The Steelers made official what was widely expected today, declining to place the franchise tag on restricted free agent wide receiver Mike Wallace.
That means that any team can sign Wallace to an offer sheet, and if the cap-strapped Steelers don’t match the offer, Wallace will cost only one first-round draft pick. Acquiring a 25-year-old who’s arguably the best deep threat in the NFL for a first-round draft pick isn’t a bad deal at all, especially if there’s a playoff contender that believes a big-play receiver is just the thing they need to win the Super Bowl.
For the Steelers, matching a lucrative offer to Wallace would be tough. Although they’ve made several moves in the last week to free up salary cap space, they’re still not in great cap shape. And they’re in a tough spot because they know they’ll face the same situation again next year when receiver Antonio Brown 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. If they tie up a lot of money and cap space in a new contract for Wallace this year, it may be harder to find the money and cap space to devote to Brown next year.
If Wallace ultimately just signs his one-year tender offer as a restricted free agent, he’ll come at a very affordable price of $2.7 million. But in that scenario, Wallace and Brown would both be free agents at this time next year. (Steelers receiver Emmanuel Sanders becomes a restricted free agent next year, too.)
Add it all up, and the Steelers may decide that matching an offer for Wallace isn’t in the cards, and that they’ll be glad to take a first-round draft pick from the team that signs him. At the moment, however, Steelers G.M. Kevin Colbert is stressing that it’s up to the Steelers.
“He could get offer from another team, but ultimately we get to make the decision on Mike,” Colbert said on Steelers.com today.
Of course, the Steelers already made one decision, not to franchise Wallace. But Colbert said that with the Steelers’ cap situation, the franchise tag is just not a realistic option.
“We don’t have the cap room of having the luxury of using the franchise tag this season,” Colbert said.
If he does get an offer from another team, which team would it be? One of the most intriguing possibilities is New England. The Patriots’ first-round pick is a low one (No. 31 overall), so they may not think it’s a lot to give up to give Tom Brady a speedy receiver like Wallace. And the Patriots have two first-round picks (they acquired the Saints’ first-rounder in a trade last year), so they could still be players on draft day if they give their own first-round pick away. Plus, the Patriots wouldn’t mind taking one of the best offensive players away from one of their biggest AFC rivals.
There’s also been chatter in San Francisco that the 49ers would love to add Wallace to their receiving corps. With the 30th pick in the first round of the draft, the 49ers are another team that could decide that Wallace will be far more productive than any rookie they could add this year.
In any event, every team with a need at receiver has to be thinking about signing Wallace to an offer sheet. And the Steelers have to be thinking that their top receiver in 2011 may be gone in 2012.