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Updated: March 7th, 2013 6:16pm
Pelissero: Speed needed, but will Vikings show Mike Wallace the money?

Pelissero: Speed needed, but will Vikings show Mike Wallace the money?

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by Tom Pelissero
1500ESPN.com

The call from Rob Brzezinski to James "Bus" Cook figures to come around 11:01 p.m. Friday, and Cook's initial response seems inevitable:

Why would my client Mike Wallace, the best receiver available on the free-agent market, want to come play in a run-first offense, with an inconsistent young quarterback, for a franchise that will spend two of the next three years playing in an outdoor college stadium in Minnesota?

Brzezinski, the Vikings' vice president of football operations, might point out the presence of MVP halfback Adrian Peterson could create more one-on-ones than Wallace saw in four seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

He might point to Christian Ponder's improved play down the stretch of his second NFL season and that, by the end of the five-year contract Wallace figures to get, the Vikings will be playing in a brand-new, $1 billion, indoor facility in downtown Minneapolis.

And it's at that point Cook, who not that long ago squeezed an extra $3 million out of the Vikings for one more year of Brett Favre, figures to echo the text message sent this week by one NFC personnel man about the most important part of this pitch.

"Ummmmm," the personnel man said. "Show me the moneyyyyyy."

The Vikings have plenty of it to compete with the receiver-needy likes of the Miami Dolphins for Wallace's services, no matter what some bloated cap figures say.

They ranked 13th in the NFL with $17.1 million in cap space as of Monday morning, according to a source with access to the numbers, and have spent more cash on players (about $922 million) since the Wilfs bought the team in 2005 than any team except the Indianapolis Colts.

The likes of Cleveland ($46.4 million), Cincinnati ($42.3 million), Indianapolis ($41.8 million), Miami ($37.1 million), Philadelphia ($32.4 million), Tampa Bay ($31.9 million) and Jacksonville ($27.1 million) have more cap spending power.

But several of those teams are in that position for a reason -- they don't spend -- and there's no guarantee that'll change this year, with no true team-by-team cap floor in effect. When it comes to cash, the playing field is more or less level.

The question isn't whether the Vikings will pursue Wallace or whether they can compete financially. They will and they can. The question is whether they're willing to pay, and perhaps overpay, for a player who figures to be the NFL's third-highest paid receiver by next weekend.

"Needless to say," an AFC executive said, "if I was looking at a big-play threat, explosive-play element, a vertical stretcher, I think you're looking at a Mike Wallace."

The Vikings strongly believe perimeter speed is the missing complement to Peterson, who rushed for 2,097 yards last season despite a passing game that scared no one -- particularly after Percy Harvin's season-ending ankle injury reduced the receiver corps to one of the NFL's worst.

For two years, they've slogged along with the overmatched likes of Bernard Berrian, Devin Aromashodu, Jerome Simpson and Michael Jenkins splitting snaps at the split end position that runs most of the intermediate to deep routes in Bill Musgrave's offense.

"We got so much single safety (coverage) for Adrian a year ago -- and for good reason, when you've got a guy who's rushing the ball the way he was," coach Leslie Frazier said at last month's NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis.

"But you'd like to be able to take better advantage of the one-on-one coverage, and we did at times, but not as consistently as I'd like for us to be able to. So, if we can get that big-play threat on the outside, you would think that would make us better."

They could try to fill that need through the draft, on which Vikings general manager Rick Spielman intends to rely heavily to build his roster each year.

Though lacking top 10-type talent, this receiver class is regarded as deep and several players -- Tennessee's Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson, Clemson's DeAndre Hopkins and Southern Cal's Robert Woods -- could be options in the first two rounds.

But as Spielman pointed out at the combine, young receivers often need time to adjust to the pro game. First-round picks Justin Blackmon, Michael Floyd and Kendall Wright struggled to make an impact as rookies last season. The other, A.J. Jenkins, never even had a catch.

"And if you look at historically, it takes some time sometimes for those rookie receivers as they come in, and you've got to look at the success rate of that as well," Spielman said. "Is there a balance on getting maybe one veteran receiver and potentially signing back a Jerome Simpson and then adding a receiver at some point in the draft?"

The veteran options dropped by one when Dwayne Bowe agreed on Monday to a five-year, $56 million extension with Kansas City that included $26 million in guarantees -- an $11.2 million average the agents for Wallace and Greg Jennings no doubt will aim to beat.

Bowe, 28, is more of a short-to-intermediate threat anyway. Jennings, 29, is another possession-type receiver who can work inside and outside but isn't a pure deep threat. Wes Welker, 31, is strictly a slot guy and not an "A"-tier player in the minds of some scouts.

Wallace, 26, is the big-play prize and will be paid accordingly -- if not more so, with the NFL's new negotiating window practically begging for bidding wars on the top free agents.

Bowe's deal bested those of Tampa Bay's Vincent Jackson (five years, $55 million, $26 million guaranteed) and Chicago's Brandon Marshall (four-year, $44.779 million extension, $22 million guaranteed), who previously trailed only All-Pros Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald in average per year.

Wallace appears poised to be the new No. 3, though he's not without flaws. He's smallish at 6-foot and 199 pounds. He can be knocked off his routes with physical play. He lacks ideal lower-body strength, and he doesn't exactly have natural hands.

"The problem with Wallace is he has inconsistent hands and he is predominantly a vertical guy," the NFC personnel man said. "He's got some tightness through his hips and just struggles dropping his weight and getting in and out of routes. He can run fast. But there's kind of limitations in what he can do. And it's not like he's a real strong guy after the catch."

Nobody can run with Wallace over the top, though, which is how he has 32 touchdowns and more than 4,000 yards in four NFL seasons. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.33 seconds at the 2009 scouting combine and ended up being a third-round draft pick (84th overall) despite his raw route-running and relatively pedestrian statistics in years at the University of Mississippi.

Wallace became a starter in his second season with the Steelers and had 132 catches for 2,450 yards (18.6 average) and 18 touchdowns in 2010 and '11. A holdout before signing his one-year, $2.7 million restricted tender in late August did him no favors under new coordinator Todd Haley, though, and he finished with a career-low 13.1-yard average on 64 receptions last season.

"He didn't produce comparatively speaking to 2011, but maybe there was some mitigating circumstances there," the AFC executive said. "New offensive system. New scheme. I think there were situations in the offseason with his contract and I don't know if there was some injury he dealt with. He held out, so he wasn't around in the offseason programs."

He's still the best in a group of outside receivers that drops off sharply behind him, unless a team decides to dive into the restricted free agent market to pursue the likes of Victor Cruz.

Danny Amendola is a poor man's Welker. Donnie Avery has the speed to go deep, but uninspiring production at three NFL stops reflects other weaknesses in his game. Brian Hartline is just a guy. They'd all be an upgrade over what the Vikings have, but that's not saying much.

This is a huge year for Ponder, too. Some scouts already believe he'll never be an accurate intermediate to deep passer. But to know for sure, the Vikings have to give him more weaponry unless they're convinced someone will ascend rapidly from the group of Jarius Wright, Stephen Burton, practice-squad holdover Chris Summers and maybe Simpson.

"Teams are going to play 22 guys in the box like they do now to try to stop (Peterson)," Spielman said. "If you get that vertical presence ... and we're able to make some plays downfield, will that get that extra safety out of the box? Because now you have to worry about that outside speed or that outside perimeter receiver."

The six-year, $43.4 million contract the Vikings gave Berrian in March 2008 hasn't been forgotten in the building. They dropped out of the bidding to retain Sidney Rice before he signed his five-year, $41 million contract with Seattle two years ago and again last year on Pierre Garcon, who got five years and $42.4 million from Washington.

Signing Wallace would take an unusual commitment -- the kind that would all but seal Harvin's eventual exit, since no team is in position to pay two receivers $12 million a year, much less a team that has a running back as its highest-paid player. This is an unusual opportunity, though.

Harvin is as dynamic as anyone in the NFL once he gets the ball in his hands, but a high percentage of his touches have to be manufactured at or behind the line of scrimmage. That kind of passing game by itself scares nobody. Putting Wallace on the perimeter would.

The 87-hour negotiating period will set the market before free agency opens at 3 p.m. Tuesday. There's a chance the Vikings could simply get played to squeeze the maximum compensation out of Miami, or Tennessee, or one of a handful of other teams that figure to be in on Wallace.

That call to Cook on Friday night is a formality. He surely has an idea already who's coming after his guy. But the Vikings might have more selling to do than anyone, unless they're willing to break character and the bank to fill their biggest hole.

Tom Pelissero is Senior Editor and columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He hosts from 6 to 8 p.m. weeknights and co-hosts from 10 a.m. to noon Sundays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Tom | @TomPelissero | Tom Pelissero
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