Sanders, 26, signed an offer sheet worth just $2.5 million over one year, according to Ian Rapoport of NFL.com. While matching such a deal would not be financially stressful for the Steelers, there are several reasons why Pittsburgh should just accept the third-round pick from New England and move on.
For starters, the Steelers did not previously value Sanders at a price tag of $2.5 million.
At the start of every season, teams are given the ability to place value and compensation on restricted free agents like Sanders.
There were three different value and compensation options in 2013: First round at $2.879 million, second round at $2.023 million and original round at $1.323 million.
The Steelers handed Sanders an original-round tender at $1.323 million. Because Sanders was drafted in the third round of the 2010 NFL draft, the Steelers would then receive a third-round pick in return if any offer sheet wasn't matched.
Pittsburgh's decision to give Sanders the original-round tender demonstrates their in-house evaluation of his worth. If the Steelers truly wanted to deter other teams from signing Sanders to an offer sheet, they could have upped the compensation to a second-round level by agreeing to pay him just $700,000 more in 2013.
Considering the Steelers already planned on losing receiver Mike Wallace in free agency, their tender valuation of Sanders is telling enough. While knowingly thin at receiver, the Steelers made little effort to ensure a likely starter in 2013 would stay on the roster.
Matching the Patriots' offer sheet now would require the Steelers to re-value Sanders at nearly a 200 percent clip.
Maybe there are reasons for such a willingness from Pittsburgh to expose Sanders.
During three years with the Steelers, Sanders caught just 94 passes for 1,290 yards and five touchdowns—which averages out to roughly 31 catches for 430 yards and less than two scores per season. While his production would likely spike in 2013 without Wallace, Pittsburgh obviously felt comfortable enough with his value on the restricted free-agent market.
It's also worth noting that Sanders has missed eight games in three seasons due to various injuries, and he lost two important fumbles last season.
You can only assume that if the roles were reversed and Sanders was a restricted free agent in New England, the Steelers would have zero interest in forking over a third-round pick to obtain him.
Speaking of which, the Patriots' third-round pick is also a very tempting reason to let Sanders go.
Not only could Pittsburgh avoid another lame-duck season from a receiver (see: Mike Wallace, 2012) and the risk of losing Sanders for little-to-nothing next offseason, but the Steelers could also secure a much-needed third-round pick in this year's draft.
The Patriots' No. 91 overall selection could then be used to pluck one of the many talented mid-round receivers available in the 2013 draft.
While Sanders would likely be a good bet to leave in unrestricted free agency after 2013, a mid-round rookie receiver should cost a fraction of Sanders' price and would be under Pittsburgh's control for the next four or more seasons.
And while the financials are not restrictive against the Steelers matching an offer, money does play a role.
According to the salary cap numbers provided by the NFL Players Association, the Steelers currently have roughly $1.9 million in available cap space.
Matching the $2.5 million offer sheet would cost the Steelers roughly $1.2 million, considering his $1.323 million tender is already on Pittsburgh's books. The Steelers could afford to match and still pay their rookies from the 2013 class, as Willie Colon's cap number will officially come off the books on June 1.
However, matching New England's offer sheet might force the Steelers into a tricky situation regarding other free agents right now, such as running back Ahmad Bradshaw. Pittsburgh would need to re-work more contracts (Troy Polamalu?) to fit Sanders, the eventual 2013 rookies and a free agent like Bradshaw under the cap.
Is one more year of Sanders worth losing both a third-round pick in April and potentially Bradshaw down the road?
While no team wants to see a former draft pick sign with a conference rival, the Steelers have ample reason to let Sanders go to New England on his current offer sheet.
The original in-house valuation of Sanders, temptation of another third-round pick and threat of losing a player like Bradshaw should all dictate Pittsburgh's decision away from matching New England's offer sheet.