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NFL Free Agency 2012: Is Mike Wallace Worth More Than Larry Fitzgerald?

Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace is reportedly asking for a deal bigger than the one Larry Fitzgerald signed last year. Is he worth it?

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Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace is looking for big money. How much? According to a Thursday report in the Sacramento Bee, Wallace wants a contract topping the eight-year, $120 million deal that Larry Fitzgerald received from the Arizona Cardinals last year. Take a moment to chortle before we tackle the bigger question of whether or not Wallace deserves such a deal.

The first, visceral reaction to that question is: no, of course not. Larry Fitzgerald defines the nebulous idea of what it means to be a true No. 1 receiver in the NFL. Mike Wallace is good ... but not $120 million good. Just to be sure, we should go beyond the eyeball test.

To the statistics!

Wallace has been in the league only three seasons. Fitzgerald was in the league seven seasons before he earned his $120 million deal. Calvin Johnson signed his nine-figure contract after five seasons in the NFL.
Point: Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald topped Wallace in catches and receiving yards last season. Both players had eight touchdowns. Compare the basic counting stats of both players over the last three years.

Here are the numbers for Mike Wallace.

Year Age Tm Pos No. G GS Rec Yds Y/R TD R/G Y/G
2009 23 PIT wr 17 16 4 39 756 19.4 6 2.4 47.3
2010 24 PIT WR 17 16 16 60 1257 21.0 10 3.8 78.6
2011* 25 PIT WR 17 16 14 72 1193 16.6 8 4.5 74.6
Career 48 34 171 3206 18.7 24 3.6 66.8

Here are the numbers for Fitzgerald over the last three seasons.

Year Age Tm Pos No. G GS Rec Yds Y/R TD R/G Y/G
2009* 26 ARI WR 11 16 16 97 1092 11.3 13 6.1 68.3
2010* 27 ARI WR 11 16 15 90 1137 12.6 6 5.6 71.1
2011* 28 ARI WR 11 16 16 80 1411 17.6 8 5.0 88.2
Career 124 123 693 9615 13.9 73 5.6 77.5

This is not as easy as it looks. Take away the longevity factor, and Wallace's numbers compare favorably.

Next, I went to Football Outsiders to compare two more advanced statistics for both players. I compared both players using Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement and Defense-adjusted Value Over Average from FO. I send you to their fine website for a more in-depth explanation of those measurements. The value is that those numbers are adjusted for opponents and situations.

In 2011, Mike Wallace had a DYAR of 410 yards, ranked fifth among NFL receivers. Larry Fitzgerald had a DYAR of 297 yards, ranked 11th among NFL receivers. Wallace had a 32.2 percent DVOA, ranked eighth, and Fitzgerald had an 11.2 percent DVOA, ranked 31st.

In 2010, the disparity was even greater between the two players. Wallace had the best DYAR (457 yards) and DVOA (48.8 percent) in the entire league. Fitzgerald ranked 71st in both categories.

Explaining the difference is relatively easy. Wallace had Ben Roethlisberger throwing to him most of the season. Larry Fitzgerald had to work with a rotation group of warm-bodied second and third stringers absolutely dependent on him.

Take a look at Fitzgerald's catch rate from the past two seasons compared to 2008 and 2009 when he had Kurt Warner throwing to him. I added in the catchable balls number from Pro Football Focus because it tells the story of what a difference the quarterback makes for a receiver.


Targets Receptions Catch Rate Catchable Catchable Rate
2011 154 80 51.9 83 53.9
2010 172 90 52.3 93 54.1
2009 153 97 63.3 99 64.7
2008 154 96 62.3 99 64.3

Now look at the same data from Wallace's last two seasons.

Wallace Targets Receptions Catch Rate Catchable Catchable Rate
2011 114 72 63.2 76 66.7
2010 98 60 66.7 67 68.4

Notice the difference?

The gut reaction was the right one. Wallace has yet to earn that kind of pay day, and he might not ever earn that kind of money unless Dan Synder has a chance to sign him in free agency. Fitzgerald is a rare player, one receiver that can do it all, a quarterback's best friend.

Wallace, a restricted free agent, received a first-round tender from the Steelers. The salary demand story came up as a result of teams sniffing around to see about making an offer to Wallace and forcing the Steelers to let him walk based on their tight salary cap situation. Demands of a Fitzgerald-like contract should be more than enough to scare away potential suitors who would have to break the bank and surrender a first-round pick to the Steelers.

Given those circumstances, it kind of makes you wonder if the people leaking Wallace's asking price were with his camp or someone from Steelers' side trying to ward off poachers. We lack the data to analyze the subtleties of contract negotiations.

Wallace will be an unrestricted free agent after this season, which should give us the chance to revisit this debate in a year.