Two weeks into the season, there are only three receivers with three touchdowns. Larry Fitzgerald isn't a surprising name on the list after over a decade of dominating leaderboards, and Kelvin Benjamin isn't a shock after catching nine touchdowns as a rookie two years ago. But the sudden resurgence of Mike Wallace to lead the NFL in touchdown receptions is a surprise five years removed from his trip to the 2011 Pro Bowl.
Once the most feared deep threat in the NFL, Wallace left the Pittsburgh Steelers after racking up 4,042 yards and 32 touchdowns in four seasons. It was enough to land the then-26-year-old wide receiver a five-year, $60 million contract with the Miami Dolphins in 2013. But his star has faded in the years since he was one of the most coveted free agents on the market, and he signed just a two-year, $11.5 million deal with the Ravens in March.
While he caught 140 passes and 15 touchdowns in two years with the Dolphins, Wallace was benched in Week 17 of the 2014 season for arguing with coaches, refused to answer media questions, and was eventually traded to the Minnesota Vikings. His days of being a dangerous receiver looked to be over, and Wallace finished the 2015 season with just 473 yards and two touchdowns in 16 games in Minnesota. He was unsurprisingly released by the team in March.
That’s how he landed in Baltimore, signing a cheap deal with a team discount-shopping for a deep threat.
He made his presence known right away, burning the Buffalo Bills for a 66-yard touchdown in Week 1 when the defense made the mistake of bringing safety Corey Graham into the box and leaving Duke Williams with the task of running with Wallace all on his own.
But the big play for Wallace was the only play of more than 40 yards in the first two weeks for the Ravens. Many of the receiver’s contributions have been shorter passes, including his touchdown grabs of 7 and 17 yards in Week 2.
Still, his 18.9 yards per reception through two games is a welcome addition for an offense that has severely missed the contributions of Torrey Smith. In the last four years only 13 times has a receiver finished a year with at least 45 receptions and an average of more than 17 yards per catch. Smith’s 2012 and 2013 seasons were two of those 13 seasons.
During each of those big years for Smith, the Ravens finished fourth in passing plays of 40 or more yards. But the team fell to 25th in the category in 2014, and 24th in 2015.
The threat of the big play from Wallace led to big cushions from Cleveland defensive backs in Week 2. While that was enough to keep the receiver from burning the Browns secondary deep, he still finished the game with two touchdown grabs.
Wallace showed his elusive quickness on his first touchdown when coverage was forced to get tighter and play him man-to-man.
“Those first two [touchdowns], it was all up to him to beat man-to-man [coverage], and that is what he did,” Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said of Wallace on Wednesday. “That is what it comes down to – the fact that you can see how talented of a player he is. It makes my job a little bit easier, especially since we haven’t worked a lot together.”
Beating the Buffalo and Cleveland secondaries for three touchdowns isn’t enough to guarantee that Wallace will be able to keep it up throughout the season. But up next are games against the Jacksonville Jaguars and Oakland Raiders, two teams that have had shaky starts to the season in pass defense.
Regardless, Wallace has already surpassed his touchdown total from Minnesota and looks to be a legitimate factor in the NFL once again.