A great deal has been said and written about Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace since he became a restricted free agent (RFA) in March. For those who were too busy following the Peyton Manning world tour, here are the basics:
- Mike Wallace was chosen by the Steelers in the 3rd round of the 2009 NFL Draft with the 84th overall pick.
- His rookie year, he led the league in average yards per reception, finishing with 19.4 yards per catch. That season, he was named the winner of the “Joe Greene Great Performance Award”, which is awarded each season to the top rookie on the team.
- In his second year, he moved up to the #2 WR with the departure of Santonio Holmes, and his yards per catch improved to an average of 21 yards. He caught 60 passes for 1257 yards and 10 TDs.
- As the Steelers #1 WR in 2011, Wallace’s production dropped off a bit, likely due to the double coverage he often saw as well as the emergence of Antonio Brown. He still managed 72 receptions for 1193 yards and 8 TDs.
With cap space extraordinarily tight heading into this off-season (the team started more than $25 million over the 2012 cap and trimmed it by restructuring veteran contracts and releasing additional players), the team was limited in options for keeping Wallace on the roster. The safest bet would have been to hang the franchise tag on him, which would have guaranteed him a $9.4 million salary for the coming season and prevented any other team from signing him. This wasn’t in the budget, though. Instead, the Steelers rolled the dice and offered him a first round tender. This meant that Wallace would earn $2.74 million for the coming season. Prior to April 20, other teams had the chance to acquire Wallace (although the Steelers had the option to match any contract offered) but would have to give a 1st round draft pick in return.
In the end, no other teams went after Wallace, and the gamble paid off. At the advice of his agent, Bus Cook, Wallace has still not signed his tender offer and is not attending voluntary OTAs. Given that he has not skipped any mandatory training, this does not constitute a holdout. The next deadline is June 15; if he doesn’t sign by then, the Steelers can drop the salary to 110% of his previous year’s pay, or $577,000. He’ll need to sign by November at the latest in order to receive credit for the season and avoid being a RFA again next year.
Wallace has said that he wants to remain a Steeler. The Steelers management has repeatedly confirmed that they intend to sign their speedy wide receiver to a long-term contract. As the chess match drags on, it’s hard not to wonder if Wallace is making a bad decision by staying away from his team activities. He has more to lose than the team and very little to gain.
Historically, the Steelers management won’t negotiate contract extensions during the regular season because they don’t want distractions from the singular goal of winning the next Superbowl. If it doesn’t happen by the end of preseason, it will have to wait until the next offseason. The closest they’ve cut it was last year, when Troy Polamalu signed his finalized contract prior to boarding a plane to Baltimore for the season opener.
The front office also won’t negotiate with players who are holding out. It makes sense not to reward that behavior. Hines Ward held out for 15 days in 2005, eventually reporting for the preseason. After rejoining his teammates, he got his contract extension, and the Steelers went on to win Superbowl XL that season. With GM Kevin Colbert and chief contract negotiator Omar Khan across the table, however, no player gets overpaid. While the Steelers aren’t stingy, they will let a player walk rather than pay more than they believe he is worth. Remember Plaxico Burress?
Colbert does seem committed to getting a deal done. He has implied that the Steelers would not exercise the option to reduce the tender amount if Wallace doesn’t sign by June 15. He may also be waiting to finalize the last of the rookie contracts so that he knows what his budget truly is.
To his credit, Wallace has behaved with class. He has not used the media to vent any frustration he may have and has made no negative comments publicly or via social media (a mistake made by Wes Welker). Interestingly, he did discuss the matter with Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor last week in Las Vegas. Taylor shared Wallace’s disappointment not to be with the team during his weekly radio show.
While Wallace waits, his teammates are learning new Offensive Coordinater Todd Haley’s offense. The wide receiver has a copy of the playbook that QB Ben Roethlisberger referred to as the Rosetta Stone, but he is missing valuable reps with his team. Clearly, this is not the ideal offseason to pass on OTAs and minicamp. In the meantime, last season’s breakout star Antonio Brown will benefit from the extra work. If Wallace does hold out, he may lose his spot at the top of the depth chart.
The loyal fanbase is becoming frustrated with Wallace as well. While no one questions that he has outplayed his original contract, Steeler Nation doesn’t have patience with players that put the team’s chance for success secondary to a paycheck. And Wallace has 2.74 million reasons to play ball.
Mike Wallace would do well to listen to teammate Ike Taylor, who advised him to sign the tender and join the team, rather than his agent. Worst case scenario, he’ll get paid a fair chunk of change and have an opportunity to test the market in free agency next year. For the Steelers, they can rest assured that if they can’t lock him up for the next few years, they will still get a great season from their elite WR, who will then be auditioning for free agency.
Melanie Friedlander is a contributor to Steel City Blitz. You can follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/girlsurgeon.