Originally written on NESN.com  |  Last updated 4/10/13
The Patriots may have found their answer at wide receiver. Only time will tell. Steelers wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders signed an offer sheet on Wednesday, agreeing to join the Patriots on a one-year deal. The deal is not yet set in stone, but either way it’s a win-win in New England. Sanders is a restricted free agent this offseason, meaning the Steelers do retain some rights and will have five days to match New England’s offer. But it won’t be as simple as it sounds for Pittsburgh. The Steelers are tight up against the salary cap right now with just $2 million in free money. They still have other needs to address this offseason — running back and linebacker to name a few — and signing Sanders for the near reported $2.5 million offer. So, if the Steelers decide to reclaim Sanders, then the Patriots would have done some considerable damage to one of their biggest AFC rivals. But if the Patriots are able to come away with the shifty receiver, then their benefit will be even greater. Sanders wasn’t the most productive receiver during his three seasons in Pittsburgh, and he isn’t the most physically gifted player in football. But he has improved each year and, at 26, his best years are still ahead of him. The Patriots see definite value in his abilities — or they wouldn’t be so willing to part with such a high draft pick in the first place — and they must believe his breakout season in 2012 is just a shadow of things to come. Sanders played a full 16-game slate for the first time in his NFL career last season, finishing with a career-high 44 catches and 626 yards. His emergence gave the Steelers hope that they had a replacement for Mike Wallace, who signed with the Dolphins, already in house, and it apparently piqued the interest of the Patriots, too. Losing Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd left a sizeable gap in the Patriots’ offense. But the addition of Danny Amendola and a pair of big question marks — Donald Jones and Michael Jenkins — just isn’t going to cut it. Toss Julian Edelman back into that mix, as they did on Wednesday, and bring in a guy with as much potential as Sanders and suddenly your once barren cupboard is looking pretty stocked. There will be questions leftover, if Sanders ends up with the Patriots. Is a third-round pick worth risking on a potential one-year rental? Will Sanders continue progressing on the strides he made last season? How quickly can he and Tom Brady develop a reliable connection? All of which are fair and intriguing, but they’re also contingent on the Steelers’ cooperation. It’s likely that this situation will go down to the final hours of the Steelers’ five-day window. So, expect an epic standoff and plenty of contradicting reports until a decision is announced on Monday. But whatever the end result, the Patriots pulled a fast one on the Steelers and in turn created even more anticipation for their trip to Foxboro next season. Have a question for Luke Hughes? Send it to him via Twitter at @LukeFHughes or send it here. Photo via Facebook/Emmanuel Sanders
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