Did the Steelers make the right move keeping Emmanuel Sanders?

By matching New England’s offer sheet for restricted free agent wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders the Steelers have one less hole to fill heading into the 2013 season. And that’s a good thing.

There is just one tiny little problem with that: It’s a short-term fix for a team that probably isn’t going to be very good this season and has a growing list of long-term holes that need to be addressed.

That’s probably bad.

Had the Steelers declined to match New England’s offer ($2.5 million) they would have received a third-round pick (No. 91 overall) in this month’s draft. Getting a third-round draft pick for a wide receiver — even a very good one — in a trade is probably more than fair value. Especially when the player in question has a resume like Sanders.

He’s still young, and he’s pretty good, but given what he’s actually done at the NFL level and the injury problems that have plagued him throughout his career, it’s unlikely another team would have offered more in a trade. The value was there.

The Steelers decided that Sanders was too important to the 2013 roster to lose, especially after they watched Mike Wallace leave in free agency and take his talents to the Miami Dolphins. Had they lost Sanders that would have left them with a wide receiver corps that consisted of Antonio Brown and whatever is left of Jerricho Cotchery and Plaxico Burress. Not exactly an exciting group.

Honestly, it’s really not that exciting even with Sanders back.

Even though it would have made the 2013 team weaker, they still should have let him go and taken the draft pick.

It seems very unlikely the Steelers are going to re-sign Sanders to a long-term contract extension which means he will probably leave after the 2013 season anyway. The Steelers’ cap situation remains a mess as they continue kicking the can down the road with restructures, and they rarely give wide receivers a second contract. The only examples over the past 20 years of the team signing a receiver to a new deal beyond his rookie contract are Hines Ward and Antonio Brown.

They didn’t do it for Plaxico Burress (his first time around with the team), they didn’t do it for Santonio Holmes, and they didn’t do it for Mike Wallace. The cap situation seems to make it so that even if they wanted to keep Sanders they probably won’t be able to do so, especially if he comes back with a big season in 2013, due to the continuing cap issues.

The possibility of this simply being a one-year return makes it more than a little difficult to swallow given how bad the 2013 team is shaping up to be.

The draft pick, which has the potential to be a contributor for the next four years, and perhaps be a part of the next Steelers team that is a true Super Bowl contender, might have had more value to the franchise than one year of Emmanuel Sanders on a team that’s probably only going to win six or seven games whether he returns or not.

Ask yourself this: How many wins is Sanders really worth? Is he going to be the difference between making the playoffs and missing them?

As the team sits now there remain many, many holes. They are still thin at wide receiver, have no running back, and have a tight end that won’t be ready for the start of the season (and will be 30 years old coming off a devastating knee injury when he does return). Once you get past Ben Roethlisberger the strongest part of the 2013 Steelers offense might in fact be its offensive line, and that’s a unit that has more question marks (Mike Adams, David DeCastro, and Marcus Gilbert have potential, but we still don’t know how good they really are yet — and let’s not even talk about the left guard spot) than solid answers (Maurkice Pouncey).

And that’s to say nothing of a defense that has a stunning lack of depth at several positions and is still getting older in the secondary.

That’s a ton of holes to fill in one draft, and I don’t think it’s out of line to question how an 8-8 team that lost its best wide receiver, arguably its best cornerback, and its most talented running back is going to improve.

A late third-round pick is far from a guarantee, and the Steelers have had their share of misses in that round (Willie Reid and Anthony Smith come to mind), but they’ve also had a lot of success with picks in that range, including Chris Hope, Mike Wallace, Keenan Lewis, and even Sanders himself.

You hate to give up on a season before it starts when you still have one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, but at some point the Steelers have to start thinking about the future.

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  • EasyLikeSundayMorning

    I think the decision to sign Sanders was a close call. If you really think the Steelers will win 6-7 games, that would tip me towards not signing Manny. But If I believed this, and I don’t, I also would be cutting more of the older players with either high salaries or high cap numbers like Keisel and Clark.

    With Wallace and Brown on the team, Sanders was often a third down specialist. I don’t have stats to back this up, but it seems like Manny has made a disproportionately high number of third-and-long catches for first downs. I expect him to be worth his salary this year. And Manny’s quotes and tweets since the match suggest to me that we may have a reasonable chance to resign him.

  • Cols714

    I think it was fine to sign Sanders. Unless you really think that 2013 is going to suck, it’s nice to have at least 2 receivers who are pretty decent.

    I really think that fans are going to be surprised about the Steelers in 2013. All the doom and gloom talk is really starting to irk me. They have rebuilt the OL and DL the last few years and unless Jason Worilds falls on his face they are bringing back some pretty good LBs and a secondary that was actually pretty good last year. Yeah, Lewis will be missed, but Cortez Allen looked fantastic last year.

    As for the offense, I’m counting on the OL to be better and healthier to be the difference from last year’s team.

    We still need a RB though.

  • EasyLikeSundayMorning

    As for expectations for 2013, many, many things went wrong in 2012. Barring some sort of anti-Haley mutiny, I’d expect us to win more games next year. I am concerned about our depth at positions we’ll need to fill in 2014 on D and RB could use an upgrade (either more consistency from Dwyer or a new player). But I expect us to be playoff contenders. And that is even with my assumption that Hood and Worilds will be unremarkable players.

    I expect our OL to be good, our passing game to be fine and our D to be solid/strong (but not spectacular). Health at the end of the season may determine our ultimate fate.

  • djanyreason

    Signing Sanders was the right call

    1) If the Steelers don’t re-sign Manny next year, we’ll get a comp pick, probably a 6th. Its less value than a 3rd, but its not no value.

    2) If you look at WRs drafted in the 3rd round over the past 5 years or so, only a small handful are as good as Manny. Quite a lot are busts. Heck, quite a lot of 3rd round picks period are busts. So its not like we’re getting someone who will be a contributor for 4 years. Most likely we’re getting someone who will be a contributor for 0 years. If you said the expected value was 1 year of contribution, I’d say you’re probably being optimistic.

    3) The Steelers aren’t going into 2012 with Jericho Cotchery as #2 WR and Plaxico Burress as #3. Not going to happen. So if they don’t match the offer sheet, they are almost forced to spend their 1st round pick on a WR, and then pray he doesn’t immediately bust in camp leaving them to scramble for a trade. For a team with as many holes as we seem to think the Steelers have, this would be extremely problematic. As it stands right now, despite all the holes, there is no position where the Steelers can’t put competent non-embarrasing players on the field, which means we can actually pick the value on the board. If we lost Manny that’s no longer true.

    I suspect #3 played the largest role in deciding to match. The opportunity cost of having your hands tied on what to pick in the 1st round is way more than the gain of the 91st pick.

    • djanyreason

      Also:

      4) We have evidence that at least 1 team would trade a pick as high as 91st overall to acquire Manny Sanders, so its harder to argue that Manny isn’t worth at least that pick. Bayes~!

  • Rob D

    I kind of slagged him leading up to this, but I’m ok with keeping him another year and hopefully signing him longer term if they like what they see. It was NE’s third rounder and I can’t say I was all excited about that anyway. 91st pick or something? I think they let him go if that pick is near the top of the round, like in the 70`s. The one year NE hasn’t stockpiled mid round picks is the year they screw us …lol.. I go back to my usual thing..I trust the STeelers, Colbert and Tomlin to make mostly the right decisions. Something stank in the lockerroom last year IMO..there’s too many off the cuff remarks about it from players for there not to be something to it. Perhaps we cleared out some guys who were all about “me” ..don’t know for sure obviously. But it was like..bye bye..don’t let the door hit you etc. and Keenan, Mendy, Wallace walked. I feel we can find a decent RB and another nickle corner to compete with Gay/Brown. Finding a true No. 1 WR is going to be tough though.I am really with the idea of trying to trade down now that I have read reams of info on possible draft picks,especially the high risk ones in the first round.Scary! I would not be scared of drafting at the end of 1st this year and still have our 2nd. Looks like the best scenario since I am unsure about Vacarro, Patterson and other playrs who seem to have big ??? about them.

  • Rob D

    O,,and thanks for the new subject matter, Adam. Any news on possible draft coverage for this site? Actually, an news at all on the state of SL would be great.

  • Cols714

    Which players in this year’s draft would the Steelers run the pick to the podium ala David DeCastro from last year?
    I can think of two, Ezekiel Ansah and Dion Jones.

    • EasyLikeSundayMorning

      What about Star Lotulelei?

    • http://www.facebook.com/randy.steele.583 Randy Steele

      I don’t think there will be many falling stars this year, because I don’t think we’ll see many teams trying to trade up into the top 10 picks to get a quarterback.

      • EasyLikeSundayMorning

        The year Mendenhall fell, the reason seemed to be the run on OTs (7 taken before Rashard). Last year, there were 7 DLs taken before DeCastro. So it could be a run on another position than QB that causes someone to fall to us.

        • http://www.facebook.com/randy.steele.583 Randy Steele

          Let’s hope so, Easy.

    • Intropy

      Heck yes on Dion Jones, an OLB with the production of Jarvis Jones and the speed of Dion Jordan.

      Well, unless you accidentally get the speed of Jones and the production of Jordan.

      • Cols714

        Ha ha. Yeah I got that messed up.

    • EasyLikeSundayMorning

      Mingo might not have to fall far to get to us. Autocorrect turned that into Mongo. If Mingo is as good as Alex Karras was, that would work.

  • http://www.facebook.com/randy.steele.583 Randy Steele

    I have a slightly different take on the issue. If you were to ask me if I had to lose one more player in free agency, and that the player would be either Manny Sanders or Steve McClendon, I would pick Sanders because I think the Steelers would have a better chance to replace him this year than McClendon.

    Yes, it was in limited action, but McClendon looked every bit like a real player last year whenever he subbed for Hampton, and it looks as if the Steelers’ front office thought so, too. Steve McClendon spent a lot of time under the personal tutelage of Chris Hoke, and it obviously has paid off.

    The money the Steelers have now allocated to keep Sanders (for only one year, I might add) could have been used to keep McClendon from signing with the Packers. And as I’m sure we all know by now, the Steelers get no draft choice as compensation if McClendon signs with Green Bay.

    I know some fans feel that getting only a third-round pick for Sanders isn’t enough compensation. True, most receivers who are drafted in the third round never amount to much. But I’d counter that this year seems to be an exceptionally deep year for wide-receiving talent, and an extra third round pick sure would have come in handy this year.

    Of course, the real problem here is that the Steelers tried to play it too cheap with Sanders and McClendon in the first place. If the front office would have tendered these guys at $2 million, requiring a second-round pick as compensation, we wouldn’t be going through this drama today.

    • http://www.facebook.com/randy.steele.583 Randy Steele

      Forget this long, boring harangue about Steve McClendon. I just read that the Steelers signed him to a maximum $7.5 million, 3-year contract with about $1.65 million guaranteed. I have no idea how they did that with only $700,000 or so in cap room, but there it is.

      • Rob D

        Ian Rapoport ‏@RapSheet 3m

        #Steelers had $743K cap room before McLendon deal. But his RFA counted $1.323M. Now, he’ll count about $1.4M with his new deal. So, a wash

    • djanyreason

      I’d be MUCH happier with the Steelers feeling forced to spend a high pick on a NT than a WR. Ridiculously happier. Planet theory.

      • EasyLikeSundayMorning

        I haven’t seen much that suggests that McClendon is more than a backup or borderline starter as a 3-4 NT (he seems quicker but not as stout as most who play the position). Based on the contract he got (with less than $2mm guaranteed), the Steelers (and implicitly the Packers and the rest of the league) appear to think the same. So even after the signing, I’d be fine with both a high pick on an NT, signing Casey again for a year at the veteran minimum and cutting Ta’amu.

        • http://www.facebook.com/randy.steele.583 Randy Steele

          Easy,
          Someone on Wexell’s site opined that McClendon is only a slightly more athletic version of Chris Hoke.

          And if that’s all he is, I’d be satisfied.

          I agree that he lacks stoutness (is there such a word?) at the point of attack. He does seem to get pushed around more than Hampton or Hoke ever did, but he also has shown the ability to explode into the opponent’s backfield, causing all kinds of havoc.

          The way defenses have been evolving, that doesn’t seem to be a bad trade-off.

          • Cols714

            Agreed. While I don’t think that McClendon is all that great, the Steelers in the past have done just fine with Chris Hoke and I think they’ll do just fine with McClendon.

            I wouldn’t mind seeing Hampton back though. He played pretty well after he got healthy last year.

  • Eric
    • Cols714

      I saw this. But I can’t help but think that it’s biased against Hood. In that same article the author talks about Timmons as not being all that great either when it’s obvious that Timmons was great in 2009, 2010, and 2012 (2011 was so-so).

      They also talk about McClendon in another post and how he’s some sort of superstar.

      I prefer to think the Hood is OK, McClendon is OK but will be exposed a bit in a starting role and Timmons is awesome.

      • Cols714

        The Steelers haven’t exactly fallen off of the defensive map by replacing Smith with Hood the last 4 years. They’ve been ranked tops against the run and pass and gotten to one Super Bowl.

        • Eric

          Hood started 9 games in 2010 (after Smith was injured) and the Steelers were the #1 run defense by FO metrics. However in 2011 and 2012 (were Hood started 14 and 16 games respectively) the run defense was #15 and #8. Defensive stats are more volatile but I think the run defense has declined since Smith left. The numbers bear that out and that has been my impression watching the games. Still good but not exceptional like it had been for several years before.

      • Eric

        I didn’t think it was unfair. In fact, your assessment is the same as theirs – that Hood is OK. They specifically pointed out where they thought his strengths and weaknesses were.

        • Rob D

          Lots of people think McClendon is a much better fit at DE than NT….I don’t know about that since I don’t spend my days working out D-linemen … :0..but I can see why some think he’d be better at DE. He’s not really the boat anchor you need at NT. I’m thinking Ta’amu/Fagupo/Draft pick is a better option but maybe not till next year. I think it’ll be Keisel and Hood flanking McClendon this year. I really hope that Heyward makes some noise this year.Actually more worried about him..its time to break out.