New England Patriots: Pittsburgh Steelers' Mike Wallace Is a Realistic Target

Cian Fahey@CianafFeatured ColumnistFebruary 7, 2012

PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 04:  Mike Wallace #17 of the Pittsburgh Steelers celebrates following his touchdown against the Cincinnati Bengals in the first half during the game on December 4, 2011 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Bill Belichick, during his time as the New England Patriots' head coach, has never been scared of making an aggressive move to improve his roster.

Whether it be trading for Wes Welker and Randy Moss prior to the 2007 season, or adding Albert Haynesworth and Chad Ochocinco more recently, Belichick, more than most, is always looking to better his side in whatever way possible.

After a Super Bowl in which Tom Brady was only able to complete 11 receptions for 126 yards to his wide receivers, the Patriots' problem on the outside was exposed for everyone to see.

Even though the Super Bowl, in which Eli Manning completed 19 passes for 207 yards to his receivers, was only the exclamation point at the end of a season when the offense survived without big plays on the outside, the next step on the blueprint for success is rebuilding the group.

While many prior to the season believed Chad Ochocinco was going to be the difference-maker on offense, Ochocinco hadn't been the type of receiver the Patriots needed last year for a very long time. Ochocinco is an expert route runner with precise feet and safe hands.

His inability to comprehend the offense fully kept him on the sidelines for most of the season, but he and Wes Welker, along with Deion Branch, wouldn't have been a complementary pairing either way.

However, Welker's perfect complementary receiver is available in free agency this year.

Despite being a restricted free agent, Mike Wallace is nowhere near guaranteed to return to Pittsburgh as a Steelers player next year. One alteration to free agency made by the relatively new Collective Bargaining Agreement is that teams can no longer put first- and third-round protections on their restricted free agents.

In the past, restricted free agency rarely ever allowed players to leave their original teams. The last big name to move as a restricted free agency was Wes Welker and even then the Miami Dolphins and Patriots agreed to a trade rather than go through the bidding process. Therefore he essentially didn't move as a restricted free agent.

The Dolphins undervalued Welker at the time as he hadn't played to the level that he has exhibited in New England since then. Mike Wallace in Pittsburgh is a completely different situation.

On first glance, it is more likely for Bill Belichick to start a reality TV series with Chad Ochocinco opposed to the team signing Wallace. However, when you dig deeper into the potential deal, it wouldn't be a surprise for Wallace to become the best deep threat in Boston since Randy Moss.

The Steelers at best can put a first-round tender on Wallace, which is what you would expect them to do. They do have the franchise tag available; however, their lack of cap space will prevent them from using it. With indications being that the Steelers are expected to be upwards of $20 million over the salary cap next season, it's unrealistic to expect them to work in a commitment of around $10 million for Wallace.

If the Patriots do decide to compete with the Steelers for Wallace's signature, they could easily outbid the Steelers early on. A restricted free agent's original team has 10 days to match any offer sheets that come in. If the Patriots get an early offer in, it could make Omar Khan's, the Steelers' cap manager, job very difficult while trying to manage a roster that needs a lot of work.

With the compensation being a first round pick, the Patriots would only be giving up their 31st overall selection in the 2012 draft for arguably an elite wide receiver. Considering that late round picks are no guarantees, and the team has an earlier first-round draft choice after last year's trade with the New Orleans Saints, losing that pick isn't a big deal.

More importantly than Wallace being considered an elite receiver, his skill set is perfect for the Patriots' offense.

Building an offense is never as simple as getting the best talent and putting it together to overwhelm other teams. In 2007, Tom Brady's best season, the Patriots' receiving corp perfectly complemented each other with Randy Moss and Donte Stallworth stretching the field for Wes Welker to move the chains.

Without a deep threat, it is easier for teams to shorten the field and flood Welker out of the equation. When safeties don't have to respect a deep threat, throwing windows become tighter and defenders are more likely to pick off passes.

If Wallace becomes a Patriots player, defenses will have to respect his deep threat or allow him to hit home runs on a regular basis. Wallace is one of the fastest—if not the fastest—players in the NFL. Simply dropping a cornerback to play off coverage is never enough to contain him.

Some cornerbacks drop upwards of 12 yards deep and even then they generally get safety help over the top. Considering that Wallace can use his speed with the ball in his hands, that gives the Patriots the option of quick passes into the flat that can turn into massive gains.

Or, if they choose to still send Wallace deep, then the best slot receiver in the NFL gets even more space to work underneath the defense.

With Wallace on the outside, the Patriots' matchup offense would become uncontainable. The quartet of Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Welker and Wallace would ask too many different questions of defenses and require them to be consistent in all facets of play.

The Steelers' cap issues aren't the only thing working in the Patriots favor.

Outside of Wallace in Pittsburgh, the Steelers have a trio of talented receivers under contract entering next season, as well as Jerricho Cotchery hitting free agency. Veteran Hines Ward is looking to redo his contract and he will almost certainly return. Emmanuel Sanders is returning from injuries to both his feet that reduced his role this year. The Steelers have enough players with Antonio Brown to cover the loss of their main receiver.

The free agent pool of receivers this year for third and fourth choice options represents a lot of value as far as possession pass-catchers go. While the Patriots do need an elite receiver, the Steelers could still have a very talented group of receivers for Todd Haley without Wallace, and instead add someone like Eddie Royal or Cotchery for cheaper.

This would work against the Steelers when trying to retain Wallace because they wouldn't value him as highly as the Patriots would.

Wes Welker is very unlikely to leave the Patriots because he doesn't fit as well in any other offense in the NFL. Once he is signed, Mike Wallace is a legitimate option for the New England Patriots to pursue.

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