You have to hand it to Mike Wallace; he's ambitious.
He even has a prediction for you: "I plan to get 2,000 yards."
Two thousand yards! Such is a single-season total never reached by any receiver in NFL history -- Jerry Rice holds the record with 1,848 yards -- but Wallace's rationale is sound. "I figure that if I average 20 yards a catch this year and catch 100 balls, that will be 2,000 yards," he told the Beaver County Times in mid-August.
Wallace did average 21.0 yards per reception as a sophomore in 2010, second in the NFL (DeSean Jackson averaged 22.5), which followed up the league-leading 19.4 yards per catch he posted as a rookie the year before. On a per-catch basis, Wallace absolutely has the ability to make a run at 2,000 yards.
The problem, of course, is Wallace's assumption that he'll get 100 receptions. He didn't even have that many targets in 2010 (he had 99) and the Pittsburgh Steelers have a seasoned possession receiver in Hines Ward primed to gobble up a healthy slice of the receptions pie. Even deeper on the roster, they have Jerricho Cotchery, Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown prepared to contribute. And this is a team that completed just 298 passes last season, 21st out of 32 teams.
But even if Wallace falls short of his projection, as he almost certainly will, there are two compelling reasons to expect him to improve, and perhaps even make a run at his goal.
One of them is the prospect of a full, uninterrupted season working with Ben Roethlisberger. A year later, it's easy to forget this, but Roethlisberger missed the first four games of 2010 while suspended, meaning the two worked together for only 12 of 16 games. One year ago at this time, the buzz surrounding Wallace as a breakout candidate was quelled by the thought that Byron Leftwich would be his quarterback for a quarter of the season.
These are Wallace's per-game numbers from 2010, separating the four games Roethlisberger was suspended from the 12 in which the two both played:
*YAC: yards after catch.
The sample sizes are not equal, which skews the results somewhat, but the hints are there: Roethlisberger looked to Wallace noticeably more often than either Charlie Batch or Dennis Dixon, who took over for an injured Leftwich, and he was more apt to consider Wallace than either of those two on shorter routes.
For another statistical perspective, take a look at Wallace's numbers in his past 16 regular-season games played in which Roethlisberger was his quarterback:
*Y@C: yards at catch.
In the 31 NFL seasons that have run 16 games, 85 receivers have managed a season of at least 1,200 yards and 10 scores, an average of 2.7 per year. In the past 10 seasons, it has been done 38 times (including by Wallace) or 3.8 times per year. Those are exclusive benchmarks, and Wallace is in his prime at 25 years old. There's little doubt he'll soon become the 14th player in NFL history to have reached those benchmarks multiple times in a career, and if he does it this year, he'll become the third youngest in history to have done it at least twice (Randy Moss, 22 in 1999, and Larry Fitzgerald, 24 in 2007, were younger when they did it for the second time).
The second reason to expect improvement is what stacks up as a favorable schedule, at least on paper, for the 2011 Steelers. Strength of schedule might be an overrated factor in fantasy analysis -- I am in complete agreement with Christopher Harris' assessment on that -- but it's a factor nevertheless, especially when we're talking extreme shifts in the year-to-year strength-of-schedule stats.
Specifically, I'm referring to the annual rotation of interdivision and interconference games. In 2010, the Steelers played the AFC East and NFC South, divisions which included four of the 10 best teams and only two of the worst at preventing wide receivers fantasy points, and six of the top 11 defenses but only one of the bottom 11 defenses in terms of passing yards allowed.
This season the Steelers play the AFC South and the NFC West. To compare, those eight games include four against the 10 worst teams and only two of the best at preventing wide receivers fantasy points, and six of the 11 worst defenses and not a single member of the top 11 in terms of passing yards allowed.
Granted, the problem with such schedule analysis is that it relies on 2010 numbers, and those stats can vary wildly from season to season. Still, that we ranked six of those eight Steelers opponents among our 10 worst fantasy defenses, another 21st and the eighth 16th, somewhat supports the claim.
Last season, Wallace might have had only two cakewalk matchups on his entire schedule. This season, he might have as many as five.
The final, and most compelling rationale for Wallace's improvement is his own skill set, one clearly on the rise to Pro Bowl levels.
Statistically speaking, Wallace was already a worthy candidate in 2010. He led the league in 20-yard receptions (26) and was second only to Jackson in 50-yard receptions (five). Five of his touchdowns were of 43 yards or more. Wallace, who runs a 4.33 40, easily ranks among the speediest players in the game.
But it's his improved route-running skills that made the difference during his sophomore season. Having previously been described as a "one-trick pony" by coach Mike Tomlin, Wallace entered last season motivated to prove his all-around game, ambition underscored by his lofty prediction this preseason. Wallace's yards-at-catch numbers working with Roethlisberger late last year exhibited his improvement and diversification as a receiver -- the decreased "Y@C" number indicates he wasn't just a deep threat, he could catch short passes, too -- and he's only eager to take another step forward in 2011.
And what of the impact on Roethlisberger?
Well, "Big Ben" tends not to be a top fantasy quarterback in terms of reputation, but his numbers the past two seasons make him a candidate. Project his 12-game fantasy production to a full 16 contests and he'd have amassed 268 points, which would have ranked him sixth at the position. In his past 16 regular-season games he has 273 fantasy points. Between 2009-10 combined, despite his having missed five games out of 32, he has 458 fantasy points -- 17.0 per game, or 271 per 16 games -- which ranks him seventh at his position.
That 298 completion number might have you hesitant to declare the Steelers a pass-friendly offense, but remember that Roethlisberger's four missed games suppressed that number somewhat. This is still a team that projects to 500-plus passes per year, and it's one with an in-his-prime Wallace, two wily veterans in Ward and Cotchery, and up-and-comers in Sanders and Brown.
Could this be the year Wallace manages 1,500 yards -- 500 shy of his prediction -- and 12 scores, while Roethlisberger throws for 4,250 yards and 30 scores? The pieces are there for it to happen.