Steelers RFA Filtering Process Could Wind Up Costing Them WR Emmanuel Sanders

A few days ago, I wrote about how the Pittsburgh Steelers had made use of restricted free agency as a quick filtering system over the course of the last several years. That practice consisted of them signing draft picks selected in the third round or later to three-year contracts as opposed to four-year contracts like most of the other teams in the league do. This practice, as I described in the previous post, allowed the Steelers to spend less money up front in the form of a total signing bonus and thus lessened the amount of potential dead money should the draft pick not work out.

Over the span of several years, the Steelers never had problems tendering and keeping their restricted free agents that they wanted to retain, as teams just don\’t make it a practice of going after other teams restricted free agents, especially ones that require a draft pick as compensation. This off-season, the last true off-season of restricted free agency as we have come to know it, the Steelers might finally have that filtering system come back and bite them in the ass, depending of course on what ultimately happens with wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders.

Sanders, who visited with the New England Patriots on Friday, has yet to receive a restricted free agent offer sheet from his host as of Saturday night. That could all change over the course of the next few days. The SMU product was the Steelers third-round draft pick in 2010, the year before the new CBA went into effect that now requires all draft picks to be signed to four-year contracts. Had Sanders been signed to a four-year contract after he was drafted, he wouldn\’t have been a free agent until after the 2013 season.

Did the Steelers think that the Patriots would consider going after Sanders after he was given an original round tender prior to the start of free agency? While they certainly knew the risk, I am willing to bet that the Patriots caught them off guard. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick could care less about the gentlemen\’s agreement, or unwritten rule, associated with restricted free agency. If the rules allow it, he will consider it. Anybody remember the Patriots claiming injured New York Giants tight end Jake Ballard off waivers last off-season? The Giants waived Ballard injured in hopes of getting him through waivers unclaimed and onto their PUP reserve list. Belichick scoffed at that unwritten rule, and he made no apologies for it.

“First of all, there aren\’t any unwrittens,” Belichick said last June, after claiming an injured Ballard off waivers from the Giants. “You can\’t negotiate a contract, release him, and then renegotiate another contract with him that was already done in advance. I\’m sure the Giants weren\’t doing that. So the player is on waivers, he\’s on waivers — ours or anybody else\’s. I don\’t know what unwrittens you\’re talking about. …

“Any time you put a player on waivers, you know there are 31 teams out there that can take him if they want him. We all know that. There is no secret about that.”He will make no apologies for signing Sanders, should that wind up being the case. The rules allow it.

The Steelers will have the opportunity to match an offer sheet that Sanders receives, should he indeed receive one. Due to their limited cap space, however, it would not be surprising to see them let Sanders ride off into the sunset to go play with the Patriots. Belichick will issue no apologies should that happen and the Steelers will receive the Patriots third-round pick in the upcoming draft as compensation. That ride off to New England, if it takes place, could have been prevented had the Steelers not try to use restricted free agency one last time as a quick filtering system.