In the NFL it is a rare occurrence for a restricted free agent to be stolen away from his franchise, but that is exactly what could happen to Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, now that the New England Patriots have shown interest.
Even the fact that a restricted free agent visited another team is an anomaly. According to Adam Schefter on Twitter, Sanders visited the Patriots on Friday. It's a horrible sign for Pittsburgh.
The worst part: There's not much the Steelers can do.
Pittsburgh slapped Sanders with an original-pick tender last week (per ESPN) to keep him around. Given that Sanders was taken in the third round of the 2010 NFL draft, this means the Patriots would give up just a third-round pick in this year's draft to steal Sanders.
The problem here for Pittsburgh (and the genius on New England's part) is that the Steelers are strapped for cash. It's why the team refused to pay Mike Wallace what he wanted, cut James Harrison and made LaMarr Woodley restructure his deal, per Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
All the Patriots have to do now is offer Sanders a ridiculously front-loaded contract, and the Steelers would have no chance of matching the deal.
It's likely the Steelers would go out of their way in an attempt to match—just not likely it is possible. Allowing Mike Wallace to walk was made more tolerable by the fact Antonio Brown and Sanders would still be around.
For New England, a third-round pick is a small price to pay for a proven receiver such as Sanders. He is going on 26 years old and can play every receiver slot on the field.
Sanders has 4.4 speed that can stretch the field and fits nicely with a revamped receiving core, including Danny Amendola and Donald Jones. His speed would also open things up underneath for tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
Last year was Sanders' best to date. He caught 44 passes for 626 yards and one score—as the third option behind Wallace and Brown. He averaged an impressive 14.2 yards per catch while showing off his sure-hands.
Not to mention stealing, Sanders from Pittsburgh would deal an AFC arch-nemesis a fatal blow as the team attempts to get younger, cheaper and more talented. The loss of Sanders would cripple the receiving crops in place and force the team to look at rookies in the draft.
Most importantly, it's not often you get a receiver as young and talented as Sanders for so cheap.
The Patriots haven't exactly hit home runs in the third round in recent years. Last year, it was Jake Bequette. In 2011, it was Steven Ridley and Ryan Mallet. 2010 was Taylor Price. 2009? Brandon Tate and Tyrone McKenzie.
The list goes on—the point is, Sanders is a sure-thing moreso than any prospect the Patriots could take this year.
Tom Brady's gain would be a rival's loss and a shiny new weapon for him, who should boost the offense for years, a likelihood that would be far from guaranteed from a third-round choice.
It sounds like the Patriots would be geniuses to steal Sanders away.
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