What if Mike Wallace is playing for someone else in 2012? The Steelers said last week that they would tender Wallace a contract as a restricted free agent. We'll talk about how that works, but suffice it to say now that it's no guarantee that Wallace will be donning the 17 jersey for Pittsburgh again.
Here's a look at who could be counted upon as a Wallace replacement.
Restricted free agents must be tendered contracts before the start of free agency or they become unrestricted free agents. If a team wishes to tender their restricted free agent, there are several options for tenders.
The top tender is for $2.742 million and gives a team right of first refusal and a first-round pick as compensation. Whoever signs a player with this tender will have to wait seven days for the other team to match or exceed the offer and, if they do not match or exceed it, send their first-round draft choice as compensation.
This is the tender Wallace will get. While the salary is low, the first-round draft choice as compensation will deter most teams from getting involved in a bidding war. It won't likely discourage everyone, however. That's why the Steelers will be assembling some potential replacement options.
Losing Wallace without a comparable replacement being brought in as a corresponding move would compromise the team's current receiver depth, but that depth is already incredible.
Emmanuel Sanders, who seemed poised to be Wallace's starting counterpart last year before an injury allowed Antonio Brown to emerge, is more than capable of being a force opposite Brown.
Now, for this to work, the team will need to make sure they bring Jerricho Cotchery back. They are likely working on just that type of deal, but nothing has been completed. Cotchery brings a possession receiver element to the team and would figure in perfectly as a third receiver in the slot.
The Steelers could bring in a late-round receiver like B.J. Cunningham of Michigan State if they wanted to have further depth at the fourth spot. They could also elect to give Tyler Grisham his long-awaited opportunity.
Lloyd is a Wallace-type player. He's a deep receiver with a huge catching radius and the ability to make amazing grabs anywhere on the field.
Like Wallace, he'd also be an expensive addition to a team that we've already said could be just fine without Wallace in the mix next season.
If you're looking for a comparable player, however, there's no better example. Wallace isn't particularly adept in short range, but he is good at catch-and-run plays. Lloyd plays the same way, and he proved to be exceptional last season despite the lackluster offense the Rams fielded.
The Rams are likely interested in Lloyd returning, but the Steelers could get involved if they really wanted to make a play in free agency.
This is a classic "buy low" situation. Hixon is an oft-injured yet highly regarded prospect from the Giants. When he plays, he's worth of being a second receiver on any team. He has good hands and good speed, although he isn't going to push back safeties like Wallace.
The Steelers could use the more well-rounded Hixon, and he might even come at a lower price given that he's coming off an injury.
There aren't many receivers in the free agency class besides Jerricho Cotchery that the Steelers will likely make a play to sign. Hixon represents a reasonable option for the cap-conscious Steelers and a guy who might pay dividends the way Cotchery did in 2011.
He's a tall receiver with dynamic skills. He creates mismatches with defenses and doesn't drop many passes. He has excellent hands. He also possesses excellent speed.
He's likely a mid- to late-first round selection, so there are no guarantees he'd be around for the Steelers to get. But if the team nets an extra first-round pick in a Wallace departure, they might replace him with a player like Floyd, who projects as a No. 1 receiver on virtually any team.
The Steelers have had amazing success at receiver in the draft in recent seasons, so they could bet on their ability to coach up a young player instead of spending big money on a Wallace extension or a free agency contract for anyone who's available.
Suppose the Steelers net an extra first-rounder in Wallace's departure and also lose out on bringing back Jerricho Cotchery. They still have plenty of speed with Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders, but they could stand to get better at possession.
A player like Randle could fix that. He projects as a second-rounder in my book, but he plays big and uses his strength and quickness to create separation and make big plays. He's a good red zone weapon, something the Steelers need badly after falling to 21st in scoring offense last season.
Randle would be a good selection in Round 2 as the Steelers could address major needs with two first-round picks and then have a little more latitude to draft for commodities in the later rounds.