|If Wallace drags his holdout into training camp, it will hurt him more than the Steelers. (US Presswire)|
Mike Wallace is a wonderful football player, one of the more exciting young players in the NFL, and someone who certainly has outperformed his rookie contract. But his holdout has run its course. His leverage is only waning. And it's just about time to get back to Pittsburgh and get on with his career.
This is a war Wallace can't win, not under these circumstances.
Between the Steelers' organizational strength, their history in these cases, the new realities of the CBA, and the overall strength at wide receiver on Pittsburgh's roster, this can't string out more than a few more weeks. Come training camp, the rules shift even more in the team's favor, and, after skipping mandatory minicamp and raising some ire ("The Rooney family is not happy," one league source said), the wise move for the former 84th overall pick would be to use the weeks between now and the opening camp to hammer out the best deal possible.
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Let's start with the Steelers organization. They aren't going to wilt, or waver, and you know going in with them that they will take care of their best players -- especially the young ones -- but are not going to set the market in doing so or establish any spending records. And no one player will make them flinch. Heck, this is the team that went 3-1 with their franchise quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, suspended.
It's all about stability there. Unlike Chris Johnson's successful holdout in Tennessee a year ago, when there was no one on the roster with remotely close to his ability at the position, with a new head coach and new quarterback and coming off months of unrest over the Jeff Fisher and Vince Young situations, in this case the Steelers are bringing back essentially the same cast.
Sure, Todd Haley is the new offensive coordinator, but being away from the team and the new system stands to hurt Wallace more than the overall team. Pittsburgh is loaded at receiver with Antonio Brown and Emanuel Sanders, two dynamic weapons who are going into the final year of their deals, too. At times last season, scouts I talked to believed Brown was outperforming Wallace when both were on the field together, and while some of that has to do with the extra attention Wallace demands because of his big-play skills and speed, the reality is Pittsburgh is equipped to get by without him.
His 2011 numbers (72 catches, 1193 yards, 16.6 per catch) were almost identical to Brown's (69 catches, 1,108 yards, 16.1 per catch), with the one key difference being Wallace had eight TD catches and no one else on the team had more than two. (Look for tight end Heath Miller to play a bigger role in Pittsburgh's new offense this season and eat into some of those reception totals, and factor bigger in the red zone as well.)
Wallace's best opportunity to create demand and shift leverage came during the offer sheet period of the offseason. At that time, however, he was floating the idea he should be paid somewhere around the range of a Calvin Johnson or a Larry Fitzgerald, league sources said, something that simply wasn't going to happen anywhere (Wallace's agent, Bus Cook, did not respond to a call seeking comment on the holdout). When no club opted to give up a first round pick to try to sign Wallace to an offer sheet, the tide was turning considerably in Pittsburgh's favor.
Remember, Wallace, 25, wasn't designated a franchise player, he's a restricted free agent. Unlike Johnson and Fitzgerald, whose massive cap figures held their teams hostage, gave the player significant leverage and led to their blockbuster deals, Wallace is sitting on a $2.7 million tender, and can't negotiate with any team but the Steelers. Furthermore, guys like DeSean Jackson, who eventually got franchised and then signed to a long-term deal, had to play through four years of their rookie deals to get that payday; Wallace has been on the field for only three.
That factor looms large when negotiating with a team like the Steelers. If they are treating you as a free agent a year before they would effectively have to, again, don't expect to be joining the top three best-paid at your position. It's not going to happen. And, essentially, the Steelers could make the argument that they could own Wallace's rights until 2015 by franchising him in 2013 and 2014.
If the Steelers went that route, they'd likely be paying Wallace in the neighborhood of $26 million-$27 million, so let's call that an average of $9 million per year. Getting a longer-term deal in that $10 million range may just be Wallace's best bet -- again, especially with Brown and Sanders nipping at his heels -- and I suspect that's where this thing ends up.
The Steelers are totally intent on doing a deal. They want Wallace around for a long, long time and were sweating out that offer-sheet period. As long as Wallace is realistic about the kind of payday in store, there is ample reason to expect this to get cleared up before late July.
Dragging the holdout into training camp would only exacerbate bruised feelings, would only set Wallace back more, and could have a negative impact on the young man's wallet as well. The New CBA allows teams to go after past bonuses paid to the player should he skip out on camp for a stretch of time, and the fine is now $30,000 per day. Sure, teams often turn the other cheek in the end, when the holdout signs his new deal, but the fiscal disincentives to staying away from the Steelers will only continue to escalate, while the potential rewards from staying away wane.
Taking it into the regular season makes even less sense.
A player must report by Week 10 in order to get an accrued season -- and is losing out on salary in the meantime. If he doesn't return by Week 10, the Steelers keep his rights and he's essentially right back where he was in February. In these cases, the system is set up to greatly protect the teams, and bucking the system, in Pittsburgh of all places, seems naïve.
Too much is made of what goes on in the spring, and which veteran shows up for which OTA session. That part of the calendar is blown out of proportion. But with training camps now truncated and, the potential punishments for skipping out severe, the smart move now is to turn the ongoing dialogue between these sides into a new contract. I can't imagine that Wallace doesn't join the ranks of LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons and this next generation of Steelers stars to secure themselves to Pittsburgh for a long time to come.