Originally posted on Taking Bad Schotz  |  Last updated 2/23/12

 If there is one distinct advantage that the Pittsburgh Steelers hold over their AFC North rivals in Baltimore, it’s their vertical passing game. In 2011, the Ravens only had two receivers (Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith who were the only receivers to have more than 4 receptions. But neither Boldin nor Smith had more than 57 receptions. If you’re a Ravens fan, these unimpressive stats should alarm you. In today’s NFL, it’s amazing that the Ravens had as good a season as they did with their lack of weapons on the outside. With a clear need to improve at the wide receiver position this offseason, there has been speculation that the Ravens could make a run at Mike Wallace. The reality, however, is that the Ravens do not have a whole lot of cap space. Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome has always been protective of high draft picks, and has downplayed his team’s interest in Wallace. “There’s going to be some restricted free agents that we would like, but is it going to be worth giving up a significant amount of cash and cap and a draft pick? When you deal with that double-whammy, even though the rules have been relaxed, you just go, ‘Nah, no, I wouldn’t do it.’ That’s just my philosophy.”

Wallace is a restricted free agent this offseason, meaning that if the Steelers do not give him the franchise tag, they would likely offer up a first-round tender on the rising star. The franchise tag on Wallace would cost the Steelers an estimated $9.6 million in 2012, whereas a tender offer of $2.7 million would be required to ensure that they would receive first round compensation if they opt out of matching another team’s offer for Wallace. The Steelers are currently around 11 million over the salary cap as of right now. Clearly Pittsburgh does not want to risk losing Mike Wallace, but there is a real chance that they will if they place Wallace on a first-round tender. If Wallace and another team were to agree to an offer, the Steelers would be left with the option of either matching the contract or letting Wallace go for a first-round draft pick. The Steelers will be hard pressed to match a team offering Wallace a lucrative roster bonus.  Many teams are threats to steal Wallace from Pittsburgh.

Perhaps the biggest of these potential threats right now is the Cincinnati Bengals. This is primarily due to the fact that the Bengals are an estimated $60 million under the cap. When you couple this with the fact that they already have two first round picks and, like Baltimore, are in need of more receiving options on the outside, you have to like the Bengals chances of landing Wallace if he is ultimately tendered. The Bengals would be capable of signing Wallace to a contract that includes a $20 million dollar signing bonus. With the Steelers cap troubles, it’s unlikely that they would be able to match such an offer.

Making matters even more intriguing, speculation has surfaced in the last few days of possible interest from the New England Patriots. Like the Bengals, the Patriots also have two first-round draft picks. One would think that with a luxury like that, the Patriots would pounce at the opportunity to sign Wallace and keep him away from some of their main competitors in the AFC. History is not on the side of this coming to fruition however. The Patriots are notoriously stingy with their draft picks, typically favoring moving down rather than moving up. Moving up implies paying more money, which would also be an uncharacteristic move for New England. Since the Patriots have never given up a first-rounder for a tender fee, I would be surprised to see them do so this time around.

The latest speculation is that Wallace could possibly land in San Francisco. Wallace would hypothetically fit in very well with the 49ers west coast offense. He possesses the rare ability to take a quick slant the distance. If there is one thing that the 49ers offense lacked last season, it’s a downfield threat that can stretch defenses. Early indications are that Wallace would be willing to consider playing for both the Patriots and the 49ers. When asked about the possible opportunity, Wallace responded by saying “Most definitely. Those are two playoff-caliber teams. Super Bowl-caliber teams. I think that the right person or the right piece for those guys could put them over the top. All they need is one more piece.”

So what is keeping the Steelers from simply franchise tagging Wallace? Again, it comes down to cap space. The Steelers would have to cut several veterans that have been instrumental in bringing Lombardi trophies to Pittsburgh in 2005 and 2009. These potential cuts include wide receiver Hines Ward, guard Chris Kemoeatu, defensive end Aaron Smith, offensive tackle Jonathan Scott and inside linebackers Larry Foote and James Farrior. Some of these cuts would be as tough for the fans to swallow as losing Wallace would be. Not to mention, keeping Wallace through a franchise tag would also likely have to result in the restructuring of the contracts of Ben Roethlisberger and James Harrison, two productive players that probably wouldn’t be too thrilled about any kind of restructuring. So the Steelers are clearly in a tough situation. Tendering is the far cheaper option obviously, but it would also risk losing one of the most dynamic players on the Steelers offense.

If the Steelers are truly bent on keeping Wallace, they will give him the franchise tag. Would this be a smart move for Pittsburgh given all the players they would have to cut for this to happen? Yes. The reality is the Steelers can move on and be a championship-level team without those players. Hines Ward is an all-time Steelers great, but his production has slipped markedly in the past two seasons. He is clearly no longer the playmaker that he once was, and the Steelers have young, viable receiving options ready to take over right where he left off. Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, and Emmanuel Sanders form what is arguably the best group of young receivers any team has. If it means keeping Wallace, then Ward needs to go. Kemoeatu was once a pretty promising pulling guard, but has become a magnet for flags and has taken steps back in recent years. Aaron Smith was once a great player, but is getting up there in age and can’t seem to stay on the field anymore; Smith has missed the majority of the last two seasons due to injury. Cutting James Farrior would hypothetically be the toughest cut of all. Farrior is still a very solid player, but the Steelers will need to draft an inside linebacker to replace him in the next few years regardless.

Of course Steeler fans would be disappointed if the Steelers cut some of these players that have been on the team for so long, but the reality is the NFL is a business and the Steelers need to keep emotions out of the picture and make the correct business decision for the organization. No Steelers fan wants to see Hines Ward get cut, but unless his contract is severely restructured the Steelers won’t have much choice given their salary cap situation. The Steelers need to do whatever it takes to keep Mike Wallace, but will they? The answer to this question will be one of the primary stories this NFL offseason. At today’s scouting combine, Steelers GM Kevin Colbert stated, “We’re going to do everything we can to make sure that Mike Wallace remains a Pittsburgh Steeler.” Colbert also stressed to reporters the fact that he believes Mike Wallace wants to remain a Pittsburgh Steeler. This is a crucial point, since interest in restricted free agents must be reciprocated for a deal to be made. The Steelers have roughly three weeks left to make their decision on what to do with Wallace; the free agency period begins on March 13th.

-Demers

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