With the Pittsburgh Steelers signing Antonio Brown and not Mike Wallace to a long-term extension, there was some suggestion the Steelers could look to trade an unhappy Wallace. GM Kevin Colbert shot down that idea, but I take that as seriously as I take most trade-related pronouncements. Virtually every NFL player is available for a trade, at the right price. What might that right price be, then, both for the Steelers and for a team looking to acquire Wallace?
I. The Steelers
If Wallace wants to be a free agent next offseason, he has to play for the Steelers this year. He may show up late, but has to report no later than the Tuesday following Week 10. If he wants to get paid a lot next offseason, he should try in the games he plays, and he won't leave the Steelers before any playoff games. That makes him valuable to the Steelers this year.
Just how valuable is hard to say. One rough approximation is the difference between a fair market value salary and his restricted free agent-tender salary of $2.742 million. Brown's deal was for a reported $42.5 million over 5 years, or $8.5 million per year. If that's Wallace's real fair market value, the difference is roughly $5.75 million. Since Wallace didn’t sign that deal, he believes his fair market value is higher than that. As I'll get to in a moment, whether the difference between Wallace’s real fair market value and his tender amount is $5.75 or 8 million in some ways does not matter that much.
Since the NFL does not permit draft picks to be traded for cash, we don't know what kind of draft pick $5.75 million, $8 million, or even $10 million translates to. Is it a fifth-round pick, third-round pick, or even multiple first-round picks? Second, any trade likely means the Steelers spend less money and are worse in 2012. In evaluating a Wallace trade, they must weigh the relative value of performance in 2012 and the value in future years from a draft pick. The Steelers are poised to be elite Super Bowl contenders in 2012. If winning a Super Bowl is prized particularly highly (and a smart GM might think so), a relatively smaller advantage in 2012 results is more valuable than a relatively larger advantage in the future. That increases Wallace’s value to the Steelers, and increases his trade price.
Further, if the Steelers lose Wallace in free agency, they may get a compensatory pick for him. Assuming, as seems likely, the Steelers do not sign enough free agents next offseason to offset his loss, they would likely receive a third-round pick in the 2014 draft. Discounting later picks by the standard one round, that equates to a fourth-round pick in the 2013 NFL draft.
Combining those elements, Wallace is a very valuable player to the Steelers, and one an opposing team would likely to have pay a high price to get. I'm not sure whether that's a first-round pick, a second-round pick, or multiple picks, but it's far more than the seventh-round pick Asante Samuel garnered the Eagles in trade earlier this year.
II. The Hypothetical Trade Partner
Any team that trades for Wallace would very likely sign him to a long-term extension. Another team might trade for him, but the value calculation would be similar to the one for the Steelers and there are a number of reasons to think Wallace would be less valuable to that team than he is to the Steelers.
The value calculation is different for a team looking to sign Wallace to a long-term deal. First, they do not stand to gain the compensatory pick the Steelers would get from Wallace leaving, so value simply goes away.
Second, this team gets the benefit of a fully-motivated Wallace who plays hard for the 2012 season. (Should, not will; see Chris Johnson.) This is worth something to their 2012 results, and, depending on the team, perhaps a bit more than it would be worth to the Steelers. Then again, depending on the team, maybe not.
Third, Wallace's subjective value goes away. He'll be making fair market value, not $2.742 million.
Fourth, not all of the other 31 teams in the NFL could trade for Wallace. A team that trades for him needs cap space in 2012 and beyond. The Houston Texans are a good example of this limitation -- they don’t have the cap space this year or next.
Fifth, Wallace is set to be an unrestricted free agent. A team could get him for nothing next offseason. Given his youth and likely contract length, this means by trading for him they're essentially advancing the term of his 2013 contract one year. Since a team could otherwise just win the free agency auction by bidding, to be willing to trade for him, they must believe that Wallace has value above and beyond his contract amount. This excess value may exist for some players like quarterbacks, but that the Steelers are willing to lose Wallace suggests they don't believe it's true for Wallace.
Sixth, by acquiring Wallace in a trade and not in free agency, he will not be offset against any of the new team's own free agent losses in the compensatory picks calculation. This value may be nothing. The teams that could trade for Wallace are the teams with cap space, who will likely be the teams to sign players next offseason and not get any compensatory picks anyway.
Wallace’s total value to any team that trades for him would equal the value that having him would add to their 2012 prospects, the potential value of any compensatory pick they would have foregone by signing him, and the excess of Wallace's value over his contract amount during the term of any extension. Given the likely modest value of the two former parts, any rational team willing to pay a high price must find him valuable over and above what they pay him.
It is worth noting that adjective "rational" in the last line of the prior paragraph. A GM less secure in his own seat and the future of his team than Colbert may selfishly engage in hyperbolic discounting, placing a particularly high value on the present and much less weight on the future, when he may be retired or otherwise out of his job. If you’ll get fired if your team goes 6-10 in 2012, then going 7-9 in 2012 could easily be much, much more important to you than whether the team goes 6-10 or 10-6 in 2016. This would affect the modest value of 2012 results and the weight you place on the future draft pick you would be willing to trade to the Steelers.
Unless the Steelers find a team that particularly values Wallace's acquisition, or a team that is hyperbolically discounting, then a Mike Wallace trade should not and likely will not happen. Then again, there's always the chance of a sucker, as the Seahawks' 2006 trade of a first-round pick for a similarly-situated Deion Branch shows.