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Emmanuel Sanders: Deal or no deal?

Should Pittsburgh pocket New England’s third round pick for Emmanuel Sanders or should they match the Patriots' offer and keep him?

On Wednesday, news broke that the Patriots signed restricted free agent Emmanuel Sanders to an offer sheet. Before I continue, it’s probably best to address how signing a restricted free agent works. Restricted free agents are going the way of the dinosaurs; they were essentially written out of the last collective bargaining agreement so in all likelihood, this could be the last ever example of a restricted free agent signing. Consequently I’ll try not to spend too much time explaining something you’ll likely never need to know again.

Unrestricted free agents are exactly that; when their contract expires, they’re free to sign for whomever they please. By contrast, restricted free agents go through something of a more elongated process. Teams designate the restricted free agent a tender amount; this will either be a first round tender, a second round tender or an original draft tender. Once the restricted free agent has been designated a tender, teams are free to sign the player to an offer sheet – as the Patriots did on Wednesday when they offered Sanders a one year $2.5 million deal. Pittsburgh is now presented with two options and they have five days to respond: i) refuse to match the Patriots offer and let Sanders go in exchange for a draft pick (Sanders was originally drafted in the third round and given the Steelers original round tender, that would mean New England would ship over their 2013 third round pick to Pittsburgh as compensation); ii) match the offer and keep Sanders, but obviously miss out on the third round pick.

Now that’s out of the way, back to the question. New England’s third round pick will undoubtedly be tempting to the Steelers but given that they lost Mike Wallace to the Dolphins, they might want to think twice before letting Sanders go. If they lost Sanders, Pittsburgh’s remaining wide receivers would be Antonio Brown (who’s struggled to stay healthy at times), Jerricho Cotchery (who’ll be 31 next season), Plaxico Burress (who’ll be 36 next season), and four journeyman undrafted free agents whose names I won’t even bore you with. That’s not a lot of depth. And by not a lot of depth, I mean that losing Sanders would leave literally nothing outside of Antonio Brown who, whilst I believe is a very talented wide receiver, is not quite good enough to contend with double coverage on a regular basis. Sanders is a threat going deep and forces defenses to scheme for both sides of the field; do you think coordinators will be having sleepless nights about leaving Jerricho Cotchery or Plaxico Burress in one-on-one coverage? No, I don’t either and for me, that is as good a reason as any to match the Patriots’ offer.

Sanders hasn’t exactly lit it up over the course of his first three years in the league, with only 94 receptions for 1,290 yards and 5 touchdowns to his name. Nevertheless, he’s looked very promising at times and I believe one of the reasons why the Steelers were content to see Mike Wallace leave (outside of the fact that they didn’t fancy paying him $60 million over 5 years like Miami did) was because they felt Sanders was ready to step up and take over the X receiver spot opposite Antonio Brown. If the Steelers lost Sanders, they’d have to find a capable replacement in the draft and although they’re in an ideal position at pick 17 to grab the likes of Tavon Austin or Cordarrelle Patterson, I’m sure the Steelers would rather draft one of the top defenders on the board instead. Equally so, Bill Belichick (more on him in a minute) hit the nail on the head with his comments at the NFL owners meeting last month:

"As I’ve said many times before, I think the college passing game is a lot different than the [pro] passing game - pass protection, pass rush, pass execution and pass defense. We all look at the same film. We’re all trying to evaluate the same players. But it’s a lot easier to watch a guy in the NFL perform and translate his skills for your team than watch a guy in college perform because of the discrepancy in the passing game. It’s nobody’s fault. That’s just the way it is".

Just because the likes of Austin and Patterson look good on tape at the college level, by no means guarantees that they’ll translate as a pro (without stating the obvious there). Better the devil you know that the devil you don’t and in this case, the Steelers know Sanders can play and play well at the NFL level.

Finally, a general rule of thumb in today’s NFL: if the New England Patriots coming knocking at your door trying to steal one of your players, that’s your cue that you should be doing everything humanly possible to lock him down. Bill Belichick is a calculated, methodical individual who doesn’t make decisions on a whim. If New England were to lose their third round pick, they would be left with only four picks in the 2013 NFL Draft (a first, a second and two sevenths). Few teams’ value draft picks like New England does and if Belichick is willing to give Pittsburgh a third rounder in compensation for Sanders, he’s seen something he likes and that means you’ve got something pretty good.

Pittsburgh should ignore the fool’s gold third round pick and stick with Sanders. Either that or Steelers fans could be seeing a lot more coverage sacks on Ben Roethlisberger next season.

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