Barring a trade or unforeseen circumstances, wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders will play for the Steelers in 2013. Whether he plays for them beyond that is problematic, and the Steelers had to know that when they decided to keep him for another year.
The New England Patriots weren't the only ones to offer Sanders a contract in free agency, and the Steelers might not be able to keep him beyond next season.
"We had several teams make offers in free agency so we know there are teams who really like Emmanuel," Jordan Woy, Sanders' agent, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Monday.
Sanders signed a one-year, $2.5 million offer sheet as a restricted free agent from the Patriots that the Steelers matched Sunday. Had they not matched, they would have received New England's third-round draft choice in return.
Unless the Steelers sign Sanders to a long-term contract, he will become an unrestricted free agent in March 2014, free to sign elsewhere with no compensation to the Steelers.
While Woy said, "we are open to discussing" a multiyear contract, he added that "we are also open to him playing the year out.
"It would have to be a very good deal for us to sign a multiyear agreement," Woy said.
Mike Wallace turned down every Steelers offer as a restricted free agent, played out the 2012 season and then recently signed a five-year, $60 million contract as an unrestricted free agent with Miami. When it became obvious the Steelers could not sign him, they turned to fellow receiver Antonio Brown and signed him to a six-year, $43 million contract in the early days of training camp.
The Steelers might have avoided the entire matter and saved themselves $500,000 had they tendered Sanders a $2 million offer as an RFA. A team would have had to give up a second-round draft pick to get him under that tender, and that was much less likely to happen. By tendering him a $1.3 million deal, the Steelers not only let everyone know that's what they thought Sanders was worth, but also that they would be willing to take a third-round pick for him.
In the end, they got neither, but by keeping him they told everyone they believe they will contend for a championship in 2013 and are not concerned right now about what it might cost them beyond that.
They kept some semblance of balance in their wide receiving group by not letting Sanders leave. They actually could go into the 2013 season with what they have and not add anyone -- Sanders, Brown, Jerricho Cotchery and Plaxico Burress. They also have a few young receivers, headed by David Gilreath. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley does not use many four-wide formations, so that could be enough.
Nevertheless, they likely will draft a wide receiver. They have to because Burress is old, and he, Cotchery and Sanders each will have their contracts expire at the end of the 2013 season.
Keeping Sanders, though, could still have negative effects:
The Steelers are left with roughly $800,000 in salary cap room. That may not be enough to sign someone such as free-agent halfback Ahmad Bradshaw. If they want to do that, they might have to create more room by pushing yet more cap accounting into the future, such as reworking the deal of Troy Polamalu, who turns 32 Friday.
The Steelers could try to protect their investment in Sanders, which cost them the 91st pick in this year's draft that the Patriots still own, by keeping him longer than the one season in which he is now under contract. They can negotiate now, and sign the deal after June, when they get the $5.5 million cap space from Willie Colon's contract.
They signed Brown in August to a six-year, $43 million contact with an $8.5 million signing bonus after Wallace turned them down. Must they offer Sanders that much in order for him not to enter free agency in 2014? Probably. Brown was two years from becoming a UFA when he signed, Sanders is only one year away. Plus, he saw how it worked out for Wallace and he could be just as willing to roll the dice.
Sanders comes out of this the big winner, and the Steelers still can benefit even if he becomes a lame duck in 2013. Sanders had his salary doubled and there is still incentive for him to shoot for a bigger deal as a UFA in 2014, motivation that could help him become an even better receiver in 2013.
In the end, the Steelers matched Sanders' contract because had they not it would have appeared they were giving up on the 2013 season, an opinion that already is popular among their fans. This at least temporarily stops their talent drain that has been going on since the beginning of March.
Correction, April 16, 2013: An earlier version of this story had an incorrect date in the fifth paragraph for when Emmanuel Sanders could become an unrestricted free agent.
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 16, 2013 4:00 AM