The Pittsburgh Steelers are flying into an offseason of serious uncertainty -- one in which they will experience plenty of turbulence before all is said and done. They are reportedly $10 million or so over the NFL's salary cap ceiling. Key players on defense showed their increasing age at points last season. Their starting running back, Rashard Mendenhall, tore up his knee on Jan. 1, an injury that will likely stretch into the 2012 season.
And then there is Mike Wallace, Pittsburgh's speedy wide receiver who will hit the market as a restricted free agent if the Steelers don't slap the franchise tag on him before the March 5 deadline. Doing so would cost the Steelers roughly $9 million in cap space, something they probably can't afford considering they are already over the cap and still need to sign draft picks and other free agents (players from other teams and from their own).
According to The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Steelers probably aren't going to use the franchise tag to lock Wallace down for 2012. Instead, they will likely place a first-round restricted tender on him and risk losing him to a team with loose pockets and salary cap space. If Wallace and another team were to agree to an offer sheet, the Steelers could either match the contract or let Wallace run free for a first-round draft pick.
Remember, this is a two-way street. If Wallace wants to stay in Pittsburgh, he is free to do so. Any interest in Wallace has to be reciprocated -- meaning that if, hypothetically, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers wanted to sign him but Wallace didn't think he would look good in pewter pants, he can opt to stay with the Steelers.
But if Wallace wants to get paid and signs a lucrative contract frontloaded with a big roster bonus (one that counts against the salary cap right away) with another team, the Steelers would likely be powerless to stop it. They would, however, receive a first-round draft pick from the team that signed Wallace, which is significant.
The Ravens, who have the 29th overall pick in April's NFL draft, have been one of the teams mentioned in the media speculation about the Wallace situation. On the surface, it makes sense. The Ravens have said they want to get better at wide receiver this offseason, and Wallace, 25, is one of the NFL's most lethal downfield threats. They would also be stealing the Steelers' leading receiver from the past two seasons -- a nice bonus.
Wallace led the Steelers with 72 catches for 1,193 yards and eight touchdowns in 2011. But Ed Bouchette, the Steelers beat reporter for The Post-Gazette, highlighted some interesting splits. In the first half of 2011, Wallace had 43 receptions for 800 yards. In the season's second half, he caught 29 passes for just 393 yards.
At the State of the Ravens news conference three weeks ago, I asked Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome about the recent change in restricted free agent compensation (in the past, teams could tender a first-round pick and a third-round pick for a restricted free agent, but now a first-round pick is the maximum).
I was asking mostly about Ravens cornerbacks Lardarius Webb and Cary Williams, who are both restricted free agents who could draw interest from other teams. But Newsome gave an answer that suggests the Ravens won't be chasing Wallace this offseason.
"This league covets draft picks. In order to go after a restricted guy, No. 1, you have to give a [contract] that's something that I won't match, or we won't match as a team. And then you've got to also give up a significant draft choice, because we would put some numbers on there that would make it prohibitive for people," Newsome said. "There's going to be some restricted free agents that we would like, but is it going to be worth giving up a significant amount of cash and cap and a draft pick? When you deal with that double-whammy, even though the rules have been relaxed, you just go, 'Nah, no, I wouldn't do it.' That's just my philosophy."
Now maybe Newsome was hiding his intentions. Or maybe he has since decided that his philosophy on the matter has a little wiggle room. But if neither has happened, his statement is pretty telling.
I'm not saying there isn't a chance that Wallace could be wearing purple in 2012, but there are a lot of moving parts in this scenario, including future salary cap ramifications if the Ravens sign Wallace to a big long-term deal. It's not as simple as shooting the Steelers a polite email to let them know they are taking him off their hands.