Strategies and Decisions: the Emmanuel Sanders Offer Sheet

Big news today was the rare occurrence of a team signing a restricted free agent to an offer sheet, this time by the New England Patriots who offered a $2.5 million dollar contract to Emmanuel Sanders of the Pittsburgh Steelers. The portion of the contract that struck everyone as odd was the fact that the contract was for only one year, which, in my opinion, is part of the strategy of the Patriots.

The Steelers only valued Sanders at $1.323 million dollars. They did not see fit to protect him with a $2.023 million tender this past offseason. A $2.5 million dollar salary represents a 189% raise over the amount the Steelers were prepared to pay Sanders this offseason and falls in between the 2nd and 1st round tender amounts. That is quite the hefty price tag even if the amount may seem small. The Steelers, typically minimally active in free agency and a team that builds via the draft, is also going to be tempted by a low cost mid round draft selection.

Matching the $2.5 million is not an issue for Pittsburgh. The Steelers have around $1.9 million in reported cap room and likely the NFL values their cap space closer to $2.4 million based on a different interpretation of the June 1st cut, which the team used on Willie Colon. The Steelers will free up $3.35 million in cap space once Colon comes off the books, which can be used to sign their rookies. In addition the reported cap space already includes the $1.323 million tender made to Sanders, so to match the deal the Steelers only require $1.177 million in cap room. That means the Steelers have no need to rework any contracts to match the offer and sign their rookies come July.

The Patriots threw a further wrinkle into the mix by offering Sanders just a 1 year contract, which complicates matters further. This is not matching a long term offer that ties Sanders down to the Steelers for the next 3 or 4 years. Instead it is paying $2.5 million for a player who was the 4th target on the offense last season and then watching him head to free agency again. Seeing the money being thrown around on wide receivers, one of only two positions to not feel the financial pinch of the CBA, there would be almost no reason for Sanders to take a team friendly long term deal with Pittsburgh at this point. So the Steelers are going to most likely be stuck on the 1 year deal unless they overpay him which they would have no reason to do. From Sanders perspective the Patriot deal is a great offer because it gives him the chance to participate in an offense, in his walk season, that inflates the numbers of receivers. Those are the factors for Pittsburgh and factors that New England has likely considered when formulating the offer sheet.

The Steelers could have protected themselves better years ago when they drafted Sanders. The Steelers were one of the few NFL teams that maintained the 3 year contract for their rookies drafted beyond the 2nd round. Most NFL teams signed all their rookies to 4 year contracts that contained provisions to where the 4th year salary would escalate to that of the restricted free agent tag. That saved the headache of the RFA process, which was more or less useless, and compensated the player as if he received no offers from another club. The Steelers chose to expose their players which left open this possibility.

From the Patriots point of view giving up a 3rd round pick, which would leave New England with a league low 4 draft picks, would seem a steep price for a 1 year rental, but New England is a win now football team. They are looking to add proven pieces or pieces that can fit in quickly to their current system. A first or second round pick may be able to contribute in 2013. A third rounder will not. New England runs through wide receivers like they mean nothing so a one year deal is no surprise. Plus if Sanders walks and signs a contract elsewhere the Patriots will likely receive a 6th round or so compensatory pick. With Sanders replacing the salary of a rookie the effective cap cost to New England is only $1.78 million and $1.66 million in cash.

The decision likely comes down to a few questions. For a team like the Patriots what is more valuable? Sanders for $1.78 million and assume a 6th rounder in 2015 or a 2013 3rd round pick? 2015 is when the Patriots make the turn out of the Brady era and into a different era, likely the beginning stages of the rebuilding process. We know the decision the Patriots made. For the Steelers, an 8-8 team with more cap problems due to contract restructures for their proven players what is more valuable? Emmanuel Sanders and the loss of $1.177 million in cap room or a 3rd round pick in 2013 and a gain of $784,600 in cap room? That is the answer we will find out in a few days.

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