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Thursday, March 14, 2013
Will Mike Wallace join list of busts?

By Ashley Fox
ESPN.com

Buyer, beware.

Sure, everyone is overjoyed in Miami. They're lauding Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland -- imagine that -- for reeling in the biggest fish of free agency, wide receiver Mike Wallace, and snatching linebacker Dannell Ellerbe away from the world champion Baltimore Ravens. Dolphins fans are so happy that they might open up their wallets and buy merchandise or -- gasp -- season tickets.

Miami is the big "winner" of free agency, but remember, the Lombardi trophy is given out in February, not March.

You know what being the winner of free agency means? The Dolphins overpaid for players who might live up to all those zeros on their checks. Might.

Mike Wallace
Will Mike Wallace be as successful paired with Ryan Tannehill as he was with Ben Roethlisberger?

The annual turning of the league calendar and the subsequent arrival of free agency are fun and exhilarating and often bring optimism to fan bases that have lacked it for a while. What's better than getting a star player, even if that star player was someone else's star, thriving in someone else's environment, listening to someone else's coaches, playing with someone else's players? The thinking goes like this: The player worked somewhere else, so he must be able to work here. And then the money flies out the window and into the player's pocket.

But throwing gobs of money at someone in free agency is not without peril. It often doesn't work, for a variety of reasons.

Case in point: Nnamdi Asomugha.

Any list of the biggest busts since the league instituted free agency in 1993 should have Asomugha near the top. (Understanding that Albert Haynesworth deserves his own special list for getting even one penny from Washington for two-plus seasons of "work.") Asomugha is the perfect cautionary tale, an example of how a player can thrive in one system and then completely fall off the map, costing his new team precious time and a lot of money.

In 2011, Philadelphia viewed Asomugha as one of the few missing pieces on a roster the team's management at the time -- owner Jeffrey Lurie, coach Andy Reid, president Joe Banner and general manager Howie Roseman -- believed was talented enough to win a Super Bowl that season. In the lockout-shortened free-agency period, the Eagles were super aggressive, signing defensive end Jason Babin, defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins, wide receiver Steve Smith and quarterback Vince Young, and trading quarterback Kevin Kolb to Arizona for cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Asomugha was the cherry on top.

The Eagles gave Asomugha a five-year, $60 million deal with $25 million guaranteed. Then they asked him to play for a former offensive line coach turned defensive coordinator who ran a zone system unlike the press-man coverage Asomugha had played in Oakland.

In two seasons, Asomugha made four interceptions. He looked lost in 2011 and slow in 2012, frequently getting beat on deep routes. Defensive problems up front forced Asomugha to tackle more. It was a bad fit all the way around. Asomugha lost his confidence and never was the player many considered to be one of the best cornerbacks in the league in Oakland. Adding insult to the mistake, the Eagles must pay Asomugha $4 million this season even though they cut him Tuesday. Here's $4 million. Go away.

The Eagles, understandably, have taken a more measured approach to free agency this year, signing five under-the-radar players: cornerback Bradley Fletcher, tight end James Casey, safety Patrick Chung, linebacker Jason Phillips and nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga. Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Roseman acknowledged that "you've got to learn from the things that you've done," and that "for us this is what we felt was right for our team at this particular time."

It was well played.

For the Dolphins, getting Ellerbe was a coup. The Ravens wanted him back and viewed him as a priority. After career highs in sacks and tackles in 2012, Ellerbe was the heir apparent to Ray Lewis, and he wanted to stay in Baltimore. But money talks, and according to the Baltimore Sun, Miami gave Ellerbe five years and $35 million.

Wallace got a five-year deal for $60 million -- with $30 million guaranteed -- after he caught 64 passes for 836 yards and eight touchdowns in Pittsburgh last season. Yes, he's the fastest receiver in the game. He can help Miami stretch the field and open up things for the other receivers and the running game. But that's dependent on Ryan Tannehill's ability to get Wallace the ball. Ben Roethlisberger certainly could, which is why Wallace has had the most 40-yard catches in the NFL since 2009.

Can Tannehill do that? If he can't, Wallace isn't the type of receiver who picks up third downs. He has a history of being distracted and sometimes unmotivated. Wallace was playing for a new contract last season. That motivated him. But he also acknowledged that his uncertain contract situation distracted him at times, which means he's not the most mentally strong guy in the world.

Wallace should want to prove to the Dolphins and their fans that the team's investment in him was worth it, but what happens when there are bumps in the road? What happens if he doesn't get the ball where, when and as often as he wants it? What happens once the motivation of establishing himself is gone?

The bet here is that two years or three years down the road, we will add Wallace to that list of free-agent busts where Asomugha now rests.