The Steelers, deciding they could not lose another veteran receiver, matched Sunday the one-year, $2.5 million offer sheet Emmanuel Sanders signed with the New England Patriots five days ago.
That keeps Sanders for at least one more season in Pittsburgh, but he can leave as an unrestricted free agent next year if they do not come to a longer-term deal. Had the Steelers not matched New England's offer by the deadline Sunday, they would have received the Patriots' third-round pick in the upcoming draft in return.
The Steelers already lost Mike Wallace, who signed a five-year, $60 million contract with the Miami Dolphins as an unrestricted free agent. Sanders, their No. 3 receiver in 2012, is projected to replace Wallace as their starting split end.
By signing the offer sheet with the Patriots, Sanders nearly doubled the salary the Steelers planned to pay him in 2013. They tendered him a one-year deal of $1,323,000 as a restricted free agent. He became the only RFA in the past three years to sign an offer sheet with another team.
Sanders, a third-round draft pick in 2010, caught 44 passes for 626 yards and one touchdown in 2012. In his career, he caught 94 passes for 1,290 yards and five touchdowns. The Steelers projected him and Antonio Brown to be their starters next season.
In addition to losing Wallace, 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.
Miller led the Steelers in 2012 with 71 receptions, Brown caught 66, Wallace 64 and Sanders was fourth on the team.
The Steelers and Sanders could now negotiate a long-term deal that would prevent him from leaving as a UFA next year. But they were unable to come to terms with Wallace when he was a restricted free agent playing under a tender of $2.7 million in 2012. They instead signed Brown to a six-year, $43 million contract early in training camp.
Wallace, though, did not sign his tender and did not report to the team until late August, which is permitted under the CBA. Sanders, who came under contract when he signed his one-year offer from New England, will be required to participate in training camp and the three-day minicamp in June at the very least.
The Steelers have two other veterans on their roster, Jerricho Cotchery and Plaxico Burress, who also have one year left on their contracts. The team is expected to still try to fortify the position in the draft.
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 15, 2013 4:00 AM