|The Patriots should be targeting receivers this offseason, so why not go after Mike Wallace? (US Presswire)|
The NFL is on the verge of free agency and clubs are about to put franchise tags on players they most want to retain. In past years, under the old CBA, six to 10 players would receive the franchise tag. This year the tagging process runs from Feb. 20 to March 5 and I expect double the usual number of players tagged because the price of the franchise tags has gone down significantly. But while the franchise tag will keep more quality veterans with four or more years of service off the market, there might be a few opportunities in a relatively untapped pool of players.
Veterans with three years of service are classified as restricted free agents. In past years franchise tags were rarely used on such players, but things might be changing. Previously, there were provisions to tag those restricted players with a high tender, and the compensation for a team losing a restricted free agent was a first- and third-round pick. Teams simply didn't consider restricted free agents.
Those days may be gone under the new CBA, with the most compensation a team can receive a first-round pick. That compensation sounds like it is still a high price to pay and will scare off most teams studying the restricted-free-agent pool. But consider teams picking at the bottom of the first round. Instead of giving up a top-10 pick or even a mid-round pick, such teams would stand to lose a selection in the late 20s or early 30s. Is it possible a team could target a quality young player in return for their first-round pick?
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I asked two former general managers about targeting restricted free agents. The first said, "Now, we would have to talk about that situation at length and it has some merit." The other offered this: "If I could weaken a division opponent and get the guy under the right deal that a team couldn't match, it is like getting a two-for-one deal. We have a player we no longer have to defend and they have to replace him."
This curiosity in the RFA class brought me quickly to Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace. At 26, Wallace has tallied 171 receptions and 24 touchdowns over three seasons and was a 2011 Pro Bowl selection. He has exceptional speed to get deep and there may not be any receivers like him at the bottom of the first round. There are three teams at the bottom of the first round that would instantly be better if he were on their team. Would the Ravens (No. 29), 49ers (No. 30) or Patriots (No. 31) conclude Wallace is a better option than the fourth or fifth rookie receiver in the draft?
Most NFL analysts believe Justin Blackmon, Kendall Wright and Michael Floyd will be long gone to these teams by time the draft rolls around. Moving up in the draft to secure Blackmon is unrealistic. Moving up for one of the other two marquee receivers could cost at least a second-round pick. The argument that paying Wallace is a lot more expensive than drafting a wide receiver at the bottom of the first round is true on paper, but there's no guarantee the rookie receiver will ever be as good as Wallace is right now, and at age 26 he should be good for years to come.
One coach I spoke with said he would turn to unrestricted free agents instead of surrendering a first-round pick. But Marques Colston (at age 29), Vincent Jackson (29) and Reggie Wayne (34) may be the best wide receivers without a franchise tag, and their respective ages make each of them more of a risk than the younger Wallace. Basically he could play three or four years for a new team before even reaching the age of the veteran wide receivers in his class. Wallace could play out a six-year deal and still have time for another contract.
The trick to landing a restricted free agent is putting a contract together the player finds acceptable and the former club can't or won't match. That is where the Wallace situation becomes even more interesting. The NFL has eliminated so-called "poison pill" contracts, which I applaud. In past years teams looking to acquire someone else's player installed clauses that the other club would have no chance to match. For instance, when the Vikings went after Seahawks guard Steve Hutchinson, who was on a transition tag, and simply put a clause in the contract that stated exorbitant amounts of money would be owed Hutchinson based on how many games he played in the state of Washington. The Seahawks couldn't match that deal and Hutchinson became a Viking.
Now the deals have to be legitimate, but the Steelers have some salary-cap issues that are restricting their ability to defend themselves in the world of finance. A team could frontload a contract with a big roster bonus, where the entire bonus counts under the 2012 salary cap, which would be problematic for the Steelers. As one GM said, "Salary cap space is power this time of year." The Ravens, Patriots and 49ers all have significantly more cap space than the Steelers.
In the same division, Wallace has played against the Ravens seven times, hauling in 25 receptions at 15.1 yards per catch. Going to Baltimore would definitely be a two-for-one deal. He no longer plays for the Steelers and he instantly becomes the Ravens' best receiver.
Wallace has played against the Patriots twice, catching 15 receptions -- 13 of them for first downs. The Patriots' passing game has everything but a deep threat. Again, two for one.
Wallace has played just once against the 49ers, but did snag five passes at 13.2 per catch. Line him up opposite Michael Crabtree, with Vernon Davis splitting the safeties, and the Niners are a playoff team for years.
The point is all three teams are very much aware of his skill level and would provide the "X" receiver threat they need to open up their offenses even more.
Finally, arguments can be made for or against pursuing Mike Wallace. It's worth the debate, especially if the Steelers put a restricted tender on him instead franchising him. The franchise tag for Wallace would be $9.4 million and the Steelers just might not have the cap space to protect their investment.
While odds are that he somehow remains with the Steelers, don't think for a minute some front offices aren't looking at the possibilities.