Mike Wallace believed he was worth much more than the Pittsburgh Steelers offered last summer, and he was right.
Kind of. He found at least one team to believe in him.
Despite a holdout and turning in the worst season of his career, Wallace’s big payday has come from the Miami Dolphins, who finally showed aggression in pursuing a receiver. Though they may have shown too much, with initial reports from ESPN of a five-year deal worth $60 million with $30 million guaranteed.
Still, it is the kind of domino move that could shake up the AFC for years to come.
Now Antonio Brown must step up as the Steelers’ No. 1 receiver as he enters the second year of his five-year, $42.5 million contract. That deal only came after Wallace rejected a slightly larger offer from the Steelers.
Brian Hartline emerged as the Dolphins’ No. 1 receiver last season, but with Wallace on board, he can go back to being a No. 2 wideout. That still comes with a new five-year contract worth $30.77 million for the receiver drafted 24 spots behind Wallace in 2009.
Wide receivers have been the talk of the 2013 free-agency period, but they can be a volatile position to overpay this time of year. One has to consider, at the very least, the system in which the receiver played, along with the quality of his quarterback and complementary receivers.
When it comes to statistics, Hartline actually had more receptions and averaged more receiving yards per game than both Wallace and Brown last season.
That is why you also have to look at the receiver’s individual abilities. When breaking down the 2012 season in particular, you may be surprised to see which of these three receivers was doing more with less.
Analyzing a Receiver by His Catch Radius
Advanced stats for a wide receiver have evolved into things like catch rate, yards after catch (YAC) percentage, yards per route run, average depth of target, etc.
But rather than continuing to count all 10-yard receptions as equal, what about an advanced stat that can not only measure a wide receiver’s ability to catch the ball, but also his quarterback’s accuracy?
Last year, I looked at the 2011 seasons for Wallace and Brown in an attempt to quantify their catch radii. This method of turning a motion study into stats should be able to tell us how the receivers are making their catches relative to where the ball is thrown and the positioning of their body.
A great receiver should be capable of adjusting to some poorly thrown balls and still come away with the catch from time to time. You cannot always count on that delivery to be right on the numbers, which is normally what you want in order to optimize the ability to gain yards after the catch.
After doing the same analysis for 2012 on Wallace, Brown and now Hartline, the good news is that, based on these five seasons (353 total receptions), there has been year-to-year correlation and the quarterback does appear to be relevant. Now, five seasons are still a very small sample, but these initial results are encouraging that this has value.
The types of catches will be explained (I highly recommend reading last year’s piece for more examples), but first, here is the comparison between the three receivers’ catch radii from the 2012 season:
For starters, keep in mind each player's height: Hartline is 6'2"; Wallace is 6'0"; Brown is 5'10".
With that said, Wallace had 79.7 percent of his catches arrive on the numbers (chest level), which should be among the easiest catches for a receiver to make. It was closer to just two-thirds for Brown and Hartline, who certainly made more difficult catches over the course of the season.
There are three different “chest-level” catches noted. You have the most common catch in football—right on the numbers—but then there are “high” and “low” distinctions for plays where the pass was thrown to the chest but the receiver was either high in the air for the catch or low to the ground (on his knees at times).
Wallace had a very impressive chest-high catch against Antonio Cromartie of the Jets for a 37-yard touchdown on a 3rd-and-16.
This is not to make it sound like all of Wallace’s catches were easy, but after you watch all three receivers' play last year, it is hard not to be least impressed with Wallace given the ball-placement advantages he had.
Wallace also made it hard on himself at times. On a Sunday night in Cincinnati (Week 7), he struggled with multiple drops. Late in the game, he made this catch that required him to slide to the ground, but it was a close play that was challenged and fortunately upheld for his sake.
While Hartline did a good job of hugging the sidelines at times last year, you never saw him make a diving catch this way.
Wallace’s big highlight catch came against the Chiefs on Monday Night Football in Week 10. It was his only fade catch of the season (had just one in 2011 as well), and it was a one-handed beauty to bring in the pass that was thrown wide and score the touchdown.
Though typically not a red-zone threat, a play like that shows Wallace may have untapped potential in that area of the field.
Sharper Degrees of Difficulty Through Scheme and the Impact of the Quarterback
Sometimes the quarterback needs to be bailed out by his receiver. Eli Manning and Joe Flacco know all about this to a championship degree.
But someone like Wallace rarely goes up high for a pass, which could be a problem if the 2013 Dolphins passing game resembles what they had last year.
Brown and Hartline had nearly identical percentages of catches made above their head. As a shorter receiver, Brown has gotten rather good at these miraculous catches the last two seasons. Here is one of them, featuring full extension and his feet off the ground against the Redskins:
As for the opposite—catches made below the waist—these are again very rare feats, as it is hard to snag a ball that low. Brown had the only two in 2012, and one produced a touchdown in Dallas.
You can also look at the quarterback with these stats.
A nine-year veteran, Ben Roethlisberger was having a very sharp season prior to his injury against the Chiefs. The ball was coming out accurately and on time in the first half of the season. Meanwhile, Ryan Tannehill was a rookie with limited starting experience in college, and his throws were understandably not as crisp.
Despite being the tallest receiver of the three, a whopping 20 of Hartline’s 74 receptions were caught above the neck.
That speaks to the accuracy issues Tannehill had. Though if Miami fans want some good news, Tannehill did improve on his accuracy to Hartline as the season wore on. In the first half of the season, it was literally the “Brian Hartline Circus,” as he constantly had to adjust to the ball:
- On the first 35 completions between Tannehill and Hartline, 19 were caught at the chest level (54.3 percent).
- On the last 36 completions between Tannehill and Hartline, 31 were caught at the chest level (86.1 percent).
- Note that Matt Moore had three completions to Hartline, and all three were caught above the neck.
So there was a clear improvement in the second half of the season, but if there was a negative still involved with that, it would be Hartline’s average reception dropping from 16.5 yards to 12.6 yards. Generally, shorter throws are easier to throw than vertical passes.
Speaking of shorter passes, how these receivers were used showed a lot of differences that can definitely alter statistics.
Wallace caught more slants than both players combined. Hartline was actually very good at getting free outside the numbers on plays where he would fake a deep route and come back for the ball on a timing play, which was a staple of Joe Philbin’s offense in Green Bay.
Here is Hartline making such a reception against Patrick Peterson as part of his big game in Arizona. Note that the placement of the ball is high and above Hartline’s head, but he pulls it down.
But then you have the screen passes. It is inconceivable to think a No. 1 receiver can get through an NFL season in 2012 with just one screen reception, but that is what Miami did with Hartline. Though Davone Bess is better suited for these plays, just one is absurdly low in today’s NFL.
Here is a comparison of the five documented seasons in regards to screen passes for these receivers:
If Pittsburgh fans hated Bruce Arians’ bubble screens, then new offensive coordinator Todd Haley was even worse, completing 34 of them in 2012 compared to 24 in 2011. There was also a heavy imbalance, with Brown catching 23 of them despite the fact he has had very little success with them the last two years, averaging just 5.41 yards per reception.
A small part of Brown’s lack of screen success could be that his screens have arrived less accurately (27 of 34 at the chest; 79.4 percent). Here was a screen against Washington that was thrown a bit too high, and the play gained four yards.
The extra motion to have to bring your arms back down to protect the ball after the catch is wasted motion. When you are trying to perfect a process, wasted motions need to be eliminated.
Wallace has consistently had just over 17 percent of his receptions come on screens the last two years, and all 24 of them were thrown properly.
But you do not pay Wallace the big bucks to catch a dozen bubble screens in a season. His trademark is the over-the-shoulder catch, which are the deep balls that require a “bucket throw” from the quarterback.
After six of them in 2011, Wallace was down to just two in 2012, or only one more than Brown.
Wallace’s first big play of 2012 was this 82-yard touchdown against the Titans, but he would not have another over-the-shoulder grab like it until the San Diego game in Week 14.
Believe it or not, Hartline actually had as many of these over-the-shoulder catches for big plays in 2012 as Brown and Wallace combined. He also had one of the best-effort catches of the season, beating Cromartie for a 41-yard gain:
Having watched every game of his career multiple times, it is hard to recall Wallace ever lying out to make a catch like that. Maybe it is because he did not have a quarterback who made him have to, or maybe he just is not willing to do so.
You cannot teach speed, but you also cannot teach desire.
If you are not convinced that one season of these stats means anything, you may be right. But for now, let’s consider the side-by-side, two-year comparison for Wallace and Brown’s catch radii:
All 10 categories for both receivers are within five percent of each other from 2011 to 2012, and 13 of the 20 stats are within 2.5 percent of each other. Given a sample size of 64 to 75 plays in each season and a change at offensive coordinator, those are stunningly close results.
Keep in mind that both Wallace and Brown were injured last year, though Wallace’s came at the end of the season. Brown missed three full games and returned in December.
There were also changes at quarterback, both in signal-callers and in their caliber of play:
- In 2011, Pittsburgh quarterbacks hit Wallace and Brown at the chest level on 103 of 149 receptions (69.1 percent).
- In 2012, Pittsburgh quarterbacks hit Wallace and Brown at the chest level on 94 of 130 receptions (72.3 percent).
The following breaks down the 2012 season by quarterback, including splits for Roethlisberger in the first nine games of the season before his injury and in the final four games when he returned. Charlie Batch and Byron Leftwich filled in the other games.
Early in the season, Roethlisberger was very sharp to both Wallace and Brown. Even when it was the backup quarterbacks, Wallace was still getting most of his passes delivered properly. It helps to have two screens and two end-of-game plays where no one covered Wallace as he started a last-second lateral attempt.
Wallace averaged just seven yards per reception with Batch and Leftwich.
But when Roethlisberger returned, Wallace’s numbers again went up, including catches of 40 and 60 yards. The person hurt most was Brown, who had just nine of his 19 final targets from Roethlisberger thrown accurately.
Perhaps the most telling game was the crucial loss to Cincinnati in Week 16. Roethlisberger had his worst game of the season, which is verified by many of his completions even being bad throws.
Brown made five receptions that day, and only one was thrown with great accuracy (none to the chest). Brown had to dive to the ground twice, producing two great receptions:
If they weren’t too low, they were too high. The only good throw was for a 60-yard touchdown (Brown’s only over-the-shoulder catch of 2012) after Brown got open on a double move.
In the connection between quarterback and wide receiver, each is dependent on the other, but further research into how they are connecting could lead to finally answering one of football’s greatest questions:
Is it the quarterback, or is it the receiver?
Miami is now paying for the latter, while Pittsburgh relies on the former.
Conclusion: Moving Forward
The Steelers bet on Brown last year. Wallace bet on himself and the Dolphins on him (and Hartline to repeat his success) now. These moves will greatly impact the future of these offenses.
Wallace is making more than the deals Vincent Jackson, DeSean Jackson and Dwayne Bowe received. It is just slightly higher on a per-year average than what Percy Harvin (six years, $67 million) signed on with Seattle for after this week’s trade.
To live up to what could be the richest contract in the 2013 free-agency period for a player changing teams, Wallace will have to get back to the player he last was in the first half of the 2011 season. That was a consistent, dynamic deep threat that can also make plays on short passes.
But if the catch radius says anything, and if Tannehill does not make huge strides, then Wallace will need to adjust to passes in ways he has not had to in the past.
No one would confuse Wallace for being a “gritty” or “tough” receiver willing to go across the middle or reach out for a pass with a safety bearing down. He is not a player you just “throw it up and he’ll get it,” either.
Fortunately, Philbin’s offense—at least the Green Bay incarnation—loves to send receivers deep, which is still going to be the biggest advantage Wallace brings to the team.
It is hard to imagine Wallace not leading the Dolphins in every major receiving category in 2013, along with producing several “wow” plays, but there is always risk in going after a wide receiver this way.
The Steelers have allowed the short-lived “Young Money” receiving corps to disband with Wallace’s departure, but their faith in Brown and Roethlisberger’s accuracy allows them to not overpay a receiver. It was only a third-round pick to find Wallace, and GM Kevin Colbert has done a good job of finding quality receivers late in the draft.
Brown was a sixth-round pick in 2010, and three rounds before that the Steelers took Emmanuel Sanders, who will now be expected to fill a bigger role.
While the Roethlisberger-to-Wallace connection could have gone down as an all-time great one, the business of money put a quick end to it. Having the quarterback has made finding receivers easier for the Steelers.
Miami has been searching for both positions for years. Now the Dolphins are hoping Tannehill-to-Wallace lasts for a long time.
But how often does the costly remake beat out the original?
Scott Kacsmar writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive, and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.
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