If some of you readers have not yet taken a gander at Craig’s piece on the “Mike Wallace” contract/sitting out OTA’s post, I highly suggest you follow this link and go over it. To build off of Craig’s post, I thought that it would be nice to take a look at Wallace’s “mini sit-down” a bit further and explore how his decisions could effect his fellow teammates instead of just himself. With that in mind, I personally believe that if Wallace continues to be a no-show for an extended period, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders might benefit from the situation.
Antonio Brown: New #1?
After a Rookie season spent on the bench and on Special Teams, Antonio Brown exploded on the scene last season and recorded 69 Catches for 1,108 Yards, 2 TD’s, and even had 1 Punt Return TD to boot. In addition, Brown also led the team in Catches for 1st Downs (57), and was even targeted more times than Wallace was last season (123).
And if you can remember back to the end of last season, it was Brown that made the splash plays on a more consistent basis than Wallace was. While I am not a huge fan of Brown’s End Zone and big-play celebration theatrics (I’m not a fan of that behavior from players in general), he has an electrifying presence on the football field, and possesses the makings of a Pro Bowl and future “elite” Wide Receiver down the road.
Because Chris Rainey was selected in Round 5 of the Draft, and Marquise Maze was signed to a UDFA contract, Brown’s focus will shift entirely to the Wide Receiver position, which could not come at a better time as the team does not have Wallace in the present. As a full-time Wide Receiver, Brown will get to hone his skills each and every day this offseason, and get a jump on Wallace in terms of his understanding of the Offense and what role he is going to play. Because Brown is the best all-around (combination of: route-running, hands, speed, 1st Down converting prowess, and ability to get open) Wide Receiver on the team in my opinion, he has the chance to emerge as the “leader of the pack” if Wallace does not choose to join the team until later this Summer, Fall, or even during the season.
If Brown chooses to accept a leadership role and steps up in Wallace’s absence it will be of great value to him, because it will illustrate to the Front Office a sense of maturity and dedication on Brown’s part. Maturity goes a long way with Colbert & Co., and if Brown impresses the Coaching Staff to boot, he will likely be rewarded with a contract that correlates to his overall talent either when he becomes a Restricted Free Agent after this season, or an Unrestricted Free Agent after the 2013 season.
Emmanuel Sanders: Chance to Step Up His Game
Although Emmanuel Sanders would likely not benefit as greatly as Brown would in terms of becoming a “star” in Wallace’s absence, he does have an advantageous opportunity to help himself in the process. Indispensable when he has worked in the slot over the last two seasons, Sanders should continue to improve as he enters the 2012 campaign.
For those of you that remember, Sanders became a reliable target for Big Ben down the stretch in the 2010 season, and was actually ahead of Brown on the depth chart when the season ended. While Emmanuel’s statistics went down last season due to foot and knee ailments, Sanders had some pretty nice games last season when he was healthy.
At Arizona he had 5 grabs for 46 Yards and a nice Touchdown catch when he stayed alert when Ben was flushed from the pocket and found an open space. When the Steelers went with the effective dink-and-dunk/get the ball out of Ben’s hands quickly Offense against New England (something Arians refused to employ on a consistent basis for the rest of last season which still burns me), Sanders had 5 catches for 70 Yards and him, Miller, and Brown all enjoyed nice days. Finally, Sanders was actually the leading receiver against the Broncos in the Playoff game last January, and racked up 6 catches for 81 Yards during the losing effort.
While Sanders’ skill-set is better suited as a possession receiver in the slot as opposed to making plays downfield outside the numbers (in addition to working on the inside like Brown can do), he still has much riding on this season and must take advantage of every opportunity . Like Brown, Sanders will also be a Restricted Free Agent after this season, and an Unrestricted Free Agent after 2013. Because of this, Sanders must continue to develop the good rapport he has already established with Big Ben, and work with Brown to learn the new Offense in the coming months. The key for Sanders to succeed and earn a new contract will ultimately rest with him keeping himself out of the training room and prove to the Front Office and the Coaching Staff he is healthy. Thus, the more chances he gets and shines with Wallace out of the picture, the more likely he will be sticking around and earning himself another contract with Pittsburgh in a couple of years.
Mike Wallace can do whatever he wants, and is his decision to ride this current situation out, and nobody else’s. What I believe the Steelers should do if they cannot come to a long-term agreement with Wallace is the following: Let him play out his RFA tender this season. When he decides to report is a mystery, but he will have to join the team eventually and play in 6 games to accrue the season needed for him to be a UFA. If this happens to be the case, the Front Office should let him walk and go after a tall-field stretching pass-catcher to add to the Brown-Sanders-Cotchery-and hopefully Toney Clemons combo to groom for the future.
My hope is that the Steelers can come to sort of long-term contract with Wallace. As far as deep-threats go, there are few better in the game, he is one of the best, if not the best Wide Receiver in the League in regards to that specific skill-set/ability, and anytime he is on the field he is a threat to take it the distance. He is a valuable piece of the Steelers’ Wide Receiving Corps, and a fan-favorite still among many. Nevertheless, if he is hell-bent on getting a dollar amount that Pittsburgh’s Front Office cannot scrounge up or chooses not to allocate in his direction, he will likely be on his way out of town sooner rather than later (if the team does not choose to Franchise him after this season). If this is indeed the case, what better way to help make Wallace expendable and to help the team and themselves in the process, than for Brown and Sanders to become leaders of the Wide Receiving Corps this offseason and continue to develop their overall games.
With Hines Ward gone, Jerricho Cotchery also learning the new Offense, still relatively young (29), and newer to the team as well, this is the time where “all hands must be on deck,” Rosetta Stones are needed, everyone must do their fair share to learn the Offense, gather as much information as possible about their new Offense and their roles in it, and most importantly: get back to the grind. Giving Big Ben at least some comfort and some familiar targets during the early stages of learning the new system will be of great help, and Brown and Sanders would be wise to step into those roles as the current “WR#1″ sits on the sidelines working out his contract issues.
Statistics Courtesy of: ESPN.com Steelers Page