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Pittsburgh Steelers Free Agency: The Team Cannot Overpay Mike Wallace

PITTSBURGH - AUGUST 18:  Antonio Brown #84 and Mike Wallace #17 of the Pittsburgh Steelers celebrate after Brown's touchdown against the Philadelphia Eagles during the preseason game on August 18, 2011 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images
Chris GazzeCorrespondent IMarch 14, 2012

Mike Wallace, otherwise known as "Fast Money," may need to change his name to "Big Money" with the contracts that free agent wide receivers have been signing.

The free agent market has been outstanding for receivers who have been cashing in. That is great news for Wallace and bad news for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Wallace is one of the top free agents on the market, possibly the best receiver, and recent contracts to Pierre Garcon and Vincent Jackson may have driven up the price tag for the Steelers' free agent receiver.

Franchise tags to the Kansas City Chiefs' Dwayne Bowe, the New England Patriots' Wes Welker and the Philadelphia Eagles' DeSean Jackson dried up many of the elite options. But this is a very deep free agent class for wide receivers, and there were other options for teams in need of a receiver.

Last week, the Buffalo Bills set the market for receivers by re-signing Stevie Johnson to a five-year, $36.5 million contract ($19.5 million guaranteed).

The New Orleans Saints kept top option Marques Colston with a five-year deal worth as much as $40 million with about $19 million guaranteed.

Wallace seemed destined for a contract in the ballpark of those players until the Washington Redskins joined the party.

In typical Daniel Snyder fashion, he severely overpaid for a free agent. This time it was Pierre Garcon, who is not a legitimate No. 1 receiver. He signed a five-year, $42.5 million contract with $21 million guaranteed.

Then Tampa Bay spent even more (albeit for a better receiver) on Vincent Jackson, signing him to a five-year, $55.5 million deal with $26 million guaranteed.

There is no arguing that Wallace is better than every receiver signed so far. With that being the case, imagine the type of contract he will command.

Wallace will only be 26 years old when the season begins, and he is one of the fastest receivers in the league. His production has been unbelievable, with 171 receptions, 3,206 yards and 24 touchdowns in just three years. Keep in mind he only started two of those seasons, too.

Are the Steelers prepared to pay Wallace upwards of $26 million in guaranteed money? They may be, but history shows that they are willing to let wide receivers walk.

Following a monster season in 1997, the Steelers allowed Yancey Thigpen to walk. He signed a huge contract with the then-Tennessee Oilers (now the Titans).

Pittsburgh let the talented yet underachieving Plaxico Burress leave after his rookie contract expired after the 2004 season, and it traded Super Bowl 43 MVP Santonio Holmes in the 2010 offseason for only a fifth-round draft pick.

Over the years, Pittsburgh has signed only Hines Ward to multiple contracts. The question now is whether or not Wallace will go the way of Ward or join Burress and Holmes as players who did not get a second contract with the Steelers.

At this point, the Steelers have a few options. If another team signs Wallace to an offer sheet, Pittsburgh will have the chance to match.

PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 24:  Mike Wallace #17 of the Pittsburgh Steelers runs after the catch against the St. Louis Rams during the game on December 24, 2011 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  The Steelers won 27-0.  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

This option is still out there, but becoming less likely, as the number of suitors for Wallace decreases. However, it is still possible the San Francisco 49ers, New England Patriots or another surprise team makes an offer.

The Steelers could strike a deal with Wallace as well. It would guarantee him millions of dollars, but at a rate that Pittsburgh's front office feels to be appropriate. In other words, he will likely have to take a pay-cut from what he could get on the open market.

The final option is that Wallace plays out this season in Pittsburgh at his first-round tender rate of $2.75 million. At the end of the season the two sides can work out an extension, Wallace could be franchised or he could be allowed to walk as a free agent.

No one wants to get to that point, but the Steelers may not have a choice.

It is not often that Pittsburgh is unable to sign its young, elite talent to long-term deals, but they also have proven not to invest a lot of cap dollars in the receiver position.

Pittsburgh is wise with its investments, and it will be wise with how it handles Wallace. The Steelers have invested in quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and have surrounded him with young talent at the skill positions. Most of that talent comes at a low cost, allowing Pittsburgh to invest most of its cap dollars on the defensive side of the ball.

But with a shift to wide-open offenses in the NFL, will the Steelers have to invest more in the offense to keep a player like Wallace?

Wallace is one of the best deep threats in the league and has a great rapport with Roethlisberger.

Simply put, Wallace is a great fit in Pittsburgh, and Pittsburgh a great fit for Wallace. It would be ideal for both sides to work out a deal.

But if Wallace wants to cash in (and who could blame him), Pittsburgh will have to allow him to leave, whether it is this year and getting a first-round draft pick in return or after this season.

The Steelers will not overpay for Wallace. They have a price in mind, and they will stick to that value. Whether Wallace accepts that or not will be determined.

Regardless of the outcome, the Steelers will move on and invest the money as they feel appropriate to improve the team and remain in contention for championships. It's the Steelers' way.

 

Follow Chris G. on Twitter.

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