The Patriots don’t like to enter the draft with glaring needs, both to avoid tipping their hand and to allow themselves to take the best available player. Two moves they made on Wednesday — both at the receiver position — got them very close to their goal.
The Patriots re-signed receiver Julian Edelman to a one-year contract and will likely use him with Danny Amendola to fill the vacancy left by Wes Welker at the Z receiver position, which specializes in quick passes on the outside and slot play.
And they signed Steelers receiver Emmanuel Sanders, 26, to a restricted free agent offer sheet. According to ESPN, the offer was for $2.5 million. The Steelers have five days to match (Sunday is the deadline), and if they do not, the Patriots must send Pittsburgh their third-round selection in the draft (91st overall).
If the Patriots get Sanders, they will be left with four picks: in the first (29th), second (59th), and seventh (226th, 235th) rounds. The Patriots used their other picks in trades for Aqib Talib (fourth), Chad Ochocinco (fifth), and Albert Haynesworth (sixth).
The Steelers have a tough decision to make. With Mike Wallace departing in free agency to the Dolphins, Sanders was penciled in as a starter opposite Antonio Brown. But with only about $3.3 million in available cap space (including the original round tender they gave Sanders), the Steelers could choose to keep the money and take the pick.
Either the Steelers were trying to slide by on the cheap, or they don’t think Sanders is that valuable, because it would have cost them only $700,000 more to put a second-round tender on him, or an additional $1.5 million for a first-round tender.
Both the Steelers and Patriots face the same danger with Sanders should he play for a one-year deal: He’s an unrestricted free agent after this season. At least with the Steelers, they wouldn’t be giving up a third-round pick should he walk in free agency.
The possibility remains that the Patriots have verbally agreed to a contract extension with Sanders if the Steelers decline to match. The only rule on contract extensions for restricted free agents is that the first-year salary can’t be lower than the offer sheet.
What makes Sanders so enticing to the Patriots? First and foremost, they have a terrible track record drafting receivers since 2002, so Sanders is more of a known quantity after three years in the NFL.
In those three seasons, he has 94 catches for 1,290 yards and 5 touchdowns. Last season, he set career highs for catches (44), yards (626), average (14.2 yards), and longest catch (37 yards). He did that despite playing with three different starting quarterbacks (Ben Roethlisberger, Charlie Batch, and Byron Leftwich).
With burners Wallace and Brown on the outside, Sanders played the slot role for the Steelers. He is extremely versatile but would seem to project to an outside vertical “X” role initially with the Patriots because of his decent size (5 feet 11 inches, 180 pounds), long arms (32 inches), leaping ability (39½ vertical), and speed (4.44 in the 40-yard dash).
“He’s been a good contributor for Pittsburgh,” said an AFC personnel executive. “He can function inside and has been a slot, but can work outside, too. He’s been a third [receiver]/borderline starter. I like him in the third receiver role.”
The Patriots could be thinking that Sanders has been overshadowed by Wallace and Brown and can flourish in an outside role.
The biggest question the Patriots have to answer is whether Sanders can mentally function in their system, and they don’t have any inside knowledge to go on. They have their college evaluation, pro tape, and his free agent visit to Gillette Stadium. Sanders scored an 18 on the Wonderlic coming out of college, according to a league source. That’s slightly on the low end for the receivers the Patriots have drafted — with the indomitable Deion Branch leading the way with a 26.
Edelman, 26, was placed on injured reserve last season with a foot injury, but has recovered and is expected to take part in voluntary workouts Monday. He was driving for a bigger role last season before hand and foot injuries slowed his progress.
Edelman also gives the Patriots a dynamic punt returner to go with Leon Washington.
With Edelman and perhaps Sanders in the fold, the Patriots have only one glaring need: veteran edge rusher, which could be addressed by signing Falcons free agent John Abraham, or re-signing Trevor Scott. Guard could also be in play, but Marcus Cannon could slide over there with Sebastian Vollmer back at right tackle.
Tight end Aaron Hernandez didn’t have surgery for the right ankle sprain that gave him trouble most of last season, but he said he’ll be ready to go this season.
“It definitely slowed me down and I wasn’t able to be the player that I thought I was going to be this past year,” he said. “But it happens, and it’s football, but you just have to keep moving forward and keep improving.
“My ankle feels pretty good and I think it will be even better for next season.”
Hernandez was made available to the media after signing a two-year contract to become one of the faces of the training category for Westford-based Puma North America.
Hernandez has been living in California this offseason, but has not yet worked out with Tom Brady. Hernandez said he’ll be at the voluntary workouts, as the offense starts life without Welker.
“It could change my role, but we just picked up Danny Amendola and I’m sure he’ll fill in pretty well,” Hernandez said. “But Wes is a great player and he’s definitely going to help the Broncos out a lot. But that’s the how the league is. We just have to keep moving forward.”
Hernandez said he hasn’t thought much about any health troubles that fellow tight end Rob Gronkowski (broken forearm) may be going through.
“I know we all hope that he’s healthy, but I’m sure he’ll be fine,” Hernandez said. “As long as he’s ready for crunch time toward the end of the season, that’s all I’m sure us and the coaches are worried about.”
The contract signed by defensive tackle Tommy Kelly is for two years at $5 million, with a $1 million signing bonus guaranteed. The deal includes $500,000 roster and $50,000 workout bonuses the next two seasons. His cap numbers are $2 million in 2013, and $3 million in 2014 if the Patriots keep him.Greg A. Bedard can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard.