On the Steelers: Keeping Sanders, not letting him go, would be the real gamble

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Presented with the decision the Steelers must make on Emmanuel Sanders by midnight tonight, Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin and Art Rooney had to have made two lists, just like the rest of us when faced with such a task.

On one list, they would write down the reasons to match New England's reported offer to Sanders of $2.5 million for one season and keep him. The second would contain reasons to let him go and receive the Patriots' third-round choice in this month's draft, No. 91 overall.

Surely that second list would be much longer and contain more compelling reasons to persuade them to pass and take the pick. It's almost a no-brainer, yet other factors could be at work here, including a coaching staff that went 8-8 last season and might be worried about how another year out of the playoffs could erode job security.

Sanders is a nice little receiver, a young player with good hands, quickness and the ability to gain chunks of yards after he catches the football. He is projected to replace Mike Wallace as their starting split end this season. Obviously, the Patriots think enough of him to gamble a third-round pick and a one-year deal as they do all they can to win now in Tom Brady's golden years.

Let's say the Steelers matched and kept him for 2013. It would mean they'd want to keep him long-term as well. They can then try to negotiate a multiple-year contract with Sanders. But what if he pulls a Mike Wallace and no matter what they offer, he rejects? Are they willing to pay him more than Antonio Brown? Probably not, and Sanders probably would opt to gamble on free agency in 2014, just like Wallace.

In essence, they would go through another season with a lame-duck starter at wide receiver, and they would have thrown away the chance to acquire a 2013 third-round pick for him (if he joins the Patriots, the Steelers likely would pick up a third-round compensatory pick in 2014).

Also, while they do have room under the salary cap to cover that $2.5 million -- they need only about $1.2 million above the $1.323 million they already are committed to him -- it would bring them within about $700,000 of their cap limit. They will clear $5.5 million more in cap space in June because of their release of Willie Colon, but they will need much of that to sign their rookie draft picks.

Matching the Sanders deal might preclude them from signing, say, Ahmad Bradshaw. Or it might force them to restructure a contract they did not want to redo, that of Troy Polamalu, and push even more cap accounting into future years. By passing on Sanders, they would pick up about $900,000 more in cap space immediately, giving them more than enough to sign another veteran or two in free agency before June.

If the Steelers really wanted to pay Sanders that kind of money, they could have put a second-round tender on him, which would have cost them $2.023 million. Perhaps they felt Sanders was not worth that much.

Put it this way, if another receiver with Emmanuel Sanders' ability was on another team and he was a restricted free agent with a third-round tender, would the Steelers give up a third-rounder for him? Not on your life. Would they trade a third-rounder for a receiver of Sanders' ability? No.

So, why would they give up a third-rounder to keep him?

This team is in transition, no matter what Kevin Colbert says, and it needs to remake its wide receiving corps. They planned to draft a wide receiver anyway, perhaps even high; they can let Sanders go and draft two of them.

This is a draft that supposedly is not impressive at the top but deep, which means those third-round picks are more valuable this year than they were last year. They have other pressing needs besides wide receiver, like running back, linebackers and safeties. That extra third-rounder would come in handy to address all.

Not only that, but that third-round pick will average under $700,000 a year for four years, all in the Steelers' control with no RFA after three as was the case with Sanders. How's that for more cap relief?

Steelers fans know the more recent history of the team finding wide receivers in the third round and later, but here's a quick review: Hines Ward, Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown ... Emmanuel Sanders. There's also an occasional Willie Reid.

It would be a gamble, letting Sanders go and hoping to find his replacement in the draft. It would be a bigger one to keep him.

Steelers - mobilehome

First Published April 14, 2013 4:00 AM


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