Will Patriots eventually sign Steelers restricted free agent Emmanuel Sanders to longer deal?

PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 30: Emmanuel Sanders #88 of the Pittsburgh Steelers runs after making a catch in the second half against the Cleveland Browns during the game on December 30, 2012 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Steelers defeated the Browns 24-10. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

The New England Patriots once again raised eyebrows and potentially ire around the NFL when they reportedly signed restricted free-agent wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders to an offer sheet Wednesday.

The deal is one year for $2.5 million, according to a source, and the Pittsburgh Steelers have until Sunday to match it. If Pittsburgh refuses to match the offer, the Steelers would get a third-round pick from the Patriots in return.

On face value, the Patriots would be giving up a third-round pick (No. 91 overall) for a player for only one year. That's where others around the NFL begin to suspend belief.

"I don't believe for a second that Bill Belichick is giving up a third-round pick for Sanders for only one year," an executive with an AFC team said. "Yeah, if it was October and you were desperate for a specific guy because you thought he would make a difference, maybe. But Sanders isn't that type of guy. Nice potential, he has flashed some ability, but you don't do this."

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Sanders, the Steelers' No. 3 receiver behind Mike Wallace (now with the Dolphins) and Antonio Brown last season, has totaled just 1,290 yards and five touchdown receptions in his three seasons with Pittsburgh. In the 20-year history of free agency, it's the first time a restricted free agent with a third-round tender or higher has received a one-year offer from a new club.

The AFC executive and two other league sources raised the question of whether the Patriots have a deal in place with Sanders on a long-term contract. However, instead of signing Sanders to such a deal now that the Steelers might be interested in matching, New England signed him to a one-year deal that Pittsburgh would almost certainly not match.

This is the poker side of the Sanders deal. If Pittsburgh signs him to a one-year deal, Sanders can then sign with another team after the 2013 season and the best the Steelers could get in return is a compensatory third-round pick in 2015, if that.

Or the Steelers, who like New England declined to comment on the deal, can take the third-round pick this year.

While the Steelers could also try and work out a long-term deal with Sanders and agent Jordan Woy, there's no guarantee Pittsburgh could get a deal done before Sunday's deadline.

In other words, Pittsburgh may be backed into a corner on this deal.

If New England then signs Sanders to a long-term contract at some point in the near future, there would likely be all sorts of angry reaction around the league. However, there is no rule in the collective bargaining agreement against extending a restricted free agent in this situation.

The only rule in Article 9, Section 3 that applies to this situation is a set of language that prevents the "New Club" (New England, in this scenario) from reducing the player's salary in the first year.

"Neither the player nor the New Club may exercise an option in such Player Contract that reduces Salary in the first League Year of such contract until after the end of the first regular season covered by the Contract," the CBA reads.

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Thus, the Patriots are free to sign Sanders to a long-term deal if the Steelers fail to match the one-year offer.

Again, so can the Steelers. The problem is, suddenly the leverage changes quite significantly.

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