As we prepare to enter the 2012 free agency period, the Pittsburgh Steelers biggest concern is what is going to happen with Mike Wallace.
Wallace, who is a restricted free agent, is free to sign an offer sheet with any team that wants him. By doing so, the Steelers will have seven days to match that offer, or receive the other team's first-round draft pick as consolation.
There are various reports saying that Wallace is already as good as gone, but the reality in the NFL is that no restricted free agent has received a contract offer from a different team than his current one in 10 years.
Yes, the rules this year are different than in years past, as teams will only lose a first round pick as compensation as opposed to the first and third round picks it used to be under the old CBA. That does not change the fact that many teams value their first-round picks and don't want to give them up.
Not only that, for the Steelers to not match the contract offered to Wallace, the offer would have to be extremely front-loaded, meaning a lot of money is going to have to be paid in the first year of the deal. Teams are reluctant to play that game, because if the player gets injured, retires or simply doesn't play as hard as he should after the first year, there is nothing the team can do to recoup any of that money.
Add to that, in the final years of the contract, when the player has already received most of the money, then he is going to want a new contract, and it will cost the team even more.
That is why, most teams are not interested in going after restricted free agents. Add to that the fact that the free agent market for receivers this year is one of the best in a long time, it would come as no surprise if Wallace is in the Black and Gold next year as well.
What the Steelers could do, if they so chose, is to work out a contract with Wallace now so that none of those points would even be a consideration.
Since I know the Steelers are busy, allow me to give you the perfect contract for the Steelers to offer Wallace, and I believe it is an offer he would not refuse.
You would have to start with the only free agent receiver to sign a contract so far this offseason, and that is Steve Johnson of the Buffalo Bills.
The contract that the Bills gave Johnson is for $36.25 million over five years. Of that, $11 million is fully guaranteed, $8.5 million is in the form of a signing bonus, and his salary will be $2.5 million.
Yes, Wallace is a better receiver than Johnson is—I don't question that. So the Steelers would need to pay him more than what Buffalo gave Johnson; but that can easily be done with my contract scenario.
For starters, the Steelers would need to give Wallace a six-year contract, making the final year of it voidable by Wallace. This would allow the Steelers to spread the signing bonus over six years instead of the five Buffalo used.
By doing that, the Steelers could give Wallace a signing bonus of $12 million, which is $3.5 million more than Johnson got, and the pro-rated expense in the first year would only be $2 million. The Steelers could then give Wallace a first-year salary of around $1.5 million, bringing his total cap charge in 2012 to $3.5 million, allowing the Steelers to still have around $11 million for other players.
In his second season, Johnson has a roster bonus of $4.5 million along with a salary of $7 million. The Steelers could give Wallace a roster bonus (which next year could be converted into a signing bonus) of $5 million, and a salary of $3 million.
This is something similar to what the Steelers did with LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons last year. It gives them a big salary or bonus money that can be converted with a simple restructure.
It would also pay Wallace $21.5 million dollars in the fist two years of his contract, but because of the bonus money (signing bonus and simple restructure) it would only cost the Steelers $5 million towards the salary cap in 2013.
In the other four years of his contract, the Steelers would be committed to pay Wallace another $28 million dollars, which comes out to around $7 million per year. The Steelers could spread that out by giving Wallace $4 million in year three, $5 million in year four and $6 million in year five. With the pro-rated bonus money from the first two years, you would add $4 million to each of those totals per year. The final year of the contract, when Wallace is 31 years old, the Steelers would owe him around $13 million, and a new contract would be worked out or he could be released.
This way, the Steelers would be able to afford Wallace right now, pay him more than the Bills payed Johnson, and still have salary cap space to work with in 2012, and still have to money to pay Antonio Brown as a free agent next year.
This would give Wallace a contract that is $6 years, $50 million contract, with guarantees of $23 million. But, for practical matters, the contract is really a five year deal, worth $32 million. Because of the guaranteed money, this contract is better than the one that the Bills gave Johnson.
Now, I know a lot of you are saying that is a lot of money to spend on a player, but the reality is, a player like Wallace is not someone that you want to simply let walk out the door. Provisions could be included in the contract to protect the Steelers in case Wallace gets injured.
Not only that, in 2014 the new TV deal money is going to kick in, and the salary cap is going to make the largest jump ever in the NFL. Some rumors I have heard say the cap will grow in the neighborhood of $20 million to $25 million per team.
With Todd Haley joining the Steelers, and knowing that he has the ability to get the most out of the Steelers passing attack, allowing the best deep threat in the NFL leave would only hurt that. This is a great way to keep Wallace, and keep all parties happy.
If the Steelers really want to keep Wallace, so that he can retire a Steeler, this is a simple way to make that happen. They will be keeping the best deep threat in the NFL in Pittsburgh, and not break the bank in doing it, while making Wallace the kind of wealthy man I am sure he wants to be.