The Steelers are handcuffed in free agency because of limited salary-cap space, but other teams have been doing some of their work for them.
The recent rush of wide receiver signings gives Pittsburgh some parameters for a long-term deal with restricted free agent Mike Wallace. I'm not talking about the $132 million MegaDeal given to the Lions' Calvin Johnson. Let's throw that one out, because even Wallace can admit he's not in that class.
Let's start with the 25-year-old receivers: Wallace, Garcon and DeSean Jackson. In Wallace's past two seasons, he's averaged 76.5 yards receiving and scored 18 touchdowns. He also has produced 44 catches of 20 or more yards, and 17 of 40 or more yards.
Wallace's numbers in every one of those categories beat Garcon and Jackson during that two-year period. Jackson has averaged 69.5 yards receiving and scored 10 touchdowns. Garcon has recorded 57.7 yards receiving and produced 16 catches of 20 more more yards.
These stats might be different if DeSean Jackson were catching passes from Ben Roethlisberger and if Garcon had Peyton Manning as his quarterback last season. Still, it's hard to argue against Wallace being the most promising young receiver in the NFL. His receiving yards (3,206) and touchdowns (24) both rank as the second-most by an NFL receiver in his first three seasons.
Of course, this assumes that no team will pursue Wallace as a restricted free agent and that the Steelers want to keep their third-round pick from 2009. "We want Mike to finish his career with the Steelers," general manager Kevin Colbert told reporters at the NFL combine last month. "We think he's only scratched the surface of what he can do."
Wallace, who received a first-round tender by the Steelers this offseason, deserves a deal that exceeds the ones given to DeSean Jackson (five years, maximum value of $51 million, including $15 million guaranteed) and Garcon (five years, $42.5 million, including $20.5 million guaranteed). The true measure of the contracts come in the payouts of the first two seasons with Jackson ($19 million) and Garcon ($19.5 million).
With those two deals being the starting point, what should be the ceiling? Just look at the contract signed by Vincent Jackson. Wanting to make over the team for new coach Greg Schiano and having the cap room to do so, the Buccaneers forked over a five-year, $55.5 million deal that includes $26 million guaranteed. Jackson, 29, will make $26 million in his first two seasons in Tampa.
The Buccaneers went above market price to land the top free-agent wide receiver, but you can't fault Wallace for trying to get a similar contract, because their 2011 statistics were so similar. Wallace had 72 catches for 1,193 yards receiving and eight touchdowns. Jackson had 60 catches for 1,106 yards and nine touchdowns.
I say a deal between the contracts of these receivers is a fair one. Let's see how it plays out.