Even after signing Danny Amendola, the Patriots still needed wide receiver depth. Brandon Lloyd was released, and as we creep closer to April 25 and the draft gets mocked with increasing frequency, wide receivers are being slotted to New England in the first round. The urgency to get more soft hands for Tom Brady’s soft lobs may have grown even more with the possibility that Rob Gronkowski could miss regular-season time.
There’s always been a widely rumored solution to this little wide receiver quandary: Emmanuel Sanders. Now, the Patriots have turned rumor into reality, signing the Steelers restricted free agent to a one-year offer sheet.
Sanders was given an original round tender by the Steelers, meaning that if he signed he’d be paid a fully guaranteed $1.3 million during the 2013 season. It also meant that any team willing to sacrifice a third-round pick (the round Sanders was originally selected in during the 2010 draft) and then sign Sanders could have themselves a nice, shiny new receiver, and one who’s only a ripe 26 years old.
With Amendola currently slated to line up alongside (big gulp) some combination of Donald Jones and Michael Jenkins, the Patriots had a clear need for another field stretcher. So they’ve now done something that’s become rather common during Bill Belichick’s Patriot dictatorship: they saw a low-risk opportunity at a moderate cost, and said opportunity has now been seized.
The Steelers have until Monday to respond to Belichick’s groin kick, but a lack of monetary means remains a problem. Sanders was tendered for a reason: yes, money. The Pats can easily trump Pittsburgh’s skinny wallet with their $8 million in salary cap space, as the Steelers are currently clear of the cap by only $2 million.
With little funds and opportunities to address a WR depth chart that currently consists of Antonio Brown and hahahaha (but really, Jerricho Cotchery and Plaxico Burress) in the draft, the Steelers may opt to take the pick. But combined with that lack of depth, there’s also the matter of Heath Miller’s knee injury that may keep him out or at least limit the tight end early next fall.
The dominant factor here, though, is one of philosophy and strategy. The Patriots will control Sanders for only one year, and while they could choose to extend him before next March, right now they’re essentially selecting a single season of Sanders with their third-round pick (91st overall). In this draft — one in which the Steelers will likely have a shot at Cordarelle Patterson with their 17th overall pick — is that one season of Sanders worth a third rounder? Or in a deep draft at the position, can he easily be replaced? The answers to those questions: no, and yes.
Now, to the fantasy implications, because this is dripping with juicy fun.
Firstly, although we can assume/hope that if Sanders departs the Steelers will invest in someone (anyone, please) to catch passes, Ben Roethlisberger has suddenly become a really scary individual. You too, Antonio Brown, because although being fast and receiving nearly every target will often lead to swell productivity, it’ll also result in a central focus from opposing secondaries.
On the other side, the Patriots would get a receiver who just logged 626 receiving yards, which sounds pretty meh until you remember that it came while he was sparsely used behind Brown and Mike Wallace. His speed can been seen in his chunk yardage, as despite minimal receptions (44), he still recorded 11 catches for 20 yards or more.
Amendola benefits too, as with an outside speed presence he can then focus solely on producing from the slot, and being a younger (better?) Wes Welker. In that alignment, Sanders would become Lloyd, and while he mostly sucked huge time in 2012, remember that he was targeted a lot. Lloyd finished the season with 130 total targets, including eight games with eight or more.
Toss in the delicateness of Amendola, Rob Gronkowski, and Aaron Hernandez (the two tight ends were rarely on the field together this past season), and Sanders could quickly have an opportunity to ascend the depth chart and spend time as Brady’s primary wide receiver target.
Oh and hey, there’s also this…
— Mike Clay (@MikeClayNFL) April 10, 2013
Sanders is versatile and can line up anywhere, which should increase his targets even further once Amendola inevitably combusts. We’ll get a better gauge on Sanders’ true fantasy value this summer when his average draft position surfaces. But in New England he should quickly become a sound mid-round investment, and a quality WR3.