The Pittsburgh Steelers' salary-cap woes have forced them to bid adieu to a bevy of key players over the past couple of offseasons. It now appears that wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders will be the next to hop the train out of town.
Sanders, a restricted free agent, was presented with an offer sheet Wednesday by the New England Patriots, the NFL Network's Ian Rapaport reported -- the Steelers have five days to match whatever the Patriots offered (reportedly a one-year deal at an undisclosed amount of money) or to accept New England's third-round pick in this year's draft (No. 91 overall) as compensation.
Pittsburgh left the door very much open for this scenario by placing the third-round tender on Sanders, an extremely low tag for a promising 26-year-old receiver coming off a 44-catch year.
But part of the thinking behind that strategy may have been that the Steelers were unsure they could re-sign Sanders long-term. The third-round tender kept any potential cap hit in check for 2013 (Sanders would have made $1.323 million had he signed that initial offer), while also bringing back a decent return if Sanders bolted.
The Steelers had just north of $2 million under the cap as of early April, according to numbers released by the NFLPA; that will increase by $5.5 million once Willie Colon's release officially clears the books on June 1, though it does not account for any money Pittsburgh will have to pay its draft picks. Colon also will count $4.3 million in dead money toward the Steelers' 2014 cap, another hit for a team that's reeling a bit.
The Patriots, meanwhile, had $10.2 million available, per that NFLPA update (minus about $2 million to sign Tommy Kelly). Any offer they made to Sanders would force the Steelers to free up additional room, either by releasing a player or restructuring contracts (Rapaport mentioned Troy Polamalu as a candidate for the latter).
Already in the midst of some rebuilding, Pittsburgh may opt to take the third-rounder instead.
Aside from Sanders, the Steelers' options at wide receiver include Antonio Brown, Plaxico Burress and Jerricho Cotchery -- Mike Wallace, the team's leading receiver in 2012, signed with the Dolphins earlier in free agency. That's a thoroughly underwhelming group, especially with standout tight end Heath Miller's status for 2013 in question after he suffered a devastating knee injury late in 2012.
Working to the Steelers' benefit, though, is a draft rife with receiver prospects. Inheriting the No. 91 pick from New England would give the Steelers four selections in the first three rounds, and five of the draft's first 115 picks. Should Sanders be deleted from Pittsburgh's picture, it stands to reason that at least one of those selections would be spent on a receiver.
New England, on the other hand, would have very little draft ammunition remaining. The Patriots currently hold picks No. 29 (Round 1) and 59 (Round 2), but coughing up their third-rounder for Sanders would leave them without a third-, fourth-, fifth- or sixth-round selection. The Patriots traded away the latter three picks for Aqib Talib, Albert Haynesworth and Chad Ochocinco, respectively.
Restricted free agents still rarely receive offers from other teams, as evidenced by the lack of interest surrounding such players as Victor Cruz, Dennis Pitta and others this offseason.
The risk here for the Patriots is relatively low, however. And the Steelers might decide that they're better off turning their attention elsewhere, too.