Only one NFL restricted free agent over the past three years has signed an offer sheet with another team. His name is Emmanuel Sanders, and now the Steelers are in a somewhat unique position: Match the deal their wide receiver signed with New England or pass and receive a third-round draft pick this year.
They have until Sunday to decide if they can afford to lose another receiver after Mike Wallace signed with Miami as a free agent, and one they project to replace Wallace as a starter.
Sanders signed a one-year deal that ESPN reported is worth $2.5 million.
The Steelers have enough salary-cap room to match it and keep Sanders, who already counts $1,323,000 against their cap because of the tender he received from them. So it would add less than $1.2 million to their cap.
If they let him go, that $1,323,000 would disappear and they could save about $900,000 if a minimum-wage rookie filled his spot on the roster.
New England's third-round pick is No. 91 in a draft where many believe the third round is more valuable than it has been in years.
A third-round draft choice would be projected to average less than $700,000 annually for the next four years, all under contract to the team that drafts him.
He would not become a free agent until 2018.
Sanders, even if the Steelers match, can become an unrestricted free agent next year.
Would they want to go through another situation the way they did with Wallace last season?
The Steelers, however, are thin at the position with only three other veterans with experience -- Antonio Brown, Jerricho Cotchery and Plaxico Burress.
There also would be nothing to stop them from matching the Patriots' offer and then working out a new longer-term contract with Sanders after doing so.
Sanders was the Steelers' No. 3 receiver last season. The Steelers tendered him a restricted free agent contract of $1,323,000, which protected their rights to match any offer he would sign or receive a third-round draft choice in return because that was the round in which Sanders was drafted.
They could have given him higher tenders of $2,023,000, which would have brought them a second-round pick, or $2,879,000, which would have brought them a first-round pick as compensation if he signed elsewhere and they passed.
Sanders, drafted in 2010, caught 44 passes for 626 yards and one touchdown last season.
In his career, he has caught 94 passes for 1,290 yards and five touchdowns.
In addition to losing Wallace and possibly Sanders, the Steelers do not know when tight end Heath Miller will be ready to start the season after he had surgery to repair two of the three knee ligaments, including the ACL, torn Dec. 23 in the 15th game.
Those three receivers accounted for 179 receptions, or 51 percent of the team's total last season.
For more on the Steelers, read the blog, Ed Bouchette on the Steelers at www.post-gazette.com/plus. Ed Bouchette: email@example.com and Twitter @EdBouchette. First Published April 11, 2013 4:00 AM