Arizona Cardinals

49ers WR search: is Mike Wallace worth Larry Fitzgerald money?

The only losers after Monday’s rousing game of tag football might be the Pittsburgh Steelers. Handicapped by their salary cap situation (estimated $10 million under the cap), the Steelers declined to place the franchise tag (and its $9.4 million salary) on Mike Wallace, thus enabling the wide receiver to test free agency. In so doing, the Steelers are essentially waving goodbye to their best receiver, so long as a team is willing to pony up a Fitzgerald-esque contract to secure him.

Though I was initially skeptical, such a scenario is becoming more and more feasible by the minute, as players like Stevie Johnson, Dwayne Bowe, and DeSean Jackson are taken off the market. A lack of talent at wide receiver is expected to make competition for top-tier free agents fierce. In fact, Aaron Wilson of the Carroll County Times is already hearing that “nine to 10 teams could get involved in Vincent Jackson sweepstakes.”

What this means for Mike Wallace? Payday.

This isn’t your grandmother’s payday; rather, Wallace should expect to become the one of the highest paid players in the NFL.

Here is a look at the top salaries as of 2011:

That Wallace will make nearly $15 million next year won’t be the result of competition for his services; instead, it will be the result of teams trying to price the Steelers out of the picture.

Previously, teams interested in a signing a Restricted Free Agent would offer the free agent a “Poison Pill” contract, or a contract with some strange stipulation that would prevent the original team from matching the offer (I explain it more fully here). Such contracts were made illegal in the newest Collective Bargaining Agreement, thus putting the onus on interested teams to overpay RFAs to secure their rights.

Because of this, a team will indubitably offer Mike Wallace a contract on par with Larry Fitzgerald’s eight-year, $120 million contract. And, this team could be the 49ers.

Fitzgerald’s contract looks severely crippling, at first glance. But, he is guaranteed only $45 million over the life of the contract, according to Pro-football Talk’s Mike Florio. What’s more, his annual base salary varies:

What makes Fitzgerald’s contract so bearable is that it contains $8 million in de-escalators in 2016 and 2017. Should he record fewer than 80 receptions, the Cardinals are given salary cap credit applicable to the following season’s cap. Or, more simply, the fewer catches, the smaller the paycheck and cap hit.

In some ways, Fitzgerald’s contract is very similar to that of Ahmad Brooks. Brooks’ salary is largely dependent on, as Florio states, “a complex formula of ‘ifs’ and ‘ors.’” The main difference is that a large portion of Fitzgerald’s guaranteed money is front-loaded ($15 million of his 2012 salary comes from a roster bonus). This is the exact formula the 49ers could follow.

Still, it would be dubious of any team, let alone the 49ers, to match Fitzgerald’s contract. In any case, offering Wallace a contract that virtually guarantees him $13-15 million over the first years would effectively price the Steelers out of the running (Mike Lombardi estimates that $12 million would do the job). Such a contract would also likely price cap-strapped teams, like the Ravens ($8.6 million in cap space), out of the bidding.

The only question is whether or not he is worth it. Given that the 49ers have ample cap space and that they are a Mike Wallace away from being an elite team, would he be worth $13-15 million over the first two years, if not annually?

For a rundown of more affordable receivers, click here.

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