Speed is overpaid. Personnel men deem it hard to find, so they spend lavishly when they have the chance to acquire it. That’s what the Miami Dolphins did this offseason when they signed Mike Wallace from the Pittsburgh Steelers. The 26-year-old receiver, who has speed to burn like middle easterners with oil, will be paid $60 million over the course of five years, provided he plays through the length of his new deal.
It’s debatable whether or not Wallace is worth the money he’ll be paid. As general manager Jeff Ireland said when he signed the receiver, Wallace brings a “unique” skillset to the team, as he’s able to run vertically in a hurry. He’s made a career out of beating cornerbacks downfield by running only vertical routes, something that he’s exceptional at, but it’s arguably his only skill.
He’s able to blow the lid off of deep coverage on any given snap, which forces defenses to roll coverage his way, thus leaving more space for other threats to operate underneath. It’s a conundrum defenses don’t like dealing with, as there’s only so much ground a group of players can cover. That’s why speed is highly sought after, and that’s why Wallace is such an asset for a team when he’s in the lineup.
The Cowboys found that out the hard way in Week 15 this past season when Wallace blew past their secondary with a 60-yard bomb from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. It was a difficult play to watch because the defense looked so helpless as Wallace kicked into fifth gear and crossed midfield with ease before hauling in the pass. The catch was great, but so was the route that first began at the line of scrimmage.
Wallace was lined up with a short split on the boundary side (short side) of the field and was off the line. This was done to get him a free release off the line, giving him the opportunity to build up speed before exercising a double move on the Tampa 2 strong safety.
At the snap, Roethlisberger executed a play action fake while Wallace released inside and then stemmed his route vertically. His shoulders were square, and he was covering ground quickly. As he stemmed the route, he leaned outside and jabbed his left foot, subtly shifting the safety over before he exploded back toward the middle of the field.
The lean and jab opened the Tampa 2 floodgates, as the safeties drifted apart and the middle of the field became unclaimed real estate. Wallace turned the strong safety around prior to speeding by him and then turned on the jets to eventually work past the weak safety, who was responsible for getting over the top of the dig route ran by the opposite receiver and thus unable to help.
When Wallace crossed the middle of the field, he appeared destined to score a touchdown, only to be forced to slow down and adjust to Roethlisberger’s under thrown pass. He distorted his frame and reached back to catch the pass as two Cowboys defenders closed in for the touchdown-saving tackle.
Nonetheless, the catch was a big one and it illustrated exactly what Wallace can do: blow defenses up. That’s why the Dolphins paid so much money for him, but it’s still debatable whether the deal they made was a good one. Why? Because Wallace is still a limited receiver.
Wallace was once called a “one-trick pony” by Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, and while he has improved his route-running, he’s still not great with it. He struggles to break down in his routes due to his lack of agility, and as a consequence, he runs a limited route tree. That affects how an offense operates, especially one like Miami’s, which places an emphasis on having versatile receivers.
It’ll be interesting to see exactly how the Dolphins use Wallace in the upcoming season. From an outsider’s view, he appears to be a misfit for the scheme, and while I don’t have much faith in offensive coordinator Mike Sherman making adjustments, he should still be given a chance to show he can tailor his offense to Wallace’s strengths.
If he doesn’t, they’ll both be overpaid and heading out the door.