By Chris Adamski
LATROBE — There’s a fair percentage of NFL veterans who loathe training camp.
Emmanuel Sanders was miserable during his second camp last year… but not because of the monotony or the drills or the dorm life.
Sanders had a pair of bad feet heading into the 2011 camp. He was in pain and fell behind in his workouts and on the depth chart.
Healthy once again, Sanders vowed never to again take camp for granted.
“Oh my God, you have no idea, man,” Sanders said after the walkthrough practice Thursday morning. “Last year around this time I was down and out. Now, I have an appreciation for training camp. A lot of those guys are like, ‘Argh, I gotta go to training camp.’ I’m like, ‘Yes! Let’s go to training camp! I’m healthy, I’m finally here.’ So you know I’m enjoying it each day.”
Taking advantage of an opportunity given to him by the Mike Wallace holdout, Sanders is running with the first-team offense in two-receiver sets during practices this camp. He’s shown flashes of brilliance — but he’s also had his share of drops, including at least two Thursday in 7-on-7 and two-minute drill drills.
As confident as he is affable, Sanders had the most rudimentary of goals for the recently-completed offseason.
Don’t get hurt.
“The thing is about me is I’ve just got to stay healthy,” Sanders said. “I know if I stay healthy I’m going to go out and make big-time plays.”
Sanders led the Steelers in receiving during their playoff loss in Denver. Once he “earned a hat” (Mike Tomlin-speak for a spot on the gameday roster) on a regular basis as a rookie, Sanders has consistently been productive — when healthy.
While Antonio Brown has become a star — earning a rich contract before he enters his third season — it was Sanders who was taken in the third round of the 2010 draft. That was three round before Brown was taken.
Sanders had 25 touchdowns over three college seasons at SMU. He is slightly faster than Brown (Sanders has run as quick as a 4.3 in the 40-yard dash but is considered a 4.4 runner) but not as laterally quick and shifty. Still, he ran out of the slot position for a high-powered offense in college.
That figures to be his role this season for the Steelers — if Wallace reports. Without Wallace, Sanders is filling Wallace’s “X” receiver role. That means more deep routes.
“I’m more than capable of getting the job done,” Sanders said.
It’s always dangerous to look too much into anecdotal training camp practices when evaluating trends. But that said, Brown going deep and Sanders running routes underneath have been the more common sights.
Sanders said he’s just as happy working on the outside as he is in the slot. Really, he doesn’t care where he lines up or where he runs routes — as long as he is on the field.
Tomlin gave Sanders the day off when the team was forced to work on the auxiliary turf field due to heavy rains the first few days of camp. That was said to keep the stress off his troublesome feet.
Sanders acknowledged the fine line an athlete can walk before he is given the dreaded label, “injury-prone.” Finding the proper balance of working out and staying off his feet over the past year was part of his quest to avoid the tag via another injury this season.
Sanders said the only significant injury he’s had in his football life was a meniscus tear in his knee his freshman year of college.
“The thing is for me, I just needed to stay off my feet,” Sanders said of this past year. “But it’s not as if I wasn’t taking care of my body. I don’t have hamstring problems or things of that nature — mine was strictly a bone, and you can’t really control a bone, you know what I mean? And having two foot surgeries in the offseason — with a lockout — what else do you expect from a (player) coming off his rookie year coming off a Super Bowl? I just didn’t have much time. So I knew last season I was going to be up and down, but this season I’m expecting big things.”