Steelers free agency: Choose Wallace over Velasco

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The Steelers will have a few bucks available for their own pending free agents, and while neither Fernando Velasco nor Cody Wallace appear likely to draw much interest early in free agency, the Steelers should afford at least one of them. This is why it should be Wallace.

The only impact the national media noticed Steelers back-up offensive lineman made in 2013 was on the nether regions of Dolphins defensive tackle Randy Starks.

Whatever Wallace was doing to Starks as he laid on the ground securing a fumble, it can fairly be described as "out of bounds."

If you can't question Wallace's intensity, you may question his direction when considering that play. Moving past it, the aftermath finds Wallace roughly in the same spot he was in last year. Facing unemployment as he likely won't garner a contract offer on the first day of free agency.

For the extra-curricular (or testicular) movement with Starks, there was a fiercely determined player getting little regard for doing something Steelers center Fernando Velasco was lavishly praised for doing just a few months earlier.

Wallace replaced the Steelers' starting center.

For Velasco, he came in off the street Tuesday before the Steelers' Week 2 game against the Cincinnati Bengals. He started that game, and in it, took the torch from injured starter Maurkice Pouncey. Velasco became the Every Man hero of the team, which, by default, means he works harder, hustles more and should get an opportunity to hold the position even after the starter returns.

That starter never did return in 2013. In fact, Velasco himself went down with an Achilles injury that ended his season.

There was little fanfare for Wallace's first career start, which game at age 29. It took him seven seasons to run out of a tunnel after his name was called, but just a handful of plays before that same name became somewhat infamous.

Handful sounds about right, even if it was so very wrong.

Lost in the laundry list of jokes that can be easily made on the topic, though, was Wallace's performance. While Velasco raked in praise for coming off the street to replace Pouncey, Wallace was given next to no recognition for contributing to a surging offense. Even with the tough loss to the Dolphins that snowy Sunday in Pittsburgh, the Steelers put up 28 points (21 from the offense), and rushed 21 times for a respectable 84 yards.

In fact, one of the main storylines after that sloppy, defenseless game for the Steelers was their questionable abandonment of the run in the second half. Rookie running back Le'Veon Bell hit his stride behind Wallace and the rejuvenated Steelers offensive line, and he could have gone over 100 yards for the game.

Consider it one of the more legitimate criticisms Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley should face in his first two years in his position.

Still, all but eliminated from the playoffs, Wallace continued as the team's third starting center of the season, helping grind out 106 rushing yards on 36 carries against an outstanding unit in Cincinnati. Special teams and defensive plays gave the Steelers a huge lead early, and the predictability of their play selection in the second half was likely more a culprit for poor numbers than execution. The Steelers offense put up 30 points, but with seven coming off a punt return touchdown.

It all came together in another snow bowl, this time at Green Bay. The Steelers defeated their second consecutive would-be division champ, out-punching the Packers 38-31 behind a dominant ground performance. The Steelers cranked out 151 rushing yards on 29 carries in the win.

Fans weren't saying "Fernando Who?" It was more about the total offensive production, the defensive decline and whether they would be able to connect on a series of situations needing to happen to make the playoffs.

After out-classing a listless Browns team 20-6, in a game that honestly looked like a scrimmage over the second half, the Steelers' rushing offense finished their final quarter of the season averaging 115 yards a game - a mark that would have been good enough for 16th in the league over the course of the season.

More eye-popping, in four games, with Wallace under center, the Steelers rushed for 461 yards, or more than 50 percent of the total the team had with Velasco in 12 (922). There are lots of other factors involved, but what's more challenging? Replacing the starter, or replacing the starter's back-up?

The Steelers offense came alive despite the presence of a 29-year-old NFL journeyman guard who was asked to play center. The Steelers nearly made the playoffs based on an impressive 3-1 mark to end the season - coincidentally at the same time the Steelers' defense fell apart.

Wallace won't be competing with the Jon Asomoahs of the market for interior offensive linemen. Velasco probably won't, either. The only market for the services of either one of them, upon the return of Pouncey in 2014, is with the Steelers.

Over-zealous fight for a fumble aside, Wallace proved he can be at least as good a player as Velasco, and his versatility as a swing guard makes him right in line with the Steelers' mantra of position flexibility.

In fact, if the decision comes down between the two of them, Wallace has to be considered the favorite. Steelers new offensive line coach Mike Munchak cut Velasco in 2013, which eventually brought him to Pittsburgh. It's not that he would think, or anyone should think, Velasco is not a quality player. But Wallace put a lot on film that validated his quality as an interior linemen.

That's still true, even if the film he's most famous for has nothing to do with his ability.

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