Patriots Trying to Swipe Emmanuel Sanders from Pittsburgh

Updated: April 10, 2013

Today the New England Patriots followed through with a free agent move that has been speculated on for weeks now. The team signed current Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders to a one-year offer sheet. The Steelers now have five days to match the offer from New England, or they can let him walk and receive the Patriots’ third round draft pick as compensation. Earlier in free agency Pittsburgh designated Sanders with a third round tender due to his status as a restricted free agent.

What New England has essentially done here is hand-cuff the Steelers because of their extreme inflexibility with salary cap space. Pittsburgh is right up against the cap going into the draft and they may not be able to afford matching the Patriots’ offer while also getting their upcoming draft picks under contract. This was a crafty move by New England’s front office as they are in need of as many play-makers at the receiver position after losing two of their starters from last season. Wes Welker left in free agency to the Broncos and Brandon Lloyd was cut for cap reasons. Emmanuel Sanders had a career high 44 catches last season for Pittsburgh, and if he finds himself playing with Tom Brady in 2013 that number could rise significantly. Of course, the Pats already signed Danny Amendola to help replace Welker’s production in addition to signing former Bills receiver Donald Jones, but getting Sanders would seemingly ensure that at least one of these new additions–or possibly a combination of all three of them–will step up and produce Welker-like numbers. The team still has slot specialist Julian Edelman under contract after they recently extended his contract, and he could also see a rise in his stats when the 2013 season gets underway.

Of course, the real brilliance behind this move by the Pats is the fact that they would severely cripple the Steelers’ passing game, which saw lead receiver Mike Wallace bolt for the Dolphins and South Beach on the first day of free agency. The plan for Pittsburgh was for Antonio Brown and Sanders to be the starting two receivers, with veterans like Jerricho Cotchery and Plaxico Burress available for depth and experience. Now however, the Steelers face a rather perplexing dilemma. Do they let one of their planned starters walk to a hated AFC rival for merely a third round draft pick? Or should they match the offer by New England, provided they have the cap room to do so, and further handicap their ability to get their draft picks under contract? This dilemma is precisely why so much influence on whether a team is competitive or not rests solely with its general manager.

If I am playing GM for Pittsburgh, I would have to let Sanders walk and hope that I could fill his role with one of the team’s draft picks in the upcoming draft. That might not be so hard a task this season as there seems to be a plethora of potential steals at the position in the first three or four rounds this year.

Update: Pittsburgh matched the offer from New England, ensuring that Sanders will be a Steeler for at least one more season. He will earn $2.5 million in 2013.

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