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.