If Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Mike Wallace isn’t worth “Larry Fitzgerald” money, then how much should the free-agent-to-be get in a new contract? How much is he really worth? The answers the team comes up with will define the 2013 offseason and may change the course of the upcoming campaign.
The Steelers wideout made headlines during the 2012 offseason when he demanded a contract on par with the one Fitzgerald signed with Arizona in 2011 that pays the Cardinals star $16 million per year. Wallace’s comments signaled that the Steelers receiver expected a similarly huge deal from any team looking to sign him.
Very few seemed to agree with Wallace’s perception of himself. The Steelers were clearly not impressed enough by the receiver’s estimation of his abilities to sit down at the table with the then-restricted free agent. Instead of negotiating, the team tendered Wallace and decided to revisit the issue when he became an unrestricted free agent after the 2012 season.
Though Wallace’s contention that his play has been on par with that of Fitzgerald’s seems all the more ludicrous following a 2012 campaign that saw him finish well outside the top 25 in most receiving categories, that he said it is understandable in the broader context. NFL players do not exist in a vacuum. Teams and fans can quantify a player’s performance independent of what his peers do, but cannot qualify it without stacking it beside others at his position. Without context, there are no rankings. Without rankings, every contract would look the same.
The problem with what Wallace said wasn’t that he said it. He and his agent were simply trying to frame the upcoming negotiations in a way that was favorable to their interests. In rejecting his demands, the team was doing the same.
Wallace’s error was that he picked a player who simply isn’t his peer in any sense of the word.
It’s not just that Fitzgerald was better when he was Wallace’s age. He was, of course. From age 23 to 26, the Cardinals receiver’s average Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement (DYAR), which measures a player’s cumulative value over that of a league-average replacement, was 311 per year. Since joining the league four years ago at age 23, Wallace average DYAR has been 261. Part of this difference can be explained by usage. Fitzgerald got about 50 percent more targets than the Steelers receiver during those four years.
It’s also not simply that Fitzgerald was more consistent than the Steelers wideout during his early years. Though he was that as well. The average deviation of Fitzgerald’s DYAR from its mean was 120 yards less than Wallace’s, meaning his performances between the ages of 23 and 26 were far more predictably excellent. Not surprisingly, the Cardinals star never had a season during that period like Wallace did last year, when the Steelers receiver’s DYAR was -49.
No, what really makes the comparison silly, regardless of the differences in output, is the fact that the two just bring very different things to the table. At risk of using a cliché, they are like apples and oranges.
Even if Wallace had had as many targets as Fitzgerald did at his age, his numbers and his impact on the game would still be completely different. The Cardinals receiver is big and physical, a nightmare matchup for smaller cornerbacks. His Steelers counterpart is lankier but possesses game-breaking speed that Fitzgerald doesn’t have. The likes of Fitzgerald will always have more catches, but the Wallaces of the NFL will pile up more yards if given the same number of touches.
So if not to Fitzgerald, then to whom should Wallace be compared? Like the Cardinals receiver, Roddy White, Brandon Marshall and Calvin Johnson are significantly bigger and more physical than the Steelers wideout, but lack his flat-out speed on deep routes. Also like Fitzgerald, they get a lot more usage than Wallace. For example, the percentage of the Bears’ passes that went to Marshall was twice as high as the Steelers receiver’s share of his team’s throws in 2012.
Receivers like Marques Colston of the Saints are also bad comparisons, as Wallace is not a similarly effective jump-ball target in the red zone. Measuring Wallace against wideouts like Wes Welker also doesn’t work. The latter is short, quick and adept at catching passes from the slot position, none of which describes the Steelers receiver.
From the Steelers’ perspective, the most preferable point of comparison for the purpose of negotiating is probably DeSean Jackson. The Eagles' deep threat signed a contract before the 2012 season that pays him a much more palatable $9.4 million per year. Convincing Wallace that his skills most closely match those of Jackson’s would allow the Steelers to offer their wideout a contract that would not completely destroy their somewhat delicate 2013 salary cap situation.
Jackson is one of the few players in the NFL with Wallace’s ability to get behind safeties and to change the course of a game in a single play. Not surprisingly, his numbers between the age of 23 and 26 are reasonably similar to Wallace’s. The Eagles receiver caught 212 balls for 3873 yards and 21 touchdowns. He averaged 18.2 yards per catch, and 3.9 receptions and 70.4 yards per game.
In his first four years in the league, Wallace amassed 235 catches for 4042 total yards and 32 touchdowns. He averaged 17.2 yards per reception, and 3.7 catches and 64.2 yards per game.
Wallace could and probably will argue, however, that he is a more complete receiver than Jackson. Though the percentage of their targets that came on deep routes was about the same from 2009 to 2012 (37.9 percent for Wallace and 38.3 for Jackson), the Steelers receiver’s proportion of deep balls has decreased from around 50 percent to approximately 30 as his role in Pittsburgh’s offense has increased. By comparison, Jackson’s has varied little, meaning he remains something of a one-trick pony.
Pittsburgh’s deep threat could and probably will also contend that this broader skill set has made him more demonstrably valuable than Jackson. The numbers back this up as well. The latter’s average DYAR from 2009 to 2012 was only 115, despite the fact that the Eagles receiver averaged nearly a full target more per game than Wallace.
A better comparison from Wallace’s point of view would probably be to another Jackson: Vincent of the Buccaneers. Though considerably bigger than his Steelers counterpart, the veteran wideout has a similar ability to stretch defenses on deep routes. More importantly from Wallace’s perspective, though, the other Jackson signed a deal with Tampa Bay before the 2012 season that pays the former Chargers receiver $11 million per year.
Interestingly, Vincent Jackson was the amended comparison Wallace hurriedly offered after his “Larry Fitzgerald” money comments fell so flat. Perhaps the Steelers wideout and his team got advice from a statistician, because the two receivers match up pretty well when it comes to their numbers.
From age 23 to 26, Jackson caught 195 passes for 3341 yards and 25 touchdowns. Though this is a fair bit less than Wallace’s output at the same ages, the then Chargers wideout’s yards per reception were 17.1, or nearly exactly the same as the Steelers receiver’s. This indicates that the difference in absolute output was almost entirely due to usage, as Jackson averaged about a full target less per game early in his career (5.4 to 6.4).
If the same number of throws had come their way during those four-year periods, their numbers would have been nearly identical. If both had averaged six targets per game, Wallace would have caught 220 passes for 3782 yards and 30 touchdowns. Jackson would have had 216 catches for 3693 yards and 28 touchdowns. Under that scenario, Wallace would have averaged 3.46 receptions and 60.1 yards per game, and Jackson 3.42 and 58.6.
Further evidence of the similarity between the two receivers is their respective average DYAR over the four years in question. At 240, Jackson’s was just 21 yards less than Wallace’s. And both were nearly equally inconsistent. The average deviation of Jackson’s from its mean was 177, while Wallace’s was 168, meaning they had similar swings in performance from year to year.
Wallace could further argue that at 27, he will be younger than Jackson was (29) when the latter played the first year of his big new contract. This means that the Steelers (or whichever team it is that signs Wallace) theoretically will get more good years out of the deal than the Buccaneers will get out of Jackson’s.
Pittsburgh, of course, could counter that the extra years of high-quality performance are what justified Jackson’s huge deal in the first place and that Wallace’s subpar 2012 is an indication that he is nothing more than a flash in the pan who will never again reach the lofty heights of his second and third seasons.
So, is Wallace DeSean Jackson or Vincent Jackson? Impossible to know at this point. And that's what makes contract negotiations so interesting.
Any team that signs Wallace won’t be paying Wallace for what he did over the past four years. At least, that's what the organization hopes. Instead, his present or future employer will be compensating him for his performance during the years to come.
While Larry Fitzgerald’s, DeSean Jackson’s or Vincent Jackson’s output in the initial seasons of their new contracts might give some indication of what Wallace could do under a new deal of his own, the reality is that no one knows. He might have a year for the ages, or he might blow out his knee and retire from football.
And so the comparisons, though interesting to debate, are only useful as far as they set a range of expected outcomes for Wallace’s performances during the life of a future contract. They allow teams and fans to discard the idea that he’s the next Larry Fitzgerald, but whether he’s an occasional game-breaker like DeSean Jackson or a more versatile weapon capable of putting up numbers into his 30s like Vincent Jackson remains to be seen.
If the Steelers choose to re-sign Wallace, hopefully they'll get Vincent at less than DeSean's price.