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Steelers' Sanders signs offer sheet with Patriots

| Wednesday, April 10, 2013, 11:18 a.m.
Christopher Horner
Steelers receiver Emmanuel Sanders keeps his feet in bounds to score the first touchdown during the second quarter against the Giants Sunday, Nov. 4, 2012, at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.

Tom Brady's gain might be Ben Roethlisberger's pain.

The Steelers, already without top receiver Mike Wallace after he signed a $60 million deal with the Miami Dolphins as a free agent, now could lose No. 3 receiver Emmanuel Sanders to the New England Patriots.

The Steelers confirmed Wednesday that Sanders signed a one-year offer sheet from the Patriots as a restricted free agent. They have until 11:59 p.m. Sunday to match the $2.5 million offer or they will receive the Patriots' third-round pick in the April 25-27 draft.

Allowing Sanders to walk would give the Steelers four of the top 91 picks in the draft but would further deplete an already dangerously thin wide receiving corps at a time when the passing game never has been more important to winning in the NFL.

The Steelers would be left with only Antonio Brown, Jerricho Cotchery and Plaxico Burress as experienced wide receivers, a dearth that might force them to expend one of their early draft picks on a receiver.

Sanders, expected to become a Steelers starter alongside Brown next season following Wallace's departure, is the only restricted free agent to sign with another team this year.

The Steelers are tight on cap space — they are about $2 million below the threshold — but still might be able to match the Patriots' offer to Sanders with some minor number-juggling.

However, the Steelers took a risky strategy by tendering Sanders a third-round offer of $1.323 million, rather than an $2.023 million second-round offer. They also could have made him a $2.88 million offer and received a first-round pick.

The Patriots' move also puts the Steelers into the uncomfortable role of having another team negotiate their salaries for them. If they match the offer — and they might not — they will end up spending nearly $500,000 more than they would have by making Sanders a second-round tender.

And even if he stays, Sanders could leave as an unrestricted free agent following the 2013 season if he does not sign a new contract.

NFL Network analyst Jamie Dukes pointed to the six critical fumbles by Steelers receivers during the 8-8 season in 2012 — two by Sanders — and wondered if they might not be better rebuilding their group.

“Those were the guys putting the ball on the carpet,” Dukes said Wednesday. “They missed the playoffs because of dropped balls, fumbled balls. Period, end of story.”

Sanders, who visited the Patriots last month in advance of the NFL meetings, caught 44 passes for 626 yards and a touchdown last season. He has 94 catches and five career touchdown catches in three NFL seasons.

Sanders likely would change roles — from a slot receiver to outside receiver — if he moves to New England. The Patriots plan to use Danny Amendola in the slot, and tight end Aaron Hernandez effectively is a slot receiver.

The Patriots are rebuilding Brady's passing offense after top receiver Wes Welker signed with Denver — a move that reportedly angered Brady — Brandon Lloyd wasn't re-signed, and Amendola was signed away from the Rams.

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at arobinson@tribweb.com or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.

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