted free agency was likely. He said the Steelers would have to offer a "very good deal" for Sanders to pass up unrestricted free agency.
Woy knows the market. While Wallace was a big-name signing for the Dolphins, lesser-known receivers also have signed lucrative deals in free agency. Even secondary receivers have snagged big money.
Laurent Robinson, who did not have a 1,000-yard season in his first five years in the league, signed a five-year, $32.5 million deal with Jacksonville in 2012. He was released earlier this year after being placed on injured reserve last fall with concussion problems.
Sanders is in line for a big pay day, one way or the other, if he is productive for the Steelers this season.
"A contract is a contract," Sanders said. "I don't care about that. I just like playing football, at the end of the day. I feel like God blessed me with the ability to play this game and get paid to play the game I love. The contract is the business side of things. I don't think about that at all."
Sanders had 44 receptions for 626 yards and one touchdown last season. He played in 11 games as a rookie in 2010 and 13 in 2011, never gaining more than 400 yards in either season as the third or fourth receiver.
He'll get plenty of opportunities this season as the starter opposite receiver Antonio Brown, who figures to draw most of the double teams now that Wallace is gone.
"As a starter, I have a good opportunity," Sanders said. "I'm looking forward to working and taking advantage of it."
Sanders isn't the only one to feel that way. Brown, who was drafted 113 picks lower than Sanders in the 2010 draft and signed his own lucrative contract last summer, believes Sanders is ready for a bigger role.
"I think he'll do really well," Brown said. "He's looking forward to his chance and he's got a lot to prove."
That figures to be easier with the Steelers entering a second year under offensive coordinator Todd Haley. Most everyone on the offense admitted to an adjustment period last year in Haley's first season with the team.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who lobbied the Steelers to match New England's offer to Sanders, said last week there was more tinkering this spring, with input from players and assistants.
Being familiar and more comfortable with Haley's approach to offense should help all concerned.
"Last year, we were trying to get familiar with the system and coach Haley's coaching style and everything that comes with being in a new offense," Sanders said. "Now we know the plays. Ben understands it. We know where we need to be. We should continue to grow and get better."
Sanders and Brown will enter training camp as starters with veterans Jerricho Cotchery and Plaxico Burress, rookies Markus Wheaton and Justin Brown and a host of other younger players providing depth behind them.
The Steelers might miss Wallace's speed and big-play ability, but Sanders said the mix of youth and experience in the receiving corps will provide the offense with whatever it needs.
"We have speed and guys who can make plays," Sanders said. "We're going to work with what we got, and what we got is pretty good, I think."Steelers - mobilehome
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1230 and Twitter @rayfitt1.