True to their aquatic namesake, the Miami Dolphins made the biggest splash in free agency last Tuesday. Barely a half-hour into the NFL's new year, general manager Jeff Ireland netted the biggest catch of his short career in Miami.
He hooked the market's best wide receiver, Mike Wallace.
It wasn't a light line, though. Ireland caught Wallace for the top-shelf price of $60 million over five years.
But that's not important, right? The Dolphins acquired the best available piece to fix their largest deficiency; that's what's important, right?
A lot of people will tell you no. A lot of people will say the Dolphins overpaid for Mike Wallace, and that they should be ashamed of themselves for such a reckless move. After all, winning in March means nothing in December and January.
Let's dig into those assumptions. Did the Dolphins overpay for Wallace? Can the fifth-year receiver live up to that massive contract?
Wallace is guaranteed up to $30 million of his $60 million deal. He'll be averaging roughly $12 million per year. But his cap hit year-to-year fluctuates wildly. For example, in 2013 he'll only be a $3.2 million cap hit. In 2014, that number jumps to a staggering $17.2 million.
Let's consider some of these numbers for a second. In 2014, only one receiver will receive more money than Wallace: Larry Fitzgerald. In fact, only two receivers will average more money per season than Wallace—Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson, the league's highest-paid receiver. Other players approaching Wallace's $12 million average include Vincent Jackson, Percy Harvin and Dwayne Bowe.
So what does that contract say about the Dolphins? You could look at it as one of two things. You could say the Dolphins are paying Wallace like one of the NFL's best receivers because they truly believe he is.
Or you could say the Dolphins desperately needed a playmaker at the position and were willing to pay whatever was necessary. Elite or not, Wallace provides that.
In terms of bank accounts, Wallace now holds illustrious company. His numbers indicate that he isn't that far removed from that company on the field, either (all incoming stats from NFL.com, unless otherwise noted).
Even in one of Wallace's worst seasons in 2012, he still managed to outperform top-dollar and top-talent peers in a few areas. He had more receptions than Bowe (64 to 59), more yards than Fitzgerald (836 to 798) and more touchdowns than Johnson (eight to five).
"But Mike Wallace is only a deep threat! His route tree is limited," many have cried over the past few weeks. And they may not be wrong. However...
The Dolphins wanted a deep threat. No, scratch that—they needed a deep threat. Their offense was the textbook definition of anemic at times. They couldn't scare defenses with the long ball even if the secondary sent only two defenders to cover the field.
With Wallace, the Dolphins have gained arguably the league's best deep threat. Ryan Tannehill has no problem hitting the deep ball, and now that he has a viable weapon, teams must respect Miami's ability to stretch the field.
Furthermore, a limited route tree can always be fixed. Who knows why it wasn't fixed in Pittsburgh—maybe the Steelers felt they only needed Wallace as the home run, leaving their other receivers to handle the mid-range stuff. Wallace is still young and can still be coached up.
"But Mike Wallace has questionable hands! He drops passes like...well, like the Dolphins drop money on players," many more cried over the past few weeks.
According to Pro Football Focus (warning: these stats are behind a pay wall) Wallace was targeted 116 times in 2012. The folks there deemed 70 of those to be catchable. Wallace caught 64 of those 70. That gave him a drop rate of 8.57 percent, lower than Bowe (9.23 percent) and Johnson (10.29 percent).
We could continue to pore over stats, but the question must eventually be answered: Will Mike Wallace live up to his staggering contract?
Frankly, I think it's doubtful. But hear me out.
The Dolphins are giving Wallace the kind of money that only the league's truly elite receivers enjoy. That's why Wallace is now in the company of Fitzgerald and Johnson. The only way Wallace can truly live up to his contract is to become at least a top-five receiver.
Is that possible? Sure. But that's a lot to ask of one guy.
Thankfully for the Dolphins, they don't need Wallace to do everything. He's just one piece of what now appears to be a solid receiving group comprised of Brian Hartline, Davone Bess and Brandon Gibson.
Wallace's threat level will allow Miami's other three receivers (and tight end Dustin Keller) to enjoy a more open field and more production. Wallace makes Miami's passing game that much better even when he isn't getting the ball.
Perhaps the more important question to ask isn't whether Mike Wallace will live up to his massive contract. It's, do the Dolphins need him to? Do the Dolphins need him to be a top-five receiver?
It would be nice, but for now all they really need is a guy who can catch the ball 70 to 80 times a season for 1,100 to 1,200 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Can Mike Wallace do that?
That would be a resounding yes.
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