The clock is now ticking on Emmanuel Sanders’ career with the Steelers.
Sanders, a restricted free agent wide receiver, signed a one-year offer sheet worth $2.5 million with the New England Patriots Tuesday, giving the Steelers five days – until Sunday – to match the offer or receive a third-round draft pick in return.
The Steelers originally tendered Sanders, a 2010 third-round draft pick, a contract of $1.2 million heading into free agency, giving them first right of refusal on any offer sheet he might receive.
Sanders first visited the Patriots last month, but left without signing.
Sanders, 26, is expected to move into the starting lineup this season opposite Antonio Brown after Mike Wallace left as a free agent for Miami.
He is coming off a season in which he appeared in all 16 games for the first time in his three-year NFL career, catching 44 passes for 626 yards and a touchdown. In three seasons, Sanders has caught 94 passes for 1,290 yards and five scores.
The Steelers are currently about $1.9 million under the NFL salary cap and can afford the additional $1.3 million for Sanders without making any other moves to offset the cost.
But they could prefer to pick up an additional third round draft pick rather than give Sanders a salary increase because he will become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2013 season.
In addition to Brown, the Steelers have three other receivers with NFL experience – Jerricho Cotchery, Plaxico Burress and David Gilreath.
This year’s draft, which will be held April 25-27 is considered a deep one for receivers.
If the Steelers were to acquire New England’s third round selection, they would hold four of the top 91 and five of the first 115 in the draft.