49ers' Emmanuel Sanders says he'd 'love' to rejoin Steelers, calls bridge with Ben Roethlisberger 'burnt'

Emmanuel Sanders was just beginning to celebrate his third trip to the Super Bowl when a former teammate decided to join him on the celebration.

On the field following the 49ers' win over the Packers in the NFC Championship Game, Sanders was joined by veteran NFL receiver Mike Wallace, who spent three seasons as Sanders' teammate with the Steelers from 2010-12. Sanders, during a recent interview with Ed Bouchette of The Athletic, said that the two former teammates spent time reminiscing about their time with the Steelers while adding that Sanders, Wallace and former Pittsburgh wideout Antonio Brown could have been "the best Steelers (receiving) corps ever assembled." 

Instead of realizing their potential as teammates, the trio, known at the time as the "Young Money Crew," went their separate ways. While Brown received a longterm contract in Pittsburgh, Wallace, who was drafted a year before Brown and Sanders in 2009 and was the team's No. 1 receiver during the Steelers' run to Super Bowl XLV, signed a multiyear contract with the Dolphins during the 2013 offseason. Sanders followed suit the following year, signing a multiyear deal with the Broncos after the Steelers made a halfhearted attempt to retain him. And while all three years would enjoy various levels of success over the next several years, Sanders is the only member of that trio to win a Super Bowl, as he helped the Broncos get over the hump after defeating the Panthers in Super Bowl 50.

While Sanders (who was traded from Denver to San Francisco midway through the 2019 season) is currently focused on Sunday's upcoming game against the AFC champion Chiefs, he did offer an honest response when asked by Bouchette if he would be interested in signing with the Steelers as a free agent this upcoming offseason.

"I would love that," Sanders said, "but me and Ben don't have the best relationship. I believe that bridge is burnt."

Sanders did acknowledge that the two men are in different places today, a decade removed from when they first became teammates in Pittsburgh. At that point, Roethlisberger was at the crossroads of his career and was beginning to show the signs of maturation that has earned him the praise and respect of his current teammates.

"When I first got to Pittsburgh, Ben was still like a little bit of (a jerk) and a lot of people didn't know that," Sanders said. "That was in 2010. Ben has grown up a lot, you know? He was still like a (jerk). I had to deal with him for like two years as a rookie with him being (a jerk), you know. I said who the (heck) is this dude? So I grew to not like him but just to deal with him. But from what I've heard, he's grown up a lot, which is good because I've grown up too."

If there is a remote possibility of a possible Sanders-Steelers reunion, rest assured that Sanders and Roethlisberger would communicate with each other to bury any ill feelings that may still exist between the two. And while it would be irresponsible to try to predict exactly how that conversation would go, it's a safe bet that Roethlisberger would welcome Sanders back into the fold, as he and Sanders enjoyed a successful partnership on the football field during their time together as teammates. While he was never the team's No. 1 receiver, Sanders was a consistent target for Big Ben during his time in Pittsburgh. In 2013, the year before he went on to enjoy even more success in Denver, Sanders began to show glimpses of what was to come, catching 67 passes for 740 yards and six touchdowns while helping the Steelers finish the year with an 8-8 record after a 2-6 start.

Sanders went to enjoy even more success in Denver. Playing with future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning, Sanders caught 101 passes for 1,404 yards and nine scores during his first season in Denver. Over the next two seasons, Sanders, who was named to his first Pro Bowl team in 2014, would catch 155 passes for 2,167 yards and 11 touchdowns. The team's leading receiver during their 21-10 victory over Carolina in the 2015 Super Bowl, Sanders would earn his second Pro Bowl selection in 2016 despite the retirement of Manning, whose departure from Denver signaled the end of the Broncos' Super Bowl window.

While the Steelers currently have a solid receiving corps that includes JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington and Diontae Johnson, Pittsburgh could certainly use a veteran receiver that could serve as a reliable target for Big Ben while also providing a veteran presence in the locker room. Like Hines Ward did for him and, Wallace and Brown a decade earlier, Sanders could help mentor Pittsburgh's young receiving corps while helping the Steelers get back to the postseason for the first time since 2017.

Additionally, a return to Pittsburgh could help Sanders continue his improbably comeback story after suffering a torn Achilles late in the 2018 season. Despite suffering the career-threatening injury, the 32-year-old Sanders was just as effective in 2019 as he was the previous season, catching 66 passes for 869 yards and five touchdowns while averaging 13.2 yards per reception. 

"I'm looking forward to next year," Sanders told Bouchette, "really getting myself back to where I want to be, 100 percent, without that Achilles thing, tear it up the way I like to tear it up, the way I want to tear it up. I feel I had a good year, but I know I can have better years."

A second act in Pittsburgh would also help the era of the "Young Money Crew" end on a much more positive note. It may not necessarily end with another trip to the Super Bowl, but a reunion between Sanders and the Steelers would certainly be embraced by the team's passionate fan base, who never seem to forget one of their own.

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