Why Hasn’t Mike Wallace Met Expectations in Miami?

Mike Wallace has been disappointing for the Miami Dolphins, but why is that the case?

Let’s throw away the numbers.

Okay, this is an analytics site, so let’s not throw away all the numbers. Let’s pretend, for a moment, that Mike Wallace never signed a five-year, $60 million contract with the Miami Dolphins following the 2012 season. In that same moment, let’s pretend Wallace isn’t named Mike Wallace. He’s just a nameless free agent receiver with Mike Wallace’s skillset.

How do we view that player? How much different is it than how we view the current state of Mike Wallace?

What we have, at its core, is a speed receiver with questionable hands about to enter his age-29 season. While that sounds like a player likely set for diminishing returns, it’s not too far off from the same player he was -- minus the age -- before entering free agency.

But, because we can’t actually throw away numbers, let’s take a look at the numbers for the following two receivers. Using our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, see if you can find a discernible difference between the two players.

RecRec NEPTarTarget NEPRec NEP/
Catch RateRec Success Rate
Player A6777.2311542.170.6758.26%91.04%
Player B6473.7811911.200.6253.78%82.81%

Most categories are close, but Player A has the edge in Reception NEP, Target NEP, Reception NEP per target, and success rate (the percentage of plays resulting in positive NEP). Player B saw more targets but had a much worse Target NEP. If both players were to be on the open market, how many would make the argument that Player B should be the more desirable player?

In the above table, Player A was Mike Wallace in 2014. Player B was Mike Wallace in 2012, his final year in Pittsburgh before signing with Miami.

Finding the Right Fit

Wallace hasn’t lived up to the expectations Miami had for him, but those expectations might have been misplaced from the start. Even during his best seasons in Pittsburgh, Wallace was never really the true number-one receiver -- or he at least had a receiving partner who could control the rest of the field. That player started as Hines Ward and turned into Antonio Brown. 2010 was the only season in which Wallace led the Steelers in targets, and that was only by three over Ward (98 to 95).

It’s also not a coincidence that Wallace’s two best seasons by Reception NEP came as the deep threat in a Bruce Arians offense. Arians has built his offensive scheme around taking advantage of shots down the field and Wallace was in the perfect situation with Ben Roethlisberger throwing those passes. On just 60 receptions in 2010, Wallace was fifth among all receivers in Reception NEP. He was also the only player out of 58 with at least 75 targets to have a Reception NEP per target above 1.00. That season, Roethlisberger led all quarterbacks with 4.55 air yards per pass attempt.

In 2011, Wallace ranked ninth in Reception NEP on 72 catches and seventh in Target NEP on 114 targets. Roethlisberger finished the year seventh in air yards per attempt with 4.29. Arians’ contract expired after the 2011 season, and Pittsburgh had no interest in bringing him back as the team’s coordinator.

Todd Haley was hired as Pittsburgh’s offensive coordinator for 2012, and the offensive scheme, as well as the way Wallace was used, shifted dramatically in his first season. Roethlisberger’s air yards per attempt plummeted to 3.79, and Wallace dropped to 32nd in Reception NEP despite seeing five more targets than in 2011.

Here are Wallace’s career numbers by NEP. Notice how the dip starts with the first season under Haley, not Miami.

YearTeamRecRec NEPTarTarget NEPRec NEP/TargetCatch RateRec Success Rate

When Wallace hit the free agent market, Miami offered the big contract and miscast him as a true number-one receiver. The Dolphins hoped they could continue using Wallace he was used in 2012 yet see 2010 and 2011 results. In Wallace’s first year in Miami, he saw 141 targets (22 more than his previous career high) and fell again to 37th in Reception NEP.

To put some more perspective around Wallace’s 2014 numbers, which saw a 10-point Reception NEP spike from 2013, he placed between Rueben Randle and Brandon LaFell. That’s a useful receiver for many teams but not the main component in any passing attack.

Between the usage and a new quarterback -- Ryan Tannehill peaked at 16th in Passing NEP and 18th in air yards per attempt in Wallace’s two Miami seasons -- Wallace has yet to be put back in the position that made him one of the league’s most effective receivers in 2010 and 2011.

Looking to the Future

Wallace’s name has been surfacing in the offseason news cycle because the Dolphins appear to be on the fence about what to do with the receiver this offseason. At this current point in the offseason, the least likely option appears to be Miami holding onto him. After counting as a $17.25 million cap hit in 2014, that number drops to $12.1 million in 2015 before jumping back up to $13.7 million in both 2016 and 2017.

The Dolphins are reportedly shopping around Wallace in a trade, though its hard to imagine another team taking on even the 2015 salary Wallace is owed. Releasing Wallace would save Miami $5.5 million this season, or $6.9 million if they designate him as a post-June 1 cut. If released, Wallace could again find himself among the top free agent wide receivers on the market. There probably are smart teams out there that would value Wallace for what he is, but those teams also aren’t likely to be the ones to offer the most money.

It’s clear on film Wallace still has the ability to get behind a secondary, so he hasn’t lost enough speed to make him ineffective. That speed is his strength and throughout his career it has worked better by running past defenders instead of setting something up in front of them. Mike Wallace still has the skills to be a productive receiver on a good passing team.

All-in-all, we should be less disappointed in Wallace and more disappointed in the coaches who haven’t figured out the best way to get the most out of him.