Emmanuel Sanders entered this offseason as a restricted free agent. The rules for Restricted Free Agents are slightly different than those governing unrestricted free agents, who are free to sign with any team as Mike Wallace and Rashard Mendenhall did. For Restricted Free Agents, there is a signing period where the team that has their rights can "tender" them an offer. There are three different levels of tenders, which correspond to the type of draft pick that the original team receives if that player signs elsewhere. There is a first round tender, a second round tender, and an original round tender. The Steelers signed Sanders to an Original Round tender, meaning they will receive a 3rd round pick in compensation if Sanders signs elsewhere since Sanders was a 3rd round pick. This season, the original round tender offer was worth $1.3 million. Sanders received a $2.5 million offer from the New England Patriots. The Steelers now have until Sunday to either match the contract that Sanders was offered or let him walk.
If the Steelers match the contract offer that New England made, they will have Manny Sanders on the payroll on a 1-year, $2.5 million contract. If the Steelers do not match the offer, the Steelers will receive New England's third round pick (#91 overall) and Sanders will go to New England on a 1-year $2.5 million contract and be an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season. The Steelers currently have a little over $2 million in salary cap space (Sanders' $1.3 million tender is counted against their cap number right now), so matching New England's offer would cost an additional $1.2 million in cap room.
In Sanders, the Steelers have a known commodity. He is the best route-runner on the team and despite a few drops and two fumbles last season, he has good hands. He possesses some abilities as a returner and could see more time there with Antonio Brown becoming the #1 receiver. Sanders would be the #2 receiver on the depth chart and without him the Steelers would have to rely on Cotchery, Burress, or a rookie as their second receiver next season. Even if the Steelers are only able to keep Sanders for one year, this would give them the opportunity to ease a rookie into the offensive system rather than forcing him to play right away.
Why Take The Pick?
The reason that the Steelers should take the pick is simple. One way or another, Sanders would likely only be on the team for one more year. If the Steelers let him go to New England, they would receive the #91 overall pick. Last year, the Steelers picked Sean Spence with the 86th overall pick and signed him to a 4-year $2.7 million deal. It is safe to assume this year's third round picks will be signed to similar contracts, meaning the Steelers could have a rookie that would cost them about the same over 4 years as Emmanuel Sanders would cost them for one. This would also give the Steelers four picks in the Top 100 of the draft and five picks in the Top 115. The Steelers have numerous positions they need to address in the draft, from RB and WR to OLB and the defensive backfield. Third round picks are no guarantee, but there is also no guarantee that Emmanuel Sanders will be on the team after 2013 anyways, at which point the return for him would be essentially nothing.
Let us also not forget Sanders' injury history. While he appeared in a full 16 games last season, he battled through injuries and the broken foot he suffered in Super Bowl XLV had lingering issues in his second season. He has just 5 touchdowns over his 3-year career and has yet to record a 100-yard receiving game. While the Steelers are in okay salary cap position and could sign Sanders to the deal without having to cut anyone, they would be handcuffed until June 1 with only $1 million in cap room left until the savings from the Colon cut kicks in. If the Steelers let Sanders go, not only do they get New England's third round pick, but they would also save another $1.3 million against the cap, which would give them about $3.5 million in cap room, enough to make a solid offer to an unrestricted free agent like Ahmad Bradshaw or LaRod Stephens-Howling.
At the end of the day, Sanders has not been a consistent contributor to the offense and would only be signing a one-year deal. Given the Steelers cap situation this year and their looming cap issues next year, the short-term pain of losing Sanders to New England is worth the long-term gain of an extra third round draft pick. This year's draft is deep at WR with at least 11 players worthy of being taken in the top 2 rounds alone. The decision comes down to whether or not the Steelers think Emmanuel Sanders is worth $2.5 million for one year, or if they would prefer to spend that same amount of money on a rookie over 4 years and be able to have an additional $1.3 million to spend on a free agent. It seems like a no-brainer that the Steelers would let Sanders go and take the pick, but if they feel that Sanders is part of their long-term plans, then they could match the tender offer then begin working on a long-term deal that would lower his cap hit below $2.5 million for this season.