The Patriots have signed restricted free agent Emmanuel Sanders to a one-year offer sheet for a reported $2.5 million.
The Steelers – who are a little more than $2 million under the salary cap – had previously tendered a $1.32 million offer to Sanders that already counts against the cap.
The Steelers would become free of that obligation if Sanders leaves, and they would also receive the Patriots' third-round draft pick – No. 91 overall – in this coming draft.
If the Steelers match the offer by Sunday night at 11:59 p.m., they'll retain Sanders at a position that's already taken a hit this off-season with the departure of Mike Wallace to the Miami Dolphins in conventional unrestricted free agency.
Entering his fourth season in the league, Sanders, 26, is coming off of his best pro season with 44 catches for 626 yards (14.2 avg.). He scored 1 touchdown, lost 2 fumbles and dropped 3 passes last season. He also averaged 10.2 yards on 9 punt returns and returned 1 kickoff for 27 yards.
Hilton caught 50 passes for 861 yards (17.2 avg.) as a rookie. He scored 7 touchdowns, didn't fumble, and averaged 11.5 yards returning punts and 16.9 yards returning kickoffs.
Another example of a player who can be drafted in that area is Hines Ward, who was chosen by the Steelers in 1998 with the 92nd pick.
Even if they do match the offer to Sanders, the Steelers would still need depth at wide receiver. Their roster includes Antonio Brown, Jerricho Cotchery, Plaxico Burress and David Gilreath as the only wide receivers with NFL experience.
The Steelers have the necessary funds to match the offer, but if they want to keep Sanders and also sign free-agent running back Ahmad Bradshaw, they would have to create more cap space by restructuring the contract of either Heath Miller (for a maximum of $2.2 million) or Ike Taylor (for a maximum of $2.5 million).
Of course, Miller is coming off a torn ACL and will turn 31 in October. Taylor will turn 33 in May.
The Steelers will gain another $5.5 million in cap monies on June 2 when the release of Willie Colon becomes official.
This offer sheet marks the third time the Patriots have attempted to sign a restricted free agent away from the Steelers.
In 2001 they signed running back Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala to an offer sheet, but the Steelers matched it and did not acquire the corresponding sixth-round pick.
Ma'afala lasted two more seasons with the Steelers, gained 568 yards, and was released.
In 2004, the Patriots signed defensive end Rodney Bailey to an offer sheet. The Steelers didn't match the offer and with the Patriots' sixth-round pick drafted long-snapper Drew Caylor.
Caylor didn't make the team, but Bailey never played for the Patriots after injuring his Achilles' tendon in training camp that year.