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Football isn't a game for the meek or weak-willed. To step inside the sidelines to step inside the arena of the brave, where there is no surrender and certainly no mercy for the weak. When we think of football, we all conjure in our heads the visage of the game's historic warriors - players like Mike Webster, Lawrence Taylor, and Dick Butkus - who made the NFL what it is today through sheer force of will.
In this day and age however, toughness isn't simply reserved for the field. The front office is just as dog-eat-dog - if not more so - and no one represents scorched earth toughness against opponents like Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots. Just ask the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Curious Case Of Emmanuel Sanders
In case you haven't noticed, the Steelers have gone through quite a bit of turmoil this offseason. The most notable FA loss has been Mike Wallace - although according to our metrics, it doesn't hurt as bad as you would think - but they've been bleeding all over the roster, losing important pieces in Willie Colon while replacing them with marginal players like Bruce Gradowski.
After losing Mike Wallace and choosing not to re-sign Rashard Mendenhall - and then curiously looking at Ahmad Bradshaw before deciding there was much, much too much wear on those tires - the Steelers then decided to turn their offensive attention to their other free agent WR, Emmanuel Sanders. That's when it got interesting.
You know what happened in Boston by now; the Patriots let Wes Welker go, to the uproar and consternation of fans everywhere. Just as the furor reached a boiling point, the Patriots brought in Danny Amendola from the Rams, an equally efficient receiver to Welker..as long as he can stay healthy, that is. After adjusting for defense, Welker put up 0.72 expected points added per reception, whereas Amendola put up 0.62; not a huge difference at all, particular when you consider how much stronger of a QB Tom Brady is in comparison to Sam Bradford. There were rumors that the Patriots were going to come after Sanders as well, but after the Amendola signing, things went a bit quiet on that front, quieting the anxiety of Steelers fans everywhere.
That is, until Belichick struck.
While he wasn't the only one to offer the RFA Sanders to a contract, he put the biggest money on the table, throwing down $2.5M on a one-year contract. Why did he do this? You can sit here and point to various football reasons - Sanders is #22 in defense-adjusted receiving efficiency on a per-play basis, he plugs into the Patriots system well, and so on - but let's be totally clear about the main reason, the one angle that no one seems to be bringing up.
Belichick rightly knew that the Steelers couldn't lose Sanders - not after losing Wallace AND Mendenhall in the same offseason - and put the screws on Kevin Colbert and company. The Pats had and still do have the cap room, whereas the Steelers are pressed up against it so hard, their nose is starting to break. Knowing this, Belichick forced the Steelers hand, making them match Sanders' offer, fully knowing that it would mean the Steelers would have make more cap casualties, only to likely lose Sanders again in a year.
If the Steelers chose not to match, they would have received a 3rd round pick in what is generally held to be a weak year for WRs. Bill knew as well as anyone that such a weak outcome would not fly in Pittsburgh - certainly not after Wallace left. By simply making Sanders an offer, they made a difficult situation in Pittsburgh even harder. And what was their downside? None. "Losing" Sanders doesn't hurt them all that much given the talent they already have - particularly with Amendola on the bus.
What's interesting here is that the Steelers could have avoided this entire mess entirely by simply tendering him at a 2nd-round level, which would have been at a high enough level (~$2.0M) to dissuade anyone from coming in with a matching offer. They surely had to see the writing on the wall that Wallace wasn't coming back, so coming up above the original $1.3M would have been prudent. Instead, they end up paying double what they originally tendered, an enormous amount given their current cap problems.
Without Sanders, the Steelers have a severe problem at WR, with sub-replacement level Plaxico Burress, David Gilreath, and Jerricho Cotchery on the depth chart behind Antonio Brown and an injured Heath Miller. The Patriots - while certainly not strong overall - boast Amendola alongside Edelman, the newly signed Michael Jenkins (0.72 expected points added, same as Welker), the underrated Donald Jones (0.59), and a two-headed monster at TE in Gronkowski and Hernandez. Knowing that the Steelers have much more holes across the board, the Patriots can draft a WR to fill the void whereas the Steelers would struggle at #16 to find value at WR given their problems at LB and on both lines. In fact, the esteemed Mel Kiper has the Patriots filling this void at #29 with Justin Hunter from Tennessee, a great vertical threat for their offense to replace Brandon Lloyd. The bottom line here is that while the Pats could have used Sanders, the Steelers were in worse shape and couldn't afford to lose him... and they had to pay nearly double to keep him.
Hate them or love them, you have to admire the way in which Belichick and the Patriots organize their front office moves. They didn't need to do this, but why not, especially if it makes things even more difficult for a long-standing conference rival? Best case, you sign a solid WR to add to an impressive corps even without Welker; worst case, you draft for need and make the Steelers cut even more players just to keep Sanders for a year. Talk about a win-win! Well done, Patriots. Well done.