The Pros and Cons of Letting Emmanuel Sanders Defect to the Patriots

The Pittsburgh Steelers have a decision to make on wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders.

As Steelers Nation now knows, after one false alarm the New England Patriots have tendered an offer to Sanders as a restricted free agent, and the Steelers are divided over whether to match it.

And as Dale Lolley reports, the division between keeping Sanders and letting him walk falls between the coaching staff and the front office. For good reason, there are pro’s and con’s to both keeping Sanders and letting him go.

The Pro’s of Keeping Emmanuel Sanders, And the Cons to Letting Him Walk

One of the strongest arguments in favor of keeping Sanders was he drafted in 2010 and that mean he should be entering his professional prime. With weak drafts in 2008 and 2009, Steelers have precious few players in that “peak” point of their careers.

But what does that really mean? Objectively speaking you can say:

  • Sanders still has some upside, having his development struggled with injuries in 2011
  • Sanders performance in the first half of 2012 was strong, looking at times like a young Hines Ward
  • Depth. After Antonio Brown the Steelers have Plaxico Burress and Jerricho Cotchery, who are now closer to retirement than their rookie years

Add to the factors above, losing Sanders would severely limit the weapons the Steelers have downfield. Heath Miller will not start the season, Chris Rainey is gone, and David Gilreath doesn’t exactly project as the next Yancey Thigpen.

  • Sanders is a known commodity, who will deliver value to the Steelers in 2013.

A draft pick simply delivers potential. Two third round picks could bring the Steelers the next Mike Wallace and Keenan Lewis, or the next Anthony Smith and Willie Reid.

Yes, Sanders and Brown contributed as rookies, but recent experience with the likes of Willie Reid and Limas Sweed show how dangerous it is to bank on rookie receivers.

You could add that to the fact that, immediately after the 2012 NFL Draft the Steelers projected Mike Adams, David DeCastro and Alameda Ta’amu be early contributors and that did not work out so well.

The Pro’s of Letting Emmanuel Sanders Defect to the New England Patriots

If there is an upside to keeping Sanders and a downside to losing him there is both a football and business case for letting him go.

Experienced Steelers writers such as Dale Lolley and Jim Wexell have said that the 91st pick is far more valuable than Sanders, and that the Steelers would never give up their third round pick to trade for a player of Sanders caliber. And that is only part of the football case for letting him walk to New England:

  • Percentages. Yes, the draft is uncertain, but without Sanders the Steelers get 4 picks of the top 91 prospects in the 2013 NFL Draft, which statistically improves their chances of striking gold
  • Flexibility. With an extra third round pick the Steelers gain a buffer against the temptation to reach and improve their ability to move up
  • Durability. Sanders has had injury issues. How much these impact him in the future remains a question
  • Consistency. Sanders was the offense’s unsung hero in the first half of 2012, in the second half, not so much

In 2013, personnel decisions in the NFL never come down to pure X’s and O’s, there’s the business side. Sanders signed a 2.5 million dollar tender, according to ESPN. The business side boils down to this:

  • Matching Sanders offer means sacrificing the ability to make any other moves until June 1st
  • Allowing Sanders to leave, gives the Steelers 1.3 million more to their cap, improving flexibility
  • Investing towards the long term. Match the offer and the Steelers only keep Sanders for a year vs. applying that cap space towards the future on their terms

There’s also one other consideration not being discussed

The Steelers even have less depth at running back and on defensive line. Matching Sanders now would hamstring their ability to match tenders for Redman or McLendon and the Steelers get nothing if they lose McLendon or Redman.

What Decision Should the Steelers Make on Emmanuel Sanders?

When Steel Curtain Rising concluded its Steelers 2013 Free Agent Focus on Emmanuel Sanders with a call for the Steelers to sign Sanders to the a long term deal.

That made good football sense then and still makes good football sense now.

  • In spite of that, the Steelers should probably allow Sanders to walk

The full picture of the Steelers salary cap situation is known now, unlike in early February and the Steelers are in salary cap purgatory.

The idea of using some of the money gained by Willie Colon’s departure to sign Sanders while at St. Vincents is a good one, but the Steelers don’t have t he luxury of waiting that long.

  • In a perfect world the Steelers would sign Sanders to a 3-4 year contract this summer. 

But the Steelers salary cap world is far from perfect, and the economic realities of the game say that they the Steelers should let Sanders walk.

This move will hurt and the toll would be immediate and likely heavy in early 2013. But if the Steelers play their cards right the dividends they could reap in the long term could outweigh the costs in the here and now.

Thanks for visiting. Click here for the rest of Steel Curtain Rising or here to see our Steelers 2013 Free Agent Focus.
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