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At this time of year, every word uttered by a potential free agent sets off a flurry of speculation.
If Team A needs a wide receiver, and Wide Receiver X needs a new home, doesn’t it make sense to pair the two and make everybody happy?
Well, yes and no.
Take the twosome of Team A (the 49ers in this case) and Wide Receiver X (the Steelers’ Mike Wallace).
This week Wallace launched a wave of speculation that he might be bound for the Bay Area when he said in an interview on Sirius NFL Radio that he’d love to play for the 49ers or Patriots if he should leave the Steelers.
“Most definitely,” the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review quoted him as saying. “Those are two playoff-caliber teams. Super Bowl-caliber teams. I think that the right person or the right right piece for those guys could put them over the top. All they need is one more piece. Most definitely those are Super Bowl-contending teams.”
Though the Steelers want to keep Wallace, who has blossomed into a big-play receiver after being taken in the third round of the 2009 draft out of Mississippi, they may be forced to deal the restricted free agent to deal with salary cap issues.
Reports have indicated Pittsburgh could use the franchise tag on him to keep Wallace for another season, but at a cost of about $9.6 million – which might make it difficult for them to operate. Matt Brooks of the Washington Post noted that the Steelers have two other young, talented receivers in Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders with what he terms “similar skillsets” who they may also soon need to lock up to long-term deals.
If Wallace, 25, becomes a free agent in March, it’s believed he’d be a hot commodity. He’s coming off two straight seasons of more than 1,100 yards receiving, with 72 catches in 2011 and 60 in 2010 after making 39 in his rookie year. He’s averaged a whopping 18.7 yards per reception in his three-year career and scored 24 TDs. He's fast and tough.
“(Pittsburgh is) where I would like to be, but we all know that it is a business and you have certain things you have to handle,” Wallace said in the Sirius interview. “So if I have to go elsewhere, you know Pittsburgh will always be in my heart, but I have to do what I do.”
For a team that needs an upgrade at wide receiver to complement returning starter Michael Crabtree and tight end Vernon Davis, the 49ers would certainly prosper with the presence of Wallace.
But as Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee points out, Wallace may not necessarily be an easy fit on the 49ers roster. In fact, he explains, the Niners might have less expensive options through the draft or by pursuing unrestricted free agents.
Because Wallace is a restricted free agent, reports Barrows, the 49ers would have to make Wallace an offer too high for the Steelers to match (which they have the right to do) and could also get in a bidding contest with other teams for Wallace’s rights. In addition, San Francisco would have to give up its first-round pick (No. 30) for the rights to Wallace.
As Barrows points out, Wallace may be far better than any player San Francisco could take with the 30th overall selection, but is that the best and most efficient route to upgrade the roster if a top unrestricted free agent – such as Marques Colston or Vincent Jackson – becomes available, and the team could keep its first-round spot?
In the end, signing Wallace would make the 49ers better immediately. But San Francisco can also get to the same level of improvement by taking a different path.
That seems to be a more likely scenario.