The Pittsburgh Steelers head into the 2012 offseason with some major decisions on the horizon. After another 12-4 record, the Steelers were bounced from the first round of the playoffs. While they played well enough to be the number 1 defense in the league, the team was left with more questions after the season than before the season.
One of their biggest questions involves re-signing Mike Wallace who is a restricted free agent this summer. In his first eight games of the season, Wallace was unstoppable catching 43 passes for 800 yards and 5 touchdowns. Two of his touchdowns came on passes of 81 yards and 95 yards. However, down the last half of the season, Wallace was constantly double covered which led to Antonio Brown's emergence as the first player to have a 1000 yards receiving and returning.
Wallace is one of the top receivers in the game and, at age 25, he's only going to get better. His explosive speed is a natural gift while his route running has improved over his first three seasons. With the prime of his career still in front of him, Wallace has a chance to make a lot of money in the offseason.
But, here is the problem.
The Steelers, as it stands, are almost $20 million over the salary cap.
Some of the best receivers in the league (Larry Fitzgerald, Calvin Johnson, Andre Johnson) make $10-15 million per YEAR.
Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders will be restricted free agents after next season.
Pittsburgh also has some holes at other positions that need to be addressed. Casey Hampton just had his second ACL surgery of his career while Chris Hoke had neck surgery a few months ago. Both players are in their mid-30s and they both play nose tackle. Hampton already saw his decline season in 2011 and if he needs time to rehab, not only is it going to be impossible to get him into game shape but he'll likely be ineffective as a starter.
While Hoke's contract is up and he is expected to retire, Hampton may want to come back. But, with $5 million still counting against the cap, would the Steelers be able to afford him? And if they did bring him back would he really make a difference? If you thought the rushing defense was bad earlier this year, just wait until next year if the Steelers have to rely on Steve Mclendon.
The Steelers also have to address the middle linebacker position as James Farrior may also retire in the offseason. If that is the case, then either Larry Foote takes over for Farrior or Stevenson Sylvester gets a crack at the starting lineup. Foote will be 32 in June while Sylvester hasn't shown enough that he belongs in Dick Lebeau's system.
The Steelers also need a left tackle since Max Starks went down with a torn ACL as well. Ben was constantly getting pounded to start off the first month of the season. It was only until Max Starks showed up that he started finding ways to injure himself by not throwing the ball away (too soon?). Starks will be gone giving Willie Colon yet another chance to start at Roethlisberger's blindside. Since Colon has barely played the last two seasons, it is hard to predict whether or not he can stay healthy for a full season. Also, throw in the fact that Chris Kemoeatu will likely get cut and you have more holes at the O-line with very little money to spend on fixing them.
So where does Mike Wallace fit in all of this? As a trade piece:
Stay with me on this. Trade Mike Wallace for a first round pick and use both picks to shore up the defense.
At 6'5, 350 lbs, Memphis' Dontari Poe fits the perfect mold for a nose tackle and he could instantly replace Casey Hampton (assuming he lives up to his potential). Then, with your second first round pick, select either Dont'a Hightower from Alabama or Vontaze Burfict from Arizona State. Hightower was the captain to one of the greatest defenses in the last 50 years of college football, while Burfict has been touted as the greatest player to come out of ASU since Terrell Suggs in 2003. Since Burfict has a history of taking stupid penalties, the Steelers would probably err on the side of caution and take Hightower who, theoretically, could be the better player.
Selecting both players instantly turns one of the older defenses in the league to an extremely youthful defense; well, in the front seven, anyway.
The Steelers can then turn their sights on finding more offensive linemen, a runningback and maybe another late-round wide receiver. At the same time, Antonio Brown slips into the wide receiver spot, Emmanuel Sanders moves into the second spot, and Jerricho Cotchery becomes a reliable pass catcher in the slot. While the offense would miss the big play ability of Mike Wallace, maybe the trio of Brown, Sanders and Cotchery will make them gameplan for shorter, higher percentage completions which will also give Heath Miller the chance to make an impact as a pass catcher.
I know, the idea seems insane. Really? Trade away one of the best wide receivers in the game? What would Ben do without a flashy wide receiver who can catch 80 yard bombs?
Probably the same thing he did in the 2008-2009 season.