Why Mike Wallace Will Be This Year's Biggest Free-Agent Bust

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Why Mike Wallace Will Be This Year's Biggest Free-Agent Bust
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"Speed kills." That's the reasoning NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal used for naming Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace his best available free-agent-to-be.

There's no denying Wallace's speed. At the 2009 NFL Scouting Combine, he cut a 4.33 40-yard dash, faster than every other receiver, save one. Wallace's speed showed up on the field immediately; in his rookie season, Wallace led the NFL in average yards per catch with a whopping 19.4.

Since then Wallace has continued to be a deep threat, racking up 4,042 yards and 32 touchdowns in just four seasons in the NFL. Teams looking for a game-breaking wideout must be licking their chops and refilling their pens, ready to go to bidding war for his services—right?

Maybe they are, but buyer beware: Rosenthal himself said Wallace is "not...a complete receiver." The holes in Wallace's game are real, and the team that signs him to a monster contract will be getting this year's biggest free-agent bust.

 

Tools

Wallace has speed, gobs and gobs of it. Wallace doesn't have great size (6'0", 180 pounds), though, and his hands are inconsistent. Per Pro Football Focus, Wallace caught just 54.9 percent of his targets in 2012, ranking him 77th out of 107 qualifying receivers.

Chris Graythen/Getty Images

The 107th, by the way, was the only player to outrun Wallace at the 2009 combine: the Oakland Raiders' Darrius Heyward-Bey. Speed kills, but absolute speed does not kill absolutely.

Former unit-mate Hines Ward was the best (or at least most eager) run-blocking wide receiver in the game. Mike Wallace, in contrast, blocks like Deion Sanders tackled: without talent or effort.

All this aside, the real money-making difference between being a flashy deep threat and a "complete receiver" is third down.

On deeper routes, Wallace has outstanding route-running skills. He gets in and out of cuts beautifully and kicks on his afterburners quickly and smoothly. That's all great, but several times a game a critical catch just past the sticks makes the difference between a scoring drive and a punt.

Let's take a look at a critical 3rd-and-9 situation, in the first possession of a divisional road game against the Cincinnati Bengals:

Lined up in a single-back, two-tight end formation with both receivers to the right, Wallace is lined up on the outside. Wallace uses his speed to beat the corner to the outside:

Then he bends his route back to the inside, getting the corner running towards the middle of the field:

Wallace hits the brakes hard on his mark, then darts back to the sideline, creating massive separation:

Roethlisberger sees him open, puts it right on his hands and DOINK:

An opening drive stalls on the opponent's 24-yard line, and a possible touchdown turns into a field goal. The Steelers won 24-17, but these are the kind of mistakes that can easily cost teams games.

 

Production

As a rookie, Wallace saw heavy rotational time, playing in all 16 games and starting four of them. Per Pro Football Focus, Wallace caught 39 of his 71 targets, a poor 54.9 percent. However, nearly every reception was a long ball; as mentioned, Wallace led the NFL with 19.4 yards per catch.

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Wallace piled up 756 yards and six touchdowns as a rookie, despite averaging only 2.4 catches per game.

In 2010, Santonio Holmes moved on, and Wallace became the top Steeler receiver. PFF charted Wallace playing nearly twice as many offensive snaps (1,177) as in 2009 and drawing a team-high 93 regular-season targets. He caught a much-improved 64.5 percent of them for 1,257 yards and 10 touchdowns.

2010 was the only season Wallace led Pittsburgh receivers in PFF overall or pass-catching grades, and no wonder. His 60 catches averaged a mind-boggling 21 yards each.

Stop and think about that for a second: About six times a game, Roethlisberger threw it to Wallace. About four times a game, Wallace would catch it. Every time he caught it, the Steelers gained an average of 21 yards, and every sixth catch was a touchdown.

That's speed at its most lethal.

Karl Walter/Getty Images

In 2011, Ward's role was greatly reduced, as second-year wideout Antonio Brown ascended to the starting lineup. In fact, Brown passed both Ward and Wallace to become the most-targeted receiver in Pittsburgh. Per PFF, Brown was targeted 120 times on just 625 snaps, surpassing Wallace's 113 targets on 939 snaps.

This means Brown was getting thrown the ball an average of once every 5.2 snaps he played, while Wallace only saw a target an average of once every 8.3 snaps. For all Wallace's speed, Brown was getting more open, more often.

Per PFF, Wallace was doing more with his targets: catching them more often (63.7 percent vs. 57.5 percent), gaining more average yards with each catch (16.6 vs. 16.1) and scoring more touchdowns (eight vs. two). Still, in Brown's second season, he'd already supplanted Wallace as Roethlisberger's favorite target.

In 2012, Wallace's declining production continued. Per PFF, Wallace led the Steelers in targets with a whopping 116 but caught only 64 of them (55.2 percent). Wallace only mustered 834 yards for a meager-for-him 13.1 yards per catch.

It would be easy to blame Wallace's production on the overall failure of the Steelers offense; all the receivers in black and gold suffered a down year in 2012. Wallace, though, averaged only 4.4 yards after each catch. In the previous three seasons, that stat was 6.8, 6.3 and 6.3.

Wallace lost something last season—a step, a spark or possibly his mojo.

 

Attitude

After the 2010 season, per Pro Football Talk, the Steelers chose to retain cornerback Ike Taylor and tackle Willie Colon, extended linebackers LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons and then chose to make Wallace wait.

After the 2011 season, the Steelers ignored Wallace's demands for an extension and extended Brown instead, inking Brown to a five-year, $42.5 million deal. Wallace responded by holding out throughout training camp and the first two preseason games, to no avail.

Wallace seemed to have an inflated view of his worth. Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee reported Wallace told the 49ers he wanted a contract that tops Larry Fitzgerald's eight-year, $120 million deal. Only Calvin Johnson makes that kind of money, and Johnson literally doubled Wallace's production in 2012.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Most players kick it into their highest gear when their contract is due, but Wallace took his foot off the accelerator. Wallace earned by far his lowest-ever PFF grade in 2012, his minus-4.5 overall mark ranking him 91st out of 105 qualifying receivers.

 

Extreme Bust Potential

Overall, Wallace is fast and talented and has proven he can take the top off an NFL defense. His contract demands are completely out of touch with the quality "X" receiver he's been, and he doesn't have the size, hands, consistency or work ethic to become much more than that.

Worst of all, Wallace responded to the challenge of a contract year by faltering. Given the chance to earn the huge payday he thinks he deserves, he rested on his laurels.

What happens when a team actually puts up big-time cash? As Rosenthal said, in a market that's paying marginal players like Brian Hartline $6 million per year, there's "no reason" Wallace can't get Vincent Jackson-like money (five years, $55 million).

Then, that poor team will be investing huge cash a player who thinks he's worth Fitzgerald money but has been producing like Hartline.

It's a perfect scenario for a huge free-agent bust.

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