With the release of wide receiver Hines Ward on February 29th, the future of the Steelers offense was potentially set in motion. Steelers fans worldwide will miss his professionalism, his reliability, his work ethic, his toughness, his durability, and, most of all, his smile.
With his exit, full attention then was turned toward the Steelers corps of young wide receivers. Whether known as Young Money or the Bugatti Boys, they are Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown, and they are considered the future.
The future is now.
As was expected by most, the Steelers didn't place the franchise tag on Mike Wallace. He will instead, then, receive the highest tender of $2.74 million for this next year. The Steelers have until March 13th to officially tender Wallace. Then teams would have until April 20th to sign Wallace to an offer sheet which, of course, the Steelers would have seven days to match. Which, also Wallace has to accept in the first place. There is still a good chance, though, they workout a contract for Wallace.
The contract Stevie Johnson signed with the Bills today, five years for $36.25 million, might just be the starting point of a deal with Wallace. It possibly makes it less likely that the Steelers get something done with him before free agency starts -- Wallace knows where to start now.
Regarding this, Colbert said today that the Steelers still hold the cards with Wallace regarding matching any offer he should get in free agency: "It will be our call!"
Assuming, though, that the Steelers are able to get that contract worked out, one would have to consider Wallace, outside of Roethlisberger, to be the key component to the Steelers offense. With Wallace on the field you have two speedy wide receivers to account for when considering Antonio Brown as a part of the equation. Who do you double-team in that scenario?
Emmanuel Sanders, who is himself a sub 4.45 in the 40 (clocked at 4.41 at the 2010 NFL Combine), is the third member of this talented young corps that just could be the best wide receiver corps in the league.
Add to the mix the possible re-signing of Jerricho Cotchery and you have a veteran wide receiver who is approximately a 4.55 in the 40 and is money in the red zone (11 of his 20 career touchdowns have been inside the 20). Though, no one can truly replace Ward, he has the requisite skills needed to help ease the that aforementioned departure.
There you have it: Young Money...with a little borrowed money mixed in too. A potentially beautifully woven tapestry.
Upon closer inspection, though, there are a few loose strings on that tapestry, that, when tugged on, could unravel the Steelers future as well.
So much of what we love about this crew is based on speed and potential. Well, speed is great, but every true fan knows that more than speed is needed. For those who don't understand this, please look up the names Renaldo Nehemiah and Johnny "Lam" Jones. We'll be here when you get back. Trust me. There won't be much else to read after the words "world-class speed."
No, speed isn't everything. Some of the NFL's greatest receivers didn't even have great speed. Look at Jerry Rice, Michael Irvin and Lynn Swann: all great, all winners, all multiple Super Bowl winners, and all with sub-par 40 times -- one was as "slow" as 4.65-4.71.
Potential, by the way, can be a dirty word when attached to someone without the intestinal fortitude, or guidance needed, to live up to it. The examples of those in the NFL are legion. So much so that I won't recount any here. Just watch ESPN for the next "All-Time Draft Busts" discussion.
There are so many things that go into being a good NFL wide receiver. It goes far beyond speed, as was touched on, game speed or being able to catch. (Limas Sweed, I'm looking at you.)
There are other duties a wide receiver can have and must master in order to make an NFL field. For a team like the Steelers, blocking is imperative. Being able to read the defenses and to recognize the hot reads is essential. Being able to snatch a ball out of the air and away from the body is very important as well.
Wallace proved as much in the 2012 playoff game against Denver when a 52-yard pass play was called incomplete after being reviewed. If he catches that with his hands and secures it, we might have seen a different outcome when momentum is considered.
Wallace had issues with that all season. It was just one reason why he wasn't completely able to shed the "one-trick pony" moniker placed on him by coach Mike Tomlin. Even if you believe he's at least a one-and-a-half-trick pony now, his drop off in the latter half of the season is concerning. His numbers literally dropped by half as he seemed to get lost at times, and the offense, as a whole, suffered. How much does that 4.33 speed matter if he can't catch under duress?
If Wallace is truly going to be that "key component" mentioned earlier, the potential lynch pin to the offense, this is definitely an area where he needs to step up and be accounted for.
Emmanuel Sanders is somewhat of an X-factor. He seems to be, even with the injuries and surgeries, the most polished of the three young wide receivers. He is the best blocker of the three, most polished route runner and, though he still has minor issues with it, is the most proficient of the three at his hot reads. He's also the second fastest receiver on the team at 4.41, as I wrote earlier.
There are question marks, though, surrounding Sanders: Are his feet issues finally behind him, or is it a degenerative problem? Also, did the knee issue that was caused by the feet issues get rectified? If so, will he be able to handle the return duties that he's been assigned as well as his receiving duties next season?
We still don't truly know what we have in this X-factor. He does, after all, only claim approximately 50 career catches for some 600 plus yards. Sanders, nicknamed "Manny", could be another injury away from having no NFL future at all, or just being a marginal receiver. It's not out of the realm of possibility that he could be gone after next season, having only his original draft round tender placed on him (third).
In the flashes we've gotten from Manny, he's seemed to be the real deal, so hope springs eternal. I've even tagged him as the Future Hines Ward. High praise, yes. But he has the promise to live up to it.
Antonio Brown may just have the highest ceiling overall of all three of them. While he could be a one-hit wonder, all evidence, barring injury, points to a long and successful career. I believe we've only seen the tip of the proverbial iceberg with AB. It isn't even out of the realm of possibility that he could be the actual lynch pin. He has that much potential.
To be fair, AB is a bit undersized and still sometimes struggles with the physicality of the game. He has lined up out of the slot and wide both, and is explosive off the line and has great burst out of his speed cuts. He, as was said about Wallace, traps too many passes in his body.
AB's route running, though, is improving. He is nearly as fast as the other two talked about, but he's quicker and his motor just doesn't seem to start to stop running, and he has started improving his hot reads. He'll be very good yet again this season in this blogger's opinion. I really only have one concern about him: Is he able to catch the ball without using the side of his helmet?
A child who is to be successful is not to be reared exclusively on a bed of down. ~ African proverb
They say that a person is like a tea bag: you cannot tell how strong one is until you add hot water.
That's what we're looking at here. It's all about them being thrown into the deep end, individually and as a unit. As I've discussed, there are some devil's advocate issues: Wallace is a "one-trick pony." Ok, but he certainly helps Roethlisberger, AB and the running game with that one trick. Manny has feet issues, but, if he's past them, is already so polished that he could be the Future Hines Ward. AB is a bit undersized, but uses every inch and pound, and the side of his helmet, to his advantage.
The future is potentially very bright with these young receivers, and not just because they're all always smiling. I wonder where they got that from...
Free Agent wide receivers still available as of 2100 hrs PST:
Vincent Jackson - San Diego: He's a big, downfield guy. 49ers?
Mike Wallace - Pittsburgh: Restricted free agent. Stay home!
Marques Colston - N.O.: Almost Mr. Irrelevant, now a Pro Bowl-caliber player.
Pierre Garçon - Indianapolis: Still young and potentially very productive.
Robert Meachum - N.O.: Good size and speed.
Laurent Robinson - Dallas: Young and fast.
Mario Manningham - NYG: A good No. 2 receiver.
Joshua Morgan - S.F.: Good young receiver.
Plaxico Burress - NYJ: Giants or Steelers?
Brandon Lloyd - Rams: Really good and improved route runner.
Ted Ginn - S.F.: Great on special teams, good speed too.
Eddie Royal - Denver: Tough receiver.
Early Doucet - Arizona: Tough and experienced.
There are others, but few of any consequence.
The Pats are most likely out of the Wallace sweepstakes after franchising their unrestricted free agent wide receiver, Wes Welker. The only viable candidate left in the free agent market may just be San Francisco.
Wallace was supposed to get a ton of attractors on the RFA market. Seems now to have been a ploy by someone in Wallace's camp to drive up his proposed value.
It isn't a surprise, though. As I've said in previous blogs, it just isn't fiscally responsible and is too expensive to give up a 1st rounder and front-load a long-term contract for a still-somewhat-unproven receiver. Especially when others can be had at a much less-expensive price.
But, let's hope that something more than 'wanting to be in Black and Gold' stops Wallace from holding out. Because that's also still a possibility.