When the Steelers decided not to put the franchise tag on restricted free agent wide receiver Mike Wallace, they knowingly left a window open for the most dynamic receiver on the roster to sign somewhere else.
It is a chance they had to take.
And now, overpaying to keep him is a chance they cannot afford to take.
The Steelers spent the better part of the last month trying to get within the ballpark of the projected 2012 salary cap, and did a tremendous job of it.
They restructured contracts of five players and released six others including some of the all-time Steelers greats (James Farrior, Hines Ward, Aaron Smith) at their positions to knock a total of $40 million off of their salary cap.
Even with that, the Steelers are projected to be anywhere between $4 million to $8 million under the cap depending on the final salary cap number expected to be released any day now – nowhere near enough to match a big-time off to Wallace.
Now, there is still a lot of fat on the bone when it comes to the Steelers current top 51 players who count against the salary cap.
Jonathan Scott and Will Allen won’t contribute much at all during the upcoming season and are expendable. Their releases would save approximately $4 million more.
The Rooneys can also write big checks to James Harrison and Troy Polamalu to lower their cap number with restructures like they already did with Ben Roethlisberger, LaMarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons, Ike Taylor and Willie Colon that lanced nearly $26 million off the cap.
But if you don’t have to restructure, you shouldn’t. That’s just good business.
Even so, the reality of it all is that it won’t take much for a team like San Francisco to put the Steelers in an uncomfortable position on Tuesday when teams are allowed to offer restricted free agents contracts.
San Francisco is in the neighborhood of $23 million under the cap with quarterback Alex Smith still needed to be locked up. Even so, they would have plenty of money to offer Wallace if they chose to go that route instead of pursuing a guy like Vincent Jackson, who wouldn’t cost the 49ers a draft pick if they sign him.
Still, if the 49ers front load a contract that would give Wallace in the neighborhood of a $10 million cap hit for the upcoming year (the Steelers must match any deal as it is written), the Steelers wouldn’t be able to do much unless they purge a much more than they would feel comfortable doing.
There will be temptations to do so, but they couldn’t, shouldn’t and wouldn’t.
Wallace is extremely valuable to the offense in both the run and pass game, but not valuable enough to tamper with the integrity of the current roster that is still has a legitimate chance at a Super Bowl.
A first-round pick and an extra $10 million in your front pocket is much more enticing having Wallace catch a handful of 60-yard touchdowns next year.
They’ve replaces Santonio Holmes and Plaxico Burress before so you would think they feel the same way about Wallace.
However, the pros greatly outweigh the cons for keeping Wallace.
Pros: His speed makes the opposition game plan for him; he opens up space underneath for Antonio Brown; he’s 25; the Steelers really don’t have anybody on their current roster that can do what he does; his presence on the field helps the run game; and the Steelers would get a first-round pick if he leaves.
Cons: It could cost them money they don’t have.
And really, isn’t money the bottom line to this entire thing?
The Steelers want Wallace, but can’t afford to overpay him.
Wallace wants to stay with the Steelers but can’t turn down an opportunity at a big pay day somewhere else.
If some other team wants Wallace bad enough, there will nothing the Steelers can do about it, or want to do about it.
That just might not be a bad thing.
– Mark Kaboly