|Steelers GM Kevin Colbert and president Art Rooney II insist keeping Wallace is a priority. (US Presswire)|
There were nine wide receivers who signed before the third day of free agency, and none was named Mike Wallace. But the Steelers star is a restricted free agent, which means anyone who covets him must first sign him to an offer sheet, then wait for a response from Pittsburgh.
Only nobody has. The question is: Why?
"I was wondering the same thing," said former coach Brian Billick, now an analyst with Fox and the NFL Network. "I thought he'd be part of the first wave of wide receivers. I mean, if you're going to do it, do it. Why wait?"
I'll tell you why: Time.
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Teams have until April 20 to extend offer sheets to restricted free agents, and nobody is in a rush. Nor should they be. If you make a substantial offer to Wallace, you can wait up to a week before knowing if he's yours.
In the meantime, you put your money and your plans at wide receiver on hold while waiting on Pittsburgh, and nobody has been willing to do that.
"If you tie up that money," said one general manager, "your back is against the wall. Typically, you don't make a move on something like this until April -- and then you might wait until the last minute."
There are, of course, exceptions, and I think back to 2006 when Seattle signed then-restricted free agent Nate Burleson away from the Minnesota Vikings. That happened in late March. But there were a few differences: 1) Free agency started sooner; 2) it was a knee-jerk response to the Vikings' addition of free-agent guard Steve Hutchinson; and 3) there were "poison pills" attached, restrictive clauses outlawed under the current CBA.
But a restricted free agent today is less encumbered than he was then, with the highest tender gaining one first-round draft pick as compensation instead of a first and third. That means the Steelers risk losing a top wide receiver, and no surprise there. They've done it before.
While general manager Kevin Colbert and team president Art Rooney II insist that keeping Wallace is "a priority," signing wide receivers to long-term contracts isn't Pittsburgh's practice ... nor has it been since free agency began.
That was nearly 20 years ago, and in that time the club retained one with a long-term deal: Hines Ward. Instead, they let guys like Plaxico Burress, Antwaan Randle El, Nate Washington and Yancey Thigpen walk and traded away Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes.
Result: They not only survived, they flourished, winning division titles and reaching Super Bowls without them.
Read the tea leaves, people. Wallace is an important figure for the Steelers, but he's not an indispensable one. Though he led the team last year in catches and touchdown receptions, the Steelers could always turn to the promising Antonio Brown -- and they might have to. They're barely above the salary cap.
No matter what happens, as Rooney and Colbert pointed out, the club has the ability to match an offer and keep Wallace. Only its history says it won't.
So does today's market.
Wide receivers Vincent Jackson and DeSean Jackson this week earned contracts averaging approximately $10 million to $11 million each annually. The Washington Redskins shelled out $21 million in guaranteed money for Pierre Garcon, and Buffalo emptied $19.5 in guaranteed money into the pockets of Stevie Johnson.
Wallace is better than everyone on that list except possibly Jackson, so it doesn't take a genius to figure out he should command a high price. The question is: Who pays it and when? There are people out there who think it could be Denver, but first things first -- and first the Broncos have to sign Peyton Manning.
"You'd have to think [he and his agent] are looking at Vincent Jackson as the template," said Billick. "I don't know that for a fact, but whoever is interested will try to structure a contract to make it too prohibitive for Pittsburgh to meet."
That may not be that difficult. As I said, Pittsburgh almost never breaks the bank for wide receivers. It lets others do it. But to pry Wallace loose, you not only have to pay such a high price the Steelers won't match; you have to sacrifice a first-round draft choice, too.
That may discourage some suitors, but judging from the rush on wide receivers this week, it won't discourage all. Then again, this year's draft may be a factor in what happens next. It's deep at the position, with as many as six wide receivers considered first-round prospects.
"Basically, what happens," said one personnel director, "is that you start with your A-list guys in free agency -- the Vincent Jacksons of the world. Then, if you whiff on them, you wait for things to settle and go for a B-list player. But if A and B don't work out, you start thinking of other options -- and that's where someone like Wallace comes in.
"The good news for Pittsburgh is that teams don't want to give up picks to get players. They'd much rather pay someone, then have to pay him and surrender a high draft choice."
But a draft pick, no matter how high, is unproven. Mike Wallace is not. He's an important part of one of the league's most prestigious and successful organizations, and he's what one GM called "a game-changer." So if I'm sitting with a first-round pick somewhere below the 20th choice, I think long and hard about making him mine -- and there are teams down there (New England, San Francisco, Denver and Baltimore) that should do the same.
They have money. They have cap room. They have needs. Most important, they have time.