Adam Schefter reports this morning that, according to a source close to the player, the Pittsburgh Steelers are expected to tender restricted free agent Mike Wallace at the first-round level instead of using their franchise tag on him.
The Steelers had recently gotten under the cap for 2012 with a flurry of contract restructures and the release of Hines Ward, but apparently, it will not be enough to afford to have the wide receiver tag number of $9.4 million devoted to Wallace for as long as it takes to work out a long-term deal (or through the 2012 season).
A wide receiver-needy team with a late first-round pick could swoop in and sign Wallace to a deal that the Steelers could not match. A large roster bonus payable this year would be impossible for the Steelers to satisfy, so he will be a virtual member of the excellent free-agent wide receiver class, assuming Schefter's report is accurate.
The New England Patriots, San Francisco 49ers and even the Cincinnati Bengals could make a run at Wallace, leaving the Steelers with an extra first-round pick, but with a shortage of playable wide receivers.
Certainly, the chances of Jerricho Cotchery returning in free agency would increase, but that would only get the team to three-deep at the position, with Emmanuel Sanders being promoted to the starting lineup.
The Steelers have done as well at wide receiver in recent drafts as any team in the league, so it would make sense for them to look to the the rookie crop to replace Wallace. Who in this class could be groomed to fill the void left by Wallace's likely departure?
Kendall Wright, Baylor: Wright's 4.61 40 disappointed at the combine, but his film shows a player with 4.4 pad speed. Wright could be there in the late first round, and he compares favorably to former Steeler Santonio Holmes, without the attitude.
Stephen Hill, Georgia Tech: Like Wallace, Hill is raw, but he also possesses Wallace's lethal deep speed, but in a 6'4", 215-pound frame. His 4.36 40 at the combine could get him in the late first-round mix.
Joe Adams, Arkansas: The Steelers found Wallace and Sanders in the third round of the draft, and that's about where Adams should go. His 4.55 40 at the combine was disappointing, but his tape tells the story of a more explosive player and one who can relieve Sanders of his new-found punt and kick return duties.
The Steelers have to be scouring the draft for depth at wide receiver whether Wallace leaves or not, but getting one of these speedy receivers or a similar prospect will become a top priority if Wallace is signed away by another playoff team.