Mike Wallace would walk into Berea today and be the very best wide receiver Cleveland has had since 1999. There’s just no two ways about it. Josh Gordon has potential and with all due respect to Kevin Johnson who spent most of his career running routes for quarterbacks lying flat on their backs, Mike Wallace would be the best. That being the case and knowing how much money the Browns have available on the salary cap, shouldn’t they just outbid the market for Mike Wallace? You would think that would be an obvious answer for me, but there’s just something about the whole wide receiver situation and Mike Wallace in free agency that gives me serious pause.
For starters, I don’t think Mike Wallace is in the same class as the very best wide receivers in the NFL. He ranked 34th in yards in 2012 and even though that’s clearly a facile way to judge receivers, that’s not it. Wallace is an explosive guy who scores touchdowns. His long play for the year was 82 yards. To think of having anyone on the Browns would could go 82 yards in one play as opposed to doing it over the course of 10 plays and many minutes is pretty crazy. Still, I don’t think Mike Wallace is in the same class as Calvin Johnson, A.J. Green, or Julio Jones.
Josh Gordon has a ways to go before he’s on Mike Wallace’s level, but he did have a 71-yard reception this season for the Browns. He also had 50 catches and only about 30 fewer yards receiving than Wallace. On top of that, Josh Gordon is three inches taller than Wallace and actually catches the football with his hands and sometimes even at the highest point. Mike Wallace is a guy who catches with his body a lot of the time. Another risk factor with Mike Wallace is that he’s a speed guy. Ask Josh Cribbs what it’s like to age gracefully in the NFL as someone who relies on speed. Is that the kind of risk you want to take paying over $10 million per year on average?
Again though, Mike Wallace walks into Berea tomorrow as the best wide receiver the Browns have had since 1999. And yet, I’m still not excited about it.
Maybe it’s because Mike Wallace held out last year. I don’t blame Mike Wallace for wanting to get an extension done rather than play for the $2.7 million he made last year with the Steelers. At times in a league where players can be cut at any time, holdouts make tons of sense for players who so drastically outperform their deals. Antonio Gates is an example I frequently use for a guy who can’t afford to step on the field without a new deal the way he did some years back. Still, there’s something about Wallace holding out and then not living up to his breakout years – even if that’s not a totally fair assessment – that bothers me. I’m just concerned that a fast guy who played for a very good team who might be playing to the day he signs the big contract might not have the motivation to continue playing that way.
One of the things I heard from Bill Polian at the MIT Sloan conference was that any NFL team needs to build a core of 12-15 players and then build the team outward from there. The more of those 12-15 players that come from the draft, the better you will be from a cap perspective. Judging by the projected amount of money that Mike Wallace will make this off-season at somewhere north of $10 million per year, he would instantly be slotted into that core group of Browns players. He also would be one of the top paid guys in that group, and instantly one of the least efficiently acquired.
If you take a guy like Joe Thomas who has been on the team and you know intimately before giving him an extension, it should drastically reduce your bust risk. You can scout a guy and get to know him all you want in free agency, but it will never be like extending a player from within. This is why you see new regimes lean on their former players when they come into a new situation. Isn’t it telling that the team that knows Mike Wallace the best out of any other is pretty content to see him leave? There are certainly cap issues too, but you get the feeling that’s not what the Steelers are really saying.
So we’ll see soon, I guess. It seems so strange to look at the very best wide receiver on the market, combine that with the huge amount of cap space the Browns have, and yet still not look forward to them signing him. That’s just my feeling right now though.