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By Jamison Hensley
The Steelers are concerned that another team will take Mike Wallace if they put a first-round tender on the restricted free agent instead of the franchise tag. The last place Pittsburgh would want to see the big-play wide receiver go is inside its own division.
The Ravens and Bengals are among a handful of teams who are considered viable candidates to go after Wallace. Both teams are looking to upgrade at wide receiver. Both have more salary-cap room than the Steelers. And both have more motivation than other teams: Acquiring Wallace not only makes them stronger at wide receiver, but it takes away a playmaker that they won't have to defend twice a season.
Wallace, a 2011 Pro Bowl performer, finished first among AFC North wide receivers with 72 catches and 1,193 yards receiving. He stretched the field with seven receptions of at least 40 yards, including touchdowns of 81 and 95 yards. He also caught one pass of 40 yards or more in six straight games this season.
It's logical that the Ravens would be interested in Wallace. Baltimore only had two wide receivers who caught more than four passes last season (Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith) and neither had more than 57 receptions. But the Ravens have never traded a draft pick higher than a second-rounder (Terrell Owens in a 2004 deal that was ultimately rescinded) and they've come across as being more impressed with Antonio Brown than Wallace.
Still, Baltimore would only have to part with the 29th overall pick, and the Ravens know no wide receiver the caliber of Wallace will drop that far. Wallace, who turns 26 before the season, is entering the prime of his career, which makes him a more attractive option than the other free agent wide receivers: Marques Colston (who will turn 29), Vincent Jackson (29) and Reggie Wayne (33).
But Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome made it sound like the team wouldn't be pursuing restricted free agents.
“There’s going to be some restricted free agents that we would like, but is it going to be worth giving up a significant amount of cash and cap and a draft pick?," Newsome said at the Ravens' season-ending press conference. "When you deal with that double-whammy, even though the rules have been relaxed, you just go, ‘Nah, no, I wouldn’t do it.’ That’s just my philosophy.”
The bigger threat inside the AFC North to pry away Wallace is the Bengals, because of their cap situation. With an estimated $60 million in cap room, the Bengals could sign Wallace to a contract that includes a $20 million roster bonus (which ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter explains in the video). The Steelers, who are around $11 million over the cap right now, would be hard-pressed to match such an offer.
Cincinnati can make this move and still draft in the first round, because it has two picks this year. The Bengals, who have the Raiders' 17th overall pick from the Carson Palmer trade, would give up the No. 21 pick for Wallace.
Wallace would significantly upgrade Cincinnati's wide receiver group. The Bengals have one of the best young wide receivers in the league in A.J. Green, but they are looking for more consistent production than what they got from Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell. Imagine what Andy Dalton could do with Wallace, Green and tight end Jermaine Gresham.
Of course, the Steelers can make themselves less vulnerable if they put the franchise tag (estimated $9.6 million) on Wallace instead of the first-round tender ($2.7 million). But it will take a massive round of cuts (wide receiver Hines Ward, guard Chris Kemoeatu, defensive end Aaron Smith, offensive tackle Jonathan Scott and inside linebackers Larry Foote and James Farrior) and restructured contracts (quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and linebacker James Harrison) to make enough cap room for the Steelers to use that tag.
The Steelers have until March 5 to decide whether they will put the tag on Wallace or risk losing him.