Going into the draft this year, I thought the Steelers would likely draft a wide receiver in the first round. There were two reasons for this.
One, it was an area of need assuming that Hines Ward is unable to play until he is 86 years old. I also didn't think there would be any offensive linemen left worthy of a first round pick when the Steelers would be on the clock.
The player I thought they would likely grab was North Carolina wide receiver Hakeem Nicks, but he was off the board when the Steelers drafted, pegged to become one of Eli Manning's new best friends.
So, the Steelers addressed their aging defensive line in the first round and waited until the third round to grab their wide receiver, snagging Ole Miss speedster Mike Wallace with the 84th pick to go along with the offensive linemen (Kraig Urbik) and cornerback (Keenan Lewis) that shared the spotlight in that round.
What a grab it has been.
Mike Wallace has been one of the biggest surprises of this early season, supplanting Limas Sweed and becoming one of Ben Roethlisberger's go-to guys.
Way back in 1998, the best wide receiver in Steelers' history, Hines Ward, was also drafted in the third round. So, it would be fitting if his eventual replacement also came out of that round. Even their draft position was close. Ward was drafted #92 overall.
The normal expectation is that third round picks should eventually develop into solid starters by perhaps their third season. This is especially true of the wide receiver position where rookies are not supposed to make the kind of impact that Wallace is making—especially receivers drafted outside of the first two rounds.
It is one of the hardest positions to play and many pro receivers take time to make the
adjustment, to learn how to find the holes in the defense and adjust their routes.
Some highly drafted pass catchers can never make that adjustment, so if Sweed ultimately fails to make that adjustment, which seems like a good bet, he'll be in good company, joining a long list of receivers drafted in the first couple rounds that never amounted to anything, including plenty of former Steelers.
Wallace has shown a knack for getting open and making the tough catches. He has blistering speed, enabling him to run away from defenders, as he did when he burned Jonathan Joseph during the Bengals game for a 51 yard play that should have gone for a touchdown.
In a game that featured three highly regarded wide receivers (two Super Bowl MVPs and he-of-the-changed-name), the rookie was the best receiver on the field.
He has also shown good field awareness and strong nerves, coming across the middle to make a huge catch that helped the Steelers secure the win against the Titans. It is rare that a quarterback will look to a rookie receiver, especially with a game on the line, but Big Ben has looked his way early and often and has been rewarded for it.
Wallace is a legitimate offensive rookie of the year candidate. He has been the primary beneficiary of the extra attention demanded by Santonio Holmes, Hines Ward, and Heath Miller. It is hard to see that changing.
I thought Sweed was due for a bust out year for the same reason, but his Ike Taylor-esque hands have landed him in the doghouse and perhaps a permanent spot on the bench.
As teams take more notice of Wallace, Holmes and Ward will also become beneficiaries as teams have to pick their poison on how they will defend the receiving trio.
The disappointment that Sweed has become is easily being offset by the surprising development of Wallace.
Even the most optimistic of us rose-colored glasses wearing Steelers fans thought the most we'd see out of Wallace this year was the ability to contribute on special teams and perhaps get a couple looks in four and five receiver sets.
He has already destroyed those modest expectations.
While he isn't a tall receiver in the mold of Plaxico Burress that Big Ben used to dream about, his off-the-charts speed can lead him to becoming a Steve Smith type of receiver, a guy that is almost impossible to cover, who can turn even small plays into big ones.
Plenty of coaches, general managers, and owners have boldly proclaimed, "You can't teach speed," before drafting a guy whose only fault is that they were born without hands, a problem that plagues that species known as the speed receiver. Al Davis makes a yearly ritual out of it.
Alas, Limas Sweed appears to have that incurable disease.
Wallace does not appear to share that problem, catching anything that comes near him. So, let's see, he brings a combination of blazing speed, good hands, steady nerves, and solid route running.
Remind me why he was still there late into the third round?
I wrote a parody piece after the draft suggesting that Al Davis made a mistake and accidentally drafted Darrius-Heyward Bey, not realizing that Wallace is faster. In the parody, he was demanding a straight up trade. In retrospect, I think the Steelers clearly got the better receiver.
If the Steelers catch fire and make another deep playoff push with Wallace continuing to be an integral part of their offense, he will continue to gain prominence.
The development of Wallace is easily on track to become one of the most interesting side stories for the Steelers this year.
Even if the Steelers had lost to the Chargers and the season looked all but lost, I still would have tuned in faithfully week after week, and a big reason for that is to see the development of this exciting rookie playmaker.