No guarantees of signing impact player in NFL free agency season

The Steelers' Mike Wallace dropping a pass against the Chargers on Sunday, Dec. 9, 2012, at Heinz Field, could become the highest-paid receiver in NFL history.
The Steelers' Mike Wallace dropping a pass against the Chargers on Sunday, Dec. 9, 2012, at Heinz Field, could become the highest-paid receiver in NFL history.
Photo by Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
| Sunday, March 10, 2013, 5:54 p.m.

Happy 20th birthday, NFL free agency.

It's a process that made some of the best even better (see the signings of Deion Sanders and Reggie White) and some of the worst even worse (see just about any Browns signing). It has made players rich beyond all expectations (see Albert Haynesworth) but has helped ruin the seasons of too many teams that made poor decisions.

Two decades and a what's-best-for-the-game owner in the Steelers Dan Rooney were needed for the NFL to gain a player-movement system like baseball adopted in the early 1970s, but it finally was reached in the Rooney-orchestrated 1993 labor deal that also brought about the salary cap.

Now it's as big a part of the talent-acquiring game as the NFL Draft.

Some would argue that free agency has diminished rivalries as stars move freely, for example, from the Redskins to the Cowboys. Some say it has created unwanted roster instability that forces some teams to essentially rebuild from season to season.

But when the free-agent signing period begins at 4 p.m. Tuesday, every team that signs a new player will be certain it has improved itself. In advance of that, teams are being given — for the first time — a three-day window to talk to agents for available players. Even if history shows that free agency is, at best, a 50-50 proposition, a relocated player is as likely to be a salary cap liability as he is an on-field star.

“We did this study to try to determine what the hit rate was,” said former Colts executive Bill Polian, now an ESPN analyst. “It ends up in our study being about what it was for the draft, right about 50 percent, slightly above that.”

The 2013 free agent talent pool looks to be deep in offensive tackles, linebackers and cornerbacks but precariously thin in quarterbacks and wide receivers, where Mike Wallace could end up commanding the largest contract ever given to an NFL wideout.

And while Rooney helped bring about free agency, the Steelers — as usual — probably won't be in the mix for any of the top-tier talent, if only because they have limited salary cap space available, even after releasing linebacker James Harrison on Saturday.

Still, general manager Kevin Colbert has said, “We have to be prepared, both from a salary cap standpoint and from a talent standpoint, to make changes.”

The question is whether any of them will occur this week, at least on the player acquisition front.

From a player relinquishment standpoint, the Steelers are bound to take a hit as Wallace is certain to leave. Cornerback Keenan Lewis might end up on somebody's wish list, and there's even a chance nose tackle Casey Hampton — a stereotypical Dick LeBeau player — might interest one of the teams that have shifted to a 3-4 defense.

And while Wallace looked to be a big loser when the Steelers signed receiver Antonio Brown to a $42.5 million deal last summer, just after Wallace's training camp holdout started, the opposite might be true. Despite his not-great 2012 season, Wallace's market value has increased to the point where he might sign an $11.5 million a year deal from the Dolphins or Vikings. He is the game-changing threat both teams covet, and he might wind up being one of the most-sought players from a group that includes Ed Reed, Jake Long, Tony Gonzalez, Dwight Freeney, Steven Jackson and Dashon Goldson.

NFL.com and Pro Football Talk rank him as the best free agent available.

Unlike the draft, where there is a higher failure of receivers in the first round than any other position, according to Polian, free-agent wideouts don't have a worrisome flame-out rate.

“Wallace ... is the guy who meets all of the parameters that you'd like,” Polian said. “He is productive. He has great speed, which is always something that is desirable in a receiver. He falls within the reasonable-age parameters, and he hasn't had a high history of injury.

“He checks every box with few question marks.”

But in Pittsburgh, Wallace will leave just such a question mark at a position that finds the Steelers with Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, Jerricho Cotchery and not much else prior to the draft.

Whether Wallace is a free-agency hit like Drew Brees and Kurt Warner or a miss like Andre Rison and Adam Archuleta won't be known for years, of course.

“This is in many ways like an (initial public offering),” Polian said. “There is a lot of discussion, there is a lot of analysis, but only the market will tell you whether it's going to go or not.”

It all gets going Tuesday.

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at arobinson@tribweb.com or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.

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