Posted March 15, 2012

Mike Wallace situation still up in the air

Pittsburgh Steelers

Mike Wallace is one of the premier big-play threats in the NFL. (Getty Images)

With each free-agent wide receiver signing, the spotlight progressively focuses in on Pittsburgh’s Mike Wallace.

The Steelers, with their financial hands tied this offseason, hit Wallace with a first-round tender — meaning that Wallace is free to talk with other teams, but that the Steelers have an opportunity to either match any contract offer presented him or receive a 2012 first-round pick as compensation.

And yet, Pittsburgh doesn’t seem outwardly nervous about the situation, despite the fact that any team in need of a receiver could swoop in and price the Steelers out of the Wallace market at any moment.

Part of that confidence comes from the compensation factor — losing Wallace would be a huge blow to the Steelers’ offense any way you cut it, but they’ve shown an ability to find receivers in the draft and would have two first-round opportunities to do so if Wallace departed.

The other reason behind Pittsburgh holding steady is that, while the rash of free-agent WR signings could push teams in Wallace’s direction, the flip side of it is that the market for a potential long-term deal with Wallace is being set. DeSean Jackson’s contract (five years, $51 million with $15 million guaranteed) might be a starting point for what’s fair for Wallace; he’s outproduced Jackson over the past two seasons.

The breakdown of the Jackson contract, especially, could play to Pittsburgh’s advantage.

Jackson’s 2012 cap hit will only be in the neighborhood of $3 million, as he’ll work off a $750,000 base salary plus a signing bonus. The remainder of that deal stretches out over the four following seasons and gives the Eagles a fairly cost-effective out after 2013.

Wallace would be guaranteed $2.7 million next season under the first-round tender, so a slight bump for 2012 plus a longer-term solution structured similarly to Jackson’s might be possible, even with Pittsburgh’s stifled cap situation.

Of course, the longer Wallace dangles atop the free-agency board, the greater chance there is that a team coughs up its first-rounder and a loaded contract for him. The NFL Network’s Michael Lombardi pitched Cincinnati as a possible Wallace suitor on Wednesday, and that’s precisely the type of team that makes sense.

The Bengals (on top of being a Pittsburgh rival) have ample cap space, meaning they would not have to push Wallace’s money to future seasons. Cincinnati also owns two first-round draft picks, so sacrificing one could be worthwhile.

At just 25, Wallace has already proven himself as a terrific NFL wide receiver. He made 72 catches for 1,193 yards and eight touchdowns last season; 60 grabs for 1,257 yards and 10 TDs in 2010.

Chalk some of that up to playing in Pittsburgh’s talented attack and having Ben Roethlisberger throwing the football, but there’s no doubt Wallace is a legit big-play threat whenever he touches the ball.

That teams haven’t lined up for Wallace tells you two things: 1. The value of a first-round pick remains extremely high; and 2. Pittsburgh may be ready to match any offer that’s not through the roof.

That said, this story is a lot closer to the beginning than the end. After seeing the run on free-agent wide receivers Tuesday and Wednesday, it seems unlikely that Wallace simply slides by as a restricted free agent without a nibble from another team or a long-term extension from his own.

Who will blink first?

Pittsburgh seems comfortable no matter the answer.

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