The Pittsburgh Steelers and WR Mike Wallace have had a nice partnership for the past three seasons. The Steelers took Wallace in the third round (84th
overall pick) of the 2009 NFL Draft, a pick that has proven to be a wise one.
In his rookie season, Wallace led the league with a 19.4 yards-per-catch average. He totaled 756 yards and 6 TDs on 39 receptions. The Mississippi product improved on all of those numbers in 2010, becoming one of the top receivers in the AFC with 60 catches, 1,257 yards, 10 TDs and a 21.0 Y/R average.
Wallace got off to a great start in 2011, before his production dipped in the second half as Antonio Brown became Ben Roethlisberger’s go-to guy. Still, Wallace accumulated 1,193 yards and 8 TDs.
So why aren’t Steelers' fans in general expressing more panic over the possibility that Wallace might not be wearing black-and-gold next fall?
The answer is simple: because the Steelers have shown over the years that good (or even great) WR are replaceable.
Here’s a look at recent franchise history, with the productive WR the Steelers have either allowed to leave via FA or have traded away in their prime:
The fifth-year receiver sets the franchise record with 85 receptions, to go along with 1,307 yards. Two years later, the 28-year-old Thigpen had an even better season, with 79 catches for a franchise-record 1,398 yards. Pittsburgh allows Thigpen to leave via FA following the ’97 season. Thigpen signs with Tennessee … and proceeds to have three very forgettable seasons with the Titans. In three playoff games in 1999, Thigpen totals 6 receptions. He misses the Titans' Super Bowl loss because of a foot injury.
The Steelers don’t miss a beat post-Thigpen, as a talented young WR named Hines Ward steps in and proceeds to post three seasons of 90+ receptions, plus a single-season team- record 112 catches in 2002.
In 2002, Pittsburgh’s second receiving option has quite a year as well. Burress makes 78 grabs for 1,325 yards and 7 TDs – his second straight 1,000-yard season. Burress, the 8th
overall pick in the 2000 Draft, appears to be on his way to stardom.
But after Burress’ production dipped the following two seasons, the Steelers let Burress walk as a free agent. Burress signs a six-year contract with the New York Giants in the offseason, and proceeds to have two 1,000-yard seasons in the next four years before legal troubles land him in prison. His defining career moment comes in Super Bowl XLII, as he makes the game-winning TD catch in the final minute.
The Steelers, meanwhile, barely notice Burress’ absence in winning the Super Bowl following the 2005 season. Ward leads the receiving corps with 975 yards, and three other receivers go over 400 yards – before the team bolsters its offense by selecting a dynamic WR in the 2006 Draft.
Holmes, the 25th overall pick of the ’06 Draft, totals 824 yards his rookie season, stepping in immediately to complement Ward. The Ohio State product averages 862.3 receiving yards his first three seasons, and makes one of the greatest catches in Super Bowl history to beat Arizona in XLIII (nabbing the game MVP Award as well).
Holmes has a career year in 2009, with 79 receptions for 1,248 yards and 5 TDs. But just when he’s hitting his prime, the Steelers trade him away to the New York Jets for next-to-nothing, in large part due to Holmes’ off-the-field problems. Holmes has averaged 51.5 receptions, 700 yards and 7 TDs in his two seasons in New York – not exactly superstar numbers. The Steelers limit him to 2 catches (and a TD) in a 2010 AFC Championship Game victory over the Jets.
And once again, the Steelers are able to move on minus a big-time receiver. Second-year man Mike Wallace has a breakout season, and other young WRs Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown show flashes of greatness. Ward and veteran TE Heath Miller turn in solid performances again as the Steelers return to the Super Bowl. Brown makes perhaps the biggest grab of Pittsburgh’s season, catching a 58-yard bomb (on a third-down-and-19 play) to set up the winning FG against Baltimore in the playoffs.
Good, and even great, receivers can be replaced. The Steelers’ franchise has proven that time and time again. For the most part, the receivers they have lost in recent years have wound up fading after leaving Pittsburgh, rather than continuing to rise to even greater achievements.
Steelers' fans everywhere should hope the team is able to keep Mike Wallace. After all, he is one of the fastest players in the league. But if Wallace does depart this offseason as a restricted FA, not only does the team have the type of players who can step in to replace him – led by Brown, who is just hitting his prime – but Pittsburgh will also receive a first-round draft pick as compensation.