The Steelers took an expected hit Sunday when wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders signed a three-year contract worth $18 million with the Denver Broncos.
But an unexpected loss could also be on the way as free-agent Jerricho Cotchery will visit today with the wide receiver-starved Carolina Panthers.
If the Steelers lose both wide receivers, they will be in a similar situation to Carolina. The Panthers released wide receiver Steve Smith last week, and he signed with Baltimore, and Brandon LaFell, Carolina’s other starting receiver, signed with New England late Saturday night.
The Steelers still have Pro Bowl receiver Antonio Brown, but are now in danger of losing two of their top three players at the position.
Sanders was second on the team with 67 receptions for 760 yards and six touchdowns last year, while Cotchery led the Steelers with 10 touchdown receptions among his 46 catches.
If Cotchery, whom the Steelers would like to re-sign, signs with Carolina, the only receivers on Pittsburgh’s roster with NFL experience – other than Brown – would be Derek Moye and Markus Wheaton, two players with eight combined receptions.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, perhaps preparing for the worst, had workouts in California last month with Wheaton, Moye and Justin Brown, who spent last season on the practice squad.
The Steelers had talks with Cotchery’s agent, and the receiver returned from a Steelers-sponsored fan cruise Saturday, but the 31-year-old played collegiately at North Carolina State and could be lured by more money offered by the Panthers.
Pittsburgh has about $3.5 million in salary cap space after making five free-agent signings last week, including Carolina safety Mike Mitchell. The Steelers can count on an additional $8 million in cap space being cleared June 1 when LaMarr Woodley’s contract comes off its books.
The Steelers nearly lost Sanders a year ago when he signed with the New England Patriots as a restricted free agent. Pittsburgh matched the deal rather than take a third-round draft pick from the Patriots in exchange for Sanders.
Sanders responded with his best season, though he also had some costly drops, including a potential game-tying two-point conversion pass at Baltimore in a 22-20 loss.
The Steelers did not make an offer to Sanders before he became a free agent.
Sanders made visits to Jacksonville, Tampa Bay and Kansas City before signing with Denver, which will use him to help replace Eric Decker, who signed with the New York Jets. Sanders had planned to visit San Francisco Sunday.
Some controversy between the Chiefs and Broncos arose over his signing. Kansas City contends it had reached an oral agreement with Sanders only to have his agent, Steve Weinberg, use that to get a better deal out of Denver.
Sanders, a third-round draft pick of the Steelers in 2010, caught 161 passes for 2,030 yards and 11 touchdowns in four seasons with Pittsburgh.
While Cotchery is visiting Carolina today, the Steelers will be hosting Green Bay free-agent running back James Starks.