With the imminent release of WR Hines Ward, the Steelers are banking on their ability to sign WR Mike Wallace to a long-term deal.
Failure to do so would leave them exposed at the position that many saw as the team's biggest strength in 2012.
Taking Ward out of the picture, the Steelers have just two receivers under contract today: Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders. Jerricho Cotchery is an unrestricted free agent and Wallace is a restricted free agent, likely to receive the highest-level tender offer of $2.6 million for one season (assuming the team and Wallace cannot come to an agreement on a long-term deal).
That needs to be addressed before free agency begins March 13.
The Steelers will attempt to re-sign Wallace while he's on the RFA tender in a worst-case scenario. Wrapping him up in a long-term deal now will not only save money on the cap - the $2.6 million tender would be guaranteed and all would count against the current cap, while a long-term deal would spread more money out over the duration of the contract - but it will also take a bullet out of the chamber for the game of Receiver Roulette they're having to play.
The best thing the Steelers have going for them in this shake-up is the guys they currently have - or at least one of those guys. Brown is a legitimate play-making receiver, having overtaken Wallace in targets by the 2/3rds point of the season.
Sanders' only issue is his health, which could simply be bad luck so far. When healthy, he has gotten attention from QB Ben Roethlisberger, but nagging injuries cost him time in 2011.
Wallace's return under just a one-year deal (RFA tender or even a franchise tag) would give them a solid trio of young receivers, but with none of them signed past the 2012 season, they would have to repeat the scenario they're currently in - but to a greater degree. In 2013, the multi-faceted Brown will be a restricted free agent (as well as Sanders) and Wallace would be a free agent available to every other team with no compensation given to the Steelers (outside of a future compensatory pick), unless they can get a long-term deal signed with him now.
It looks to be a decent wide receiver draft in terms of middle-of-the-line talent. That kind of a pick - a third or fourth round choice for someone like Wisconsin's Nick Toon, perhaps - would fit the Steelers' need for depth. Drafting another younger receiver to join the ranks of Young Money is almost a necessity, but even then, it would be odd to see the Steelers enter a season without a more seasoned, veteran receiver. Ward filled this role the last several years, but not exclusively: the pick-ups of guys like Cotchery, Antwaan Randle El, Cedrick Wilson and even Quincy Morgan show that the Steelers value the presence of veteran depth in their receiving corps.
As such, it's likely the team will sign a veteran free agent (at the right price), and that could very well be Cotchery again. He's said all the right things to this point, but dollars are dollars. If the Steelers cannot afford more than a veteran minimum deal for a year or two, Cotchery's time could be better spent elsewhere.
Considering the Steelers - and every other team in the NFL - have at least five receivers on their game-day roster, three things are likely still going to happen this offseason: 1) locking Wallace up for at least 2012, but only after exhausting any and all long-term deal options; 2) the signing of a veteran at the right price; and 3) the drafting of a rookie who can contribute in some way his first year.
This is the franchise that picked up Wallace and Sanders in the third, and Brown in the sixth. Ward was a third-round pick, and Cotchery was taken by the Jets in the fourth.