Tuesday, March 06, 2012

The Mike Wallace Situation

I already had two posts called "The _____ _____ Situation" and I tried to come up with a snappy title for this one.  I thought about, "Should the Steelers Sign Mike Wallace?" and, "Will the Steelers Sign Mike Wallace?" but then I realized that those would make for short, unrewarding posts.  The answers to those questions are, "Of course" and "I have no idea" and that's about all I know on those subjects.

Wallace is the best receiver on the team, one of the best receivers in the league, he's only 25, and he's lightning fast.  He's the second most important player they have on offense after Ben Roethlisberger.  They certainly should sign him, the question is whether or not they'll be able to.

As to whether or not they'll be able to, I have no idea.  Three weeks ago, when the Steelers were $25 million over the salary cap, I didn't think there was a chance in hell.  Now that they've restructured some contracts and they're $10 million under the cap, I think they have better than a 50/50 shot.  Wallace may very well be able to get more money playing for a different team, but he's unlikely to sign with an organization that's as stable and consistently competitive that also has a top five quarterback.  Plus which, football players are creatures of routine and habit.  They'd prefer to stay with the devil they know versus the devil they don't, even if all things (i.e. money) aren't equal.

That gives the Steelers the inside track to sign Wallace, but the clock is ticking and the deadline is March 13th, when free agency begins.

The Steelers decided not to franchise Wallace and I think that's the right call.  If they franchised Wallace, then every team in the league would've backed off.  If they weren't able to reach a longterm deal with him -- and the franchise tag sometimes brings out animosity in players, most times leads to a longterm deal, but you never know -- then they would be in the same situation next year.  Not only would they need to go through the same process with Wallace, they'd also have to deal with impending restricted free agent Antonio Brown.  With the way they've restructured contracts and managed the salary cap the last few years, their cap situation is going to get worse before it gets better.  Even if, as expected, the cap jumps significantly in 2013, everyone else in the league will also have lots of extra money to spend.

By placing a first round tender on Wallace, the Steelers can continue to negotiate in good faith and allow the market to determine his price if they don't get a deal struck by the 13th.  That gives them flexibility, but it also gives other teams the opportunity to come in the back door and steal Wallace away.

Any team that signs Wallace would need to offer him a contract that is heavily front-loaded and would pay roster bonuses in the first year of the deal, making it so that the Steelers couldn't match the offer without cutting more players.  They could also offer more than the Steelers think Wallace is worth, but I have no idea what that number is.  Any team that signs him would also need to give the Steelers a first round pick in this year's draft.  A front-loaded, rich contract and a first round pick is a steep price to pay for any player.  Are there any teams that would be willing to pay that price?

At first blush, I didn't think so.  Then I read this article by Bill Barnwell at Grantland.  Barnwell wrote that from an agent's perspective with an obvious bias towards selling Wallace's good qualities while attempting to hide -- or neglecting to mention -- his bad attributes.  But, you have to admit that the man has some good points.  Especially when compared to Santonio Holmes (signed a five year, $45 million contract last year), Wallace looks like a sure thing.  You take a risk signing any free agent, but Wallace's upside, talent, and production level at this early point in his career seems to justify the risk.

The two teams in most desperate need of receiver are the hated Ravens and 49ers.  I'm sure Baltimore would love nothing more than to take a big weapon from their rivals, but they tend to build through the draft and wouldn't be likely to sacrifice that pick.  The same goes for the 49ers.  Also, both teams could explore the unrestricted market, which has plenty of big names with no draft pick compensation linked to them.  This is not to say that Wallace isn't worth it, he's just not worth the added compensation of the first round pick, given the fact that a number of unrestricted options would represent a significant improvement for either of these teams.  Also, neither of these teams is deep enough at the position that simply adding Wallace would upgrade their offense across the board.

If there's a team the Steelers need to fear, it's a team that could see a huge benefit by adding Wallace, has plenty of cap space, and has a first round pick to spare.  That leaves the Bengals and the Patriots.  Both teams have at least $20 million in cap space -- Cincinnati has a reported $60 million worth of room and the new CBA says that Mike Brown needs to spend that money -- and both teams have a reason to hurt the Steelers.  New England would have a pretty explosive offense with Brady, Welker, Gronkowski, Hernandez, and Wallace and they have a spare first round pick that the Saints traded them last year for the rights to draft Mark Ingram.  Even Mike Brown would open up his check book at the thought of the Mighty Ginger throwing to two Pro Bowl receivers under the age of 26 and they have a spare first round pick from the Raiders courtesy of the Carson Palmer trade.  A first round pick is not something that teams tend to throw around, but a spare pick gives them something to mitigate their risk.

The bottom line is that Wallace will draw interest if he hits the open market.  How much that interest will translate to in terms of dollars remains to be seen, as well as what the Steelers ceiling is in terms of what they're willing to pay when faced with other offers.  They can eliminate a lot of variables and questions if they lock up Wallace before the 13th, but whether or not they will is still up in the air.

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