Patriots submit offer sheet on Steelers' WR Sanders
There is a strong need for improvement of the receiver group in New England, especially considering the fact that Rob Gronkowski's Week 1 status is now uncertain. While it seemed likely that they would address their need through the draft, they are now taking an uncommon approach to adding a talented pass catcher before then. The Patriots have reportedly submitted an offer sheet on Steelers' wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who is a restricted free agent.
Restricted free agents are tendered at a certain level that correlates with a round in the draft. For example, Mike Wallace was a restricted free agent last offseason and was tendered at the first-round level. If a team wanted to sign Wallace to an offer sheet, they would have had to give the Steelers their first-round draft pick. However, the Steelers would have had the right to match any offer that Wallace received and automatically retain him.
The cap-strapped Steelers only tendered Sanders at the original draft status level. Sanders was originally a third-round pick, so that is the draft pick a team would have to give up to sign him. By tendering a player at that level, teams leave themselves vulnerable to other clubs looking to acquire a quality player in return for a mid-round pick. Considering the Steelers have less than $3 million in cap room, there is serious cause for concern that they may be losing Sanders to the Patriots. If the Steelers really want Sanders back, they would have to restructure contracts of other players to free up the money for Sanders, which would hurt their long-term cap situation.
If Sanders ends up with the Patriots, he'll likely take Brandon Lloyd's role in the offense, while Danny Amendola plays the Wes Welker role. Sanders is a speedy, talented playmaker who is coming off the best year of his career (44 catches, 626 yards). Only 26 years old, it's reasonable to expect plenty more statistical improvement when he takes a bigger role in a better offense.
Acquiring Sanders would allow the Patriots to focus on needs other than receiver with their first pick in the draft, but I'd expect them to address the position at some point, especially considering Sanders' unproven starting potential and Amendola's lengthy injury history.
The Patriots have much more cap room than the Steelers and could front-load a contract that will make it very difficult for the Steelers to match. As of now, it looks like Emmanuel Sanders will be heading to New England for the 2013 season.