The team announced Sunday that it matched the $2.5 million offer the New England Patriots made to the restricted free agent wide receiver last week. Pittsburgh would have received a third-round pick from the Patriots if it let Sanders go to New England.
Instead Sanders will likely be second on the depth chart behind Antonio Brown when training camp opens in July. The 26-year-old Sanders caught 44 passes for 626 yards and a touchdown in 2012 and was the only wide receiver to appear in all 16 games for Pittsburgh in 2012.
“Glad the business side is out of the way,” Sanders said on his Twitter account Sunday evening. “Now it’s back to playing football and bringing number 7 back to Pittsburgh.”
The Steelers will have to give Sanders a $1 million raise, bringing them within about $1 million of the salary cap. They would have received some cap relief if they let Sanders leave but would also have been woefully thin at wide receiver heading into the draft.
Mike Wallace signed as a free agent with Miami last month, and tight end Heath Miller is recovering from a severe knee injury. If Sanders departed, the leading candidates to replace him would have been Jerricho Cotchery, Plaxico Burress or unproven David Gilreath. Those players combined for 20 receptions in 2012, and Gilreath has yet to catch a pass in the NFL.
Pittsburgh could still take a wide receiver high in the draft, but the Steelers have been hit and miss with them. For every Wallace — a third-round pick in 2009 — there is a Limas Sweed. The Steelers drafted Sweed in the second round of the 2008 draft. He caught eight passes total in his first two seasons, then struggled to stay healthy. He is currently out of football.