The following is part of a series that can be most easily described as a Free Agency preview.
In case you missed it, here’s the first installment of this year’s quasi-look at NFL free agency:
For the rest of you, I have already defined the criteria for this series (1-The player is a Free Agent that 2-even a Fantasy Football player can recognize) and have launched into a lengthy disclaimer about the folly of free agency – including the guiding common sense principle that asks if these players are so great, why didn’t their teams already sign them to long-term contracts?
In the case of today’s All-Name Free Agent Team member, the answer could lie in the Pittsburgh Steelers’ inability to control their consistent success and/or some bloated veteran contracts.
Or something like that.
-Is Fast. Also has been described as having Top Speed.
-Has proven to be a reliable deep target in the NFL.
-Has produced during non-contract seasons.
-Has a rare blend of youth and experience for an NFL free agent.
-Wouldn’t it be nice for the Browns to steal a Pittsburgh Steeler in his relative prime?
-Exposed the machinations of prominent government and industry leaders.
-The Steelers chose Antonio Brown over Wallace.
-Is cashing in on his first mega NFL contract, which always factors into motivation.
-Played much of 2012 with a focus on not getting hurt in order to get to 2013 free agency.
-Could prove to be a really expensive version of Travis Benjamin
-Could be a beneficiary of Ben Roethlisberger’s broken coverage Extend-A-Plays.
-Best games have essentially come against weak opponents and during losses.
-That whole drops passes thing.
Oh, right – the other Mike Wallace. Although I would love to have seen Wallace grill that grifter Mike Holmgren.
Earlier in the week, I referenced how foreign free agency has become to the Browns – at least since the Wild West days of Phil Savage. Perhaps even stranger is the idea of a contemporary NFL team actually facing salary cap trouble – especially given the virtual lack of a true “hard cap.” Yet, the Steelers are such a team – one that is roughly 10-15 million dollars over next year’s projected cap. Such a financial dilemma was predominately why Wallace held out last summer and only reluctantly signed a restricted tender tag.
It could be telling that the Steelers took the opportunity of Wallace’s holdout to basically choose fellow wide receiver Antonio Brown to be the recipient of a long-term deal. Either from the perspective of overall talent, player and agent cooperation or as a matter of simple efficiency and economics, Wallace was left without the long-term security that he coveted heading into 2012.
A year later, the Steelers are still sorting through a landscape of salary concerns, featuring the likes of young and old veterans – something that has likely propelled Wallace permanently away from Pittsburgh and into the free market.
As for all this Pittsburgh narrative, it fits into the context of exactly why Wallace is a free agent – but also helps to excuse this very fact. In other words, Wallace is a very good NFL player and while not a classic top wide receiver, he is a near prototype of the kind of explosive athlete that an evolving NFL offense requires. And of course, had the Steelers been a bit more savvy in their financial dealings (or just a little more talent-starved), Wallace likely would have been taken care of many months ago.
Yet, it is this very episode of Wallace’s career which reveals the biggest risk a team such as the Browns would assume in making a huge free agent offer. Once he accepted the Steelers’ restricted tag, Wallace was no longer the Pro Bowler of 2011 and adopted a more tentative style of play. Reports out of Pittsburgh suggested that Wallace was merely trying to stay physically intact in order to get a huge future payday – something that is both completely understandable and troublesome to a team like the Browns, whose rare free agent ventures are momentous occasions.
Then again, there’s much to be said regarding the Steelers’ shift in offensive coordinators, their usual plague of offensive linemen, a serious injury to Ben Roethlisberger and a general sense that their veteran team got very old very fast in 2012. Wallace – like the majority of the Steelers’ offense – suffered through the worst of his three seasons (for the sake of argument, let’s discount his rookie season).
Still, I’m pretty sure the Browns would be okay with a 2012 line like that.
If you give Wallace the benefit of the doubt, you’ll remember that the guy who was drafted after Brian Robiskie and Mohamed Massaquoi was on the verge of stardom in 2010 and 2011, posting nearly 2,500 combined receiving yards and 18 scores. A perfect storm of career and financial anxiety helped to derail what would become Wallace’s contract year – something that is far too easy for us non-professional athletes to poke holes at. Wallace getting paid is secondary compared to the thought of him becoming the first Browns’ receiver to legitimately stretch an opposing defense in years.
If a Wallace to Cleveland event somehow occurs next month, the Browns would enter the 2013 season with a starting lineup of Wallace, Josh Gordon and Greg Little – a unique triumvirate featuring speed, size, agility and strength – something that can help to lessen Cleveland’s perpetual existential quarterbacking question. Naturally, an upgrade in offensive coaching philosophy and play calling could help to further cull the production of such a young, naturally talented group. Add a tight end from April’s draft and the Browns’ long dormant offense suddenly appears potent.
Of course, it’s never this easy.
Despite some really obvious claims regarding Jimmy Haslam’s past Steelers’ ties, the Browns are not a natural fit for either free agency or Wallace’s services. In terms of Wallace’s geographic ties and tastes of NFL success, Cleveland is a far hike for a kid from New Orleans who can already boast about scoring in a Super Bowl. In terms of actual money – which is usually the determining factor in NFL free agency – the Browns are allegedly now run by the tight-fisted Joe Banner, a trollish, cartoon villian of a killjoy who is bent on world destruction, which would effectively negate any pursuit of such a game-changing talent.
Or, it’s becoming evident that several teams – most of which are far better than the Browns – are going to be throwing money at Wallace, for the exact same reasons outlined above. It’s rare that a player like Wallace slips into full free agency in today’s NFL and once this realization coincides with the actual start of the process, Wallace’s worth becomes astronomical.
Yet, considering that the Browns are basically the NFL antithesis of the Steelers, the ability to lure Wallace to the lake front presents the apex of impossibly rare occurrences. The Browns’ recent history of futility and discount youth movements have set them up to benefit from the Steelers’ lavish success – a statement that is profoundly depressing yet extraordinarily encouraging if only in this regard:
The Browns have a LOT of money to spend in free agency.
And Wallace just might be worth it.