Ordinarily, when a team has a good young player who becomes a restricted free agent, that team does what it needs to do and keeps that good young player in the fold. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that Steelers receiver Mike Wallace is not in an ordinary situation.
Wallace becomes a restricted free agent in three weeks, and does so in the first year of the new rules for restricted free agents: A team that wants to sign Wallace away from the Steelers would now only have to forfeit a first-round pick to Pittsburgh, whereas in the past, signing Wallace away would have cost a first-round pick and a third-round pick.
And the Steelers are in a different situation than most teams because the Steelers are in such precarious salary cap shape. Another team with a good restricted free agent like Wallace would put the franchise tag on him, but the Steelers would have to cut a bunch of other players to squeeze the $9.4 million franchise tender under their salary cap.
The Steelers are also in a tough spot because they know they’re going to face the same situation again next year when another receiver, Antonio Brown, also becomes a restricted free agent. Brown was voted the Steelers’ MVP in 2011, and the Steelers would like to keep him beyond 2012, the final year of his current contract. But if the Steelers sign Wallace to a long-term deal, will they have devoted so many resources toward one receiver that they can’t afford another lucrative contract for another receiver? And if all the Steelers do is sign Wallace to a one-year tender offer this year, then the Steelers will be faced with both Wallace and Brown becoming free agents a year from now. (Steelers receiver Emmanuel Sanders becomes a restricted free agent next year, too.)
Add all this up, and the Steelers may be painted into a corner where they just won’t be able to match a lucrative offer that some other team gives to Wallace. As Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette noted on Monday’s PFT Live and wrote about in a piece this morning, the Steelers may just have to accept the fact that Wallace isn’t a player they can afford right now. And there are worse things than getting another first-round draft pick, which is what they would get from a team that signs Wallace to a restricted free agent offer sheet that the Steelers don’t match.
The Patriots and Ravens have both been mentioned as teams that might be interested in signing Wallace. Both teams would like to add a great deep threat to their passing game and would also like to take away a great deep threat from one of their AFC rivals, and both teams pick late in the first round of this year’s draft and would view Wallace as more likely to help them get to the Super Bowl in the coming years than whoever they would draft at the end of round one.
It’s still possible that the Steelers will decide that Wallace is just too important to lose, and that they have to make painful choices elsewhere to keep him. But with three weeks to go before free agency begins, it’s beginning to look like the Steelers will lose one of the best young receivers in football.