Here's one way the New England Patriots can get back to the Super Bowl: Sign receiver Mike Wallace, one of the best players in free agency.
The Pittsburgh Steelers' Pro Bowler is a restricted free agent who is ripe for the taking. Pittsburgh has salary-cap issues this offseason and cut many of its veteran players. The team also could not afford to put a franchise tag on Wallace.
A first-round pick and a good contract offer are the only things standing in the way of Wallace joining the reigning AFC champions. New England should be the first team in line to throw caution to the wind and pry Wallace from Pittsburgh next week when free agency begins.
Here are several reasons why this is a smart move for New England:
Reason No. 1: Patriots have plenty of draft picks, cap space
This is the perfect year for the Patriots to pounce. Unlike the Steelers, New England has plenty of cap room and more than enough draft picks to make a solid pitch for Wallace.
The cost for Wallace would be a first-round pick and a contract extension. New England has two first-rounders (No. 27 and No. 31) and two second-rounders. Losing one of those early picks would not hurt the Patriots. New England likely would not get an immediate, Pro Bowl-caliber player at the end of the first round anyway. Wallace would count as part of the Patriots' draft class. New England could add a top-10 receiver in his prime.
New England's best chance is to offer Wallace a front-loaded contract. The key is to provide a high amount of guaranteed money and salary in the first season, which would count against this year's cap. The Patriots have that luxury over Pittsburgh and can use it to their advantage.
The Patriots entered the offseason with more cap space than any team in the AFC East. Receiver Wes Welker's franchise tag would take up some of that, but the Patriots still can offer Wallace more than Pittsburgh. New England may have to eventually work out an extension with Welker, as a result, but the Patriots are considering that option anyway.
Reason No. 2: Patriots need a deep threat
Imagine the possibilities: Tom Brady throwing to Welker and Rob Gronkowski underneath, and Wallace and Aaron Hernandez vertically. That would be a passing attack that is tough to stop.
New England's best deep threat last year was Hernandez, its backup tight end. He was the only player who could consistently get vertical and was a threat for making huge plays.
Wallace's speed would bring a unique element to New England's offense. He is arguably the best deep threat in the NFL and has 23 receptions of 40 yards or more the past three seasons. The Patriots' offense hasn't had that type of big-play capability since Randy Moss.
There are criticisms that Wallace is a "one-trick pony." That’s debatable. But getting deep is really all the Patriots would need from Wallace. New England's other receivers and tight ends will take care of the underneath routes and allow Wallace to focus on what he does best.
Reason No. 3: It hurts a big AFC rival
The Steelers are one of the most well-run and respected franchises in the NFL. The ownership, front office and coaching are all top notch.
Therefore, Pittsburgh consistently poses one of the biggest threats to New England in the AFC. The Steelers and Patriots combined for eight Super Bowl appearances the past 11 years. If Pittsburgh didn't get "Tebowed" by the Denver Broncos in January, the Patriots would've had another tough playoff matchup against Pittsburgh. The Steelers beat New England in the regular season.
Signing Wallace away from Pittsburgh would simultaneously strengthen New England and hurt the Steelers' depth at receiver. The Steelers already released team captain and all-time leading receiver Hines Ward. In terms of leadership, Ward leaves a huge void that is tough to replace. Losing Wallace, Pittsburgh's best receiver, would be another big blow.
Pittsburgh also cut starting linebacker James Farrior, starting guard Chris Kemoeatu and veteran defensive end Aaron Smith. Years of manipulating the cap is finally catching up to the Steelers, and it could cost the team Wallace if New England or another team goes after him.
Reason No. 4: No harm, no foul
Let's say the Steelers find a way to match New England's offer. That could still work in New England's favor.
The Patriots would retain their first-round pick and cap room, while forcing Pittsburgh overpay on a front-loaded contract to keep Wallace. The Steelers, as a result, would have more issues with the cap. For the Patriots, there's no harm in trying.
New England also has options. The Patriots could quickly turn its attention to veteran receiver Brandon Lloyd, who is a viable Plan B. Lloyd wants to reunite with new Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and would be happy to join the reigning AFC champs. Instead of the home run (Wallace), New England could settle for a triple (Lloyd).
Going after Wallace in free agency is a win-win for the Patriots, regardless of the result.