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Steelers

Colin Dunlap: Steelers Have Tough Decision With Sanders

By: Colin Dunlap - CBS Pittsburgh
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(Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

(Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

dunlap-head-shot Colin Dunlap
Weeknights, 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Colin grew up in Sharpsburg and...
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Careful what you wish for, Steelers fans.

The extemporaneous, off-the-cuff, “let Emmanuel Sanders walk” response needs a bit more investigation. The situation needs a good, hard think before just shipping him off to New England.

On Wednesday, it was reported by NFL.com that Sanders, targeted to be a Steelers starting receiver this coming season, signed an offer sheet from the New England Patriots. In short, the choices are simple: Match the offer or he is off to the land of Belichick and burned videotapes.

The knee-jerk reaction from all corners of Steelers Nation has been, for the most part, to let Sanders go.

That might end up, ultimately, being the most prudent move for the Steelers. One should at least understand the merits of keeping Sanders around before being hasty, however.

First and foremost, there is this: The Steelers have until Sunday to match the offer — reported to be for one year — or the compensation from New England comes in the form of a third-round pick in this upcoming draft.

Here is the fundamental issue for me, and why I don’t think it’s a no-brainer to set Sanders free — would you take the known that you have (Sanders) and match that up against the unknown that you don’t have (the third-round pick) and be willing to assume such a risk?

That is to say, are you betting this third-round pick will produce more than Sanders has?

That’s a risky proposition.

Look at the numbers: Through three seasons, Sanders has caught 94 passes in 40 games, all the while starting just eight of those. He is averaging almost 14 yards per catch.

About that fumbling problem he has? He has fumbled only five times – two came his rookie season while none came in 2011. Antonio Brown has fumbled precisely the same amount of times — albeit on more touches — as a Steeler.

And about this notion that Sanders is perpetually injured? He has missed eight games in three seasons.

Conversely, Brown, slated to be the Steelers’ go-to receiver this coming season, had missed 10 in the past three seasons. Safety Troy Polamalu missed nine … last season.

Take into account those aforementioned numbers and the production Mr. Rooney’s club has received from Sanders since he was a third-round pick out of SMU in the 2010 draft is above-average, in my opinion. Or, at the very least, average.

Are you willing to say, straightaway, that the third-rounder the Steelers would get in return for allowing Sanders to go to the Patriots would help this team, at that level, that quickly?

He might.

And he might not.

Some recent third-round picks by the Steelers’ brain trust have certainly yielded returns. Sanders comes to mind, as does receiver Mike Wallace and defensive back Keenan Lewis.

Third-round compensation, and then what becomes that pick, is hardly a sure bet though.

Linebackers Sean Spence and Bruce Davis, defensive back Anthony Smith and receiver Willie Reid were all third round picks who have underwhelmed.

Heck, receivers Troy Edwards and Limas Sweed were first and second round picks, respectively, who never performed anywhere near the level of expectations.

If the salary cap-strapped Steelers are to sign Sanders, they might have to restructure the contract of someone else.

And even if the Steelers match the Patriots offer, Sanders would have to come to terms on a long-term agreement or he becomes an unrestricted free agent at the end of this coming season.

With Brown, Plaxico Burress and Jerricho Cotchery — then whomever the Steelers might add in the coming draft — the players who quarterback Ben Roethlisberger would have as targets if Sanders leaves to offer the potency in the passing game for the offense, I think the proposition is easy here.

Certainly, it might come pass where the passing game will lose Sanders, where the decision to let him go will be the best one.

It also says here, however, to arrive at that conclusion hurriedly, to not truly understand Sanders’ value to this franchise, is naïve.

Former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Sports Writer Colin Dunlap is the featured columnist at CBSPittsburgh.com. He can also be heard weeknights from 10p-2a on Sports Radio 93-7 “The Fan.” You can e-mail him at colin.dunlap@cbsradio.com.

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