New York Jets Great Expectations – Muhammad WIlkerson

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When talking about great expectations, I do not refer to the Charles Dickens classic, but to the confidence with which one can look foward to the career of Jets’ defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson.

Raise your hand if you purchased a Muhammad Wilkerson jersey following the 2012 season. If you raised your hand, go ahead and pat yourself on the back. You, and thousands of other Jets fans, witnessed greatness in the making and saw the good investment that a number 96 jersey would make.

The common observer of NFL football may overlook the less-than-glamorous position of 3-4 NFL defensive ends. This is an unfortunate oversight as evidenced by the superiority and dominance of many players at the position. Wilkerson, after a truly special 2012, has joined the ranks of these unheralded elite. To look into the proverbial crystal ball and understand what we can expect from Wilkerson in 2013 and years to come, we can compare him to his peers and their career trajectories.

The 2011 NFL Draft may one day be known as the Year of the 3-4 End. In the first round alone three all-pro caliber ends were selected: J.J. Watt (11th overall), Muhammad Wilkerson (30th overall), and Cameron Heyward (31st overall). The transcendent 2012 that J.J. “Swatt”  enjoyed overshadowed WIlkerson’s dominance, yet close analysis shows that he had a spectacular year. Wilkerson, 6’4″ and 315 lbs, had 69 tackles, five sacks, three forced fumbles, one touchdown, four passes defensed, 37 quarterback disruptions, 46 stops in the run game, and one blocked field goal. This campaign, only his second year, earned him few accolades. Pro Football Focus, however, recognized his impact and rated him as their 14th Best Player in the NFL, praising his disruption against both the run and the pass. Here is what they had to say about Wilkerson:

It’s easy to get lost in the shadow of players used in a similar fashion, and that was certainly the case for Wilkerson this year. Of course playing for the Jets and the circus that followed didn’t help either, but for those in the know he was something special this year. Finishing second in our 3-4 defensive end rankings, Wilkerson was an impact player in the run game and supported that by adding an extremely healthy 37 quarterback disruptions.

Wilkerson’s awareness, even in his rookie year was top notch. He does a good job of extending his arms, to keep blockers at bay, while he analyzes and dissects a situation. He uses his vision to constantly keep track of the ball and his quickness to attack the carrier. Wilkerson has a good arsenal of pass rushing moves including a great rip move, shoulder dip, and swim move. Wilkerson’s motor allows him to play all three downs and across the formation, not just as a 3-technique (standard for a 3-4 end) but playing over center (0-technique) and shooting the A  and C gaps too (1, 2, and 5-techniques).

Like Wilkerson, Watt and Heyward had solid rookie years and improved in their sophomore seasons. Heyward was still a rotational player in 2012 but arguably deserved more time. His awareness is still lacking but is physically dominant. He was a more traditional 3-4 gap stuffer than the well rounded Wilkerson and Watt.

Watt was a machine in 2012, recording an astonishing 20.5 sacks, 15 batted passes, and was awarded the highest ranking by Pro Football focus…ever. If it weren’t for these outlandish numbers, Wilkerson’s success would have been more noted.

It is hard to compare Wilkerson’s success to his draft-mate’s because they have had the same career duration. Perhaps a 3-4 end with more years under his belt would be a more useful comparison. Lets start with Heyward’s line partner, Brett Kiesel.

Kiesel is a 12 year NFL vet. He was a 7th round pick for the Steelers in 2002 and was a mere rotational player until 2006. In 06′ (his true rookie year if you consider starts) Kiesel had 5.5 sacks, four passes defensed, and 38 tackles. His numbers have remained consistent since with low single digit sacks and passes defensed every year. These numbers may seem discouraging, but Kiesel (like Heyward) is asked more to stuff gaps than be a playmaker.

A more apt comparison may be the Arizona Cardinals’ Calais Campbell. Campbell was selected in the 2nd round of the 2008 draft. After redshirting his rookie year, Campbell started 15 games in 2009 and recorded 48 tackles, seven sacks and five passes defensed. In 2010 he dropped one sack but jumped up to 60 tackles. When Ray Horton took over play calling in 2011, Campbell burst onto the scene. That year he racked up eight sacks, two forced fumbles, one interception, and three blocked field goals. Last year, Campbell had a another typically dominant year. Like Wiklerson, Campbell has the athleticism and awareness to be a force in both the passing game and running game. He is used similarly to Wilkerson by creating matchup problems in a hybrid defense all over the line.

The model for 3-4 ends for the past 13 seasons, Justin Smith of the 49rs had a great 2012. Smith spent 2001-2007 with the Bengals where he made a name for himself dominating the run and collecting consistently high sack numbers. He continued this trend with the 49rs through 2012 and helped establish a dominant defense in the bay. Unlike Campbell and WIlkerson, Smith relies more on pure strength than athleticism. He stuns offensive linemen with power moves then uses his quickness to maneuver around them. Smith is often utilized in stunt moves with the 49rs to create mismatches.

Kiesel, Campbell, and Smith are excellent examples as far as 3-4 defensive ends are concerned. However, this label is almost insulting to the player that Muhammad Wilkerson can be. Pigeonholing Wilkerson into a two-gap, disruptive 3-4 end (even in a hybrid scheme like Rex Ryan’s defense) diminishes his past and future accomplishments. What Wilkerson has done, and shown he can do, is exceptional for any defensive linemen, if not any football player in general. The best comparison to Wilkerson may be the the enigmatic Haloti Ngata.

Ngata, another dominant Ryan defender, was selected 12th overall by the Ravens in 2006. He had a solid early career. Ngata truly broke out in 2010 with 63 tackles and 5.5 sacks. Ngata too plays in a hybrid scheme and is constantly mis-labeled by NFL pundits. Whether a 0-technique nose tackle, a 3-technique end, even a 5-technique end or linebacker, Ngata dominates. He has exceptional field vision and uses his strength to leverage offensive linemen into the backfield where he can easily shed them and stuff the run. Ngata is impressively fast for a man of his size (6’4″ – 340 lbs) and is nearly impossible to stop once he has a head of steam behind him. His power moves and block shedding are nearly unparalleled.

Many Jets fans, and Rex Ryan, could once only dream of having their very own “Ngata-esque” player on defense. Now, with Muhammad Wilkerson, they may have uncovered even more. Wilkerson had a better 40 time (4.96 to Ngata’s 5.13) and three cone drill (7.31 to Ngata’s 7.97). While he may not have the same strength as Ngata, Wilkerson’s superior speed and quickness can allow him to be an even better pass rusher. Without the strength of Ngata, Wilkerson must use improved technique and leverage in the run game, broadening his overall skill set. Wilkerson began to dominate in only his second year while it took Ngata four. With a parallel career trajectory, Wilkerson could be on his way to being an even better player than Ngata over a sustained period of time.

Comparing one player to another is not an exact science. Many players take years to develop, while others will have outlier years, only to fade into obscurity. There are numerous variables to take into account when developing expectations for a player. A few to consider when projecting Wilkerson’s future are: the players surrounding him, coaching, and system.

In the case of Wilkerson’s 2013 season, he will be surrounded by a deep secondary, improved linebacking corps, rising playmaker Quinton Coples, and rookie-hopeful Sheldon Richardson. This cast is improved from last year’s aging group. Wilkerson had his dominant 2012 while facing consistent double (even triple) teams almost every down. Imagine what Wilkerson can do when offensive players have to account for others around around him. Ngata was able to realize his potential with a cast that included Cory Redding, Ray Lewis, and Terrell Suggs. Perhaps we can expect the same for Wilkerson.

This is also the first year that Wilkerson will be getting the full Rex Ryan treatment. His first two years in New York, WIlkerson played under the tutelage of Mike Pettine. Pettine was a great defensive coordinator for the Jets but the true genius is Rex Ryan. With Ryan once again holding the reins, Wilkerson will be utilized to his fullest. Don’t forget Wilkerson also gets another offseason with his sensi Karl Dunbar to fine tune his play-to-play basics. Perhaps we can look forward to a jump in production from Wilkerson directly under Ryan, similar to when Horton took over and Campbell made his jump.

Finally, Wilkerson is lucky enough not to be pigeonholed by his coaching staff. Like Ngata, Campbell and Watt, Wilkerson is part of a truly hybrid defense. “Three-Four” only in name, Rex’s defense puts players in a position that best suits their traits and surprises an offense. Wilkerson will be in a different position on every down stuffing runs, hurrying the quarterback, swatting passes, and even covering the odd receiver. Wilkerson will line up at every technique and attack every gap over the course of the season, you can count on it.

Yes, there are variables to consider. No, comparison based expectations cannot be relied on. However, that doesn’t stop those of us with the power to share from dreaming and idealizing. The American motivational speaker Leo “Dr. Love” Buscaglia once said, in all his wisdom, to “never idealize others. They will never live up to your expectations.” Well, with all due respect to the good doctor, and considering the aforementioned evidence, it is safe to expect great things from Wilkerson. He will not disappoint.

  • Matr Dontelli III

    Tremendous players deserve tremendous write ups. Mo doesn’t disappoint and neither did you Cole. Really, really nice job.

  • neil herschkowitz

    Well researched and insightful. Mo brings a diverse skill set and continues to grow as a football player. The entire front seven will change the dynamics in ways that will make a difference.

    I see an elite defense taking shape. There will be a physicality which was lacking. They will create fear.

  • KAsh

    Although you claim not to be referencing Charles Dickens, it is still ironic. “Great Expectations” was a book about an overly optimistic youth consistently being frustrated by reality. I can only hope Wilkerson’s career does not follow the plot’s trajectory.

    I would have liked a shorter, more to the point article. This one was kind of cluttered. You do not need comparisons of players that Wilkerson cannot be compared to. In fact, if you removed the references to everybody but Ngata or turned them into one-liners that explained why they were bad comparisons, you would have a much better article. Then, you could also remove the coup de grace paragraph that said players cannot really be compared to one another. You could just continue with the Ngata comparison as a transition into Wilkerson’s fit in the Jets defense.

    Finally, you glossed over the players surrounding Wilkerson to bolster your argument. That the linebackers are improved is a fan perspective, not Wilkerson’s perspective. Big Mo probably sees a bunch of guys who knew the defense and knew what they were doing replaced by a bunch of guys who have to learn all of that. In one offseason, he transformed from a rising star to a full-fledged leader of the defensive line, if not the entire defense. Besides Harris and maybe Davis, the linebackers have no starters that Wilkerson can fall back on. The secondary lost the best cornerback in the league and two excellent starting safeties, and only gets a pass because they already played most of last year with Cromartie as the #1 CB. Finally, the d-line lost Pouha and DeVito. He is now playing with guys who he may have to help rather than the other way around.

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  • Connor Rogers

    I have to disagree with your analysis of last year’s defense KAsh. Two “Excellent” safeties? Yeremiah Bell was solid, not “excellent.” LaRon Landry was an excellent run stopper, but was very poor (in fact almost bottom tier) against the pass, making him a “good” safety, not excellent. Not really sure why you mentioned the loss of Revis having an impact on Wilkerson, considering Wilkerson played excellent without him all of last year. Sione Pouha’s back injury practically made him a non-factor last year, which wouldn’t exactly aid Wilkerson. While DeVito is a nice run defender, he offered no push as a pass rusher. I understand your goal is to find any argument possible to counter this article’s points or critique the style it was written in, but your really reaching this time.

  • Joe Caporoso

    KAsh…a few thoughts on last year’s defense

    1. Pouha was a liability upfront last year. A platoon of Garay and a healthy Kenrick Ellis is an upgrade. There is a reason Pouha is still currently unemployed…due to his back issue, he was pushed all over the field last year and really hurt the Jets D.

    2. DeVito was a solid blue collar player but took away time from Coples upfront. Despite the chatter about Coples being a OLB this year, he will still spend plenty of time upfront, along with Sheldon Richardson…while these two guys haven’t proven they can stop the run like DeVito, they will bring more from a pass rush prospective, where DeVito brought nothing. This will allow more 1 on 1s for Wilkerson.

    3. From a pass defense perspective, Bell and Landry were below average. They were solid in run support. The 3 man platoon of D. Landry-Allen-Bush will likely be an overall downgrade but not that far off of an approximation from last year’s production at safety. Revis only played in 1 full game last season, so while of course it hurts to lose him, Wilkerson did just fine without him last year.

    4. The Jets LBs were poor last year. It is hard to imagine Harris being any worse than he was. Scott may have known what he was doing but he was painfully slow and frequently out of place. Bryan Thomas clearly should have been retired. Antwan Barnes will bring more speed off the edge, which will again help free up Wilkerson. Pace is still Pace. Demario Davis should know the defense in year 2 and while he will make mistakes, will bring more speed than Scott.

    5. I’d say Ngata-Campbell-Smith are all reasonable comparisons

  • Q98

    This blog really likes the word “pigeonhole”

  • KAsh

    @ Joe and Connor:

    My point about the defense between last year and this year was not that they were better or worse overall. In theory, having the best free safety in the world playing for you does not reflect, negatively or positively, on the play of your nose tackle, or in this case your defensive end. But it does. It boosts his confidence. It lets him focus on what he has to do.

    Yes, we all know that PFF rated LaRon Landry as below average as a safety. But that ignores that statistics are an awful way to evaluate anybody not engaged in a performance-based sport. I am not saying that LaRon is an exceptional safety, but the Jets only needed him to hammer receivers and tight ends going over the middle. He was exceptional at what they needed him to do and earned a Pro Bowl appearance. Bell was, to quote you, solid; he did nothing eye-popping, prefering to be responsible and do the nitty-gritty. Now, in their stead, we have Dawan Landry, a question mark and perhaps more like Bell than his younger brother, and the winner of the competition between three very young safeties, all of who may as well be considered rookies from how little they all played in games. The younger guys may run faster, jump higher, and tackle more securely, but they do not give the same confidence.

    Does the new front seven inspire a lot of confidence? It has a lot of excellent players: Quinton Coples, Sheldon Richardson, Kendrick Ellis, Demario Davis, and Antwan Barnes are all really good players. By themselves. But put them together. Throw Wilkerson in there with them. Something is missing. You do not have a guy that ties it all together, a guy that knows what to do when everyone is panicking, including him. You are missing GUYS like that. This is a front seven that is unlikely to bend without breaking. You have a lot of exceptional athletes, but you do not have a lot of football sense or understanding of the defense. The author, Cole Patterson, acknowledged as much when he named Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, Ed Reed, and Cory Redding as enabling Ngata’s emergence. The equivalent for the Jets is Demario Davis, Quinton Coples, Sheldon Richardson, and Josh Bush. None of them are bad players, but they are all coming out themselves. This will be a great lineup, but its dominance will only be established by next year at the earliest.

    All of the above is why I will be very satisfied with an average year from Wilkerson and from the defense. The defense is very unbalanced and just because everyone can play multiple positions does not mean that they can all play together.

  • Anthony

    Seriously KASH?

    nobody to tie it together!!!!

    thats what’s gonna hold back the defense. The X Factor, as defined by kash.

    Bell was unemployed by the Dolphins, of all teams, when we signed him. He was a below mid level player who you are now pining for us to have back. Laron was a bit different, he was a teir 1 athlete who had a ton of injuries, but neither was a star. Dawan is not a better athlete than laron, but he does read the game better, and that gives him a jump on plays that allows for his average athleticism to play up. Bush/Allen are huge upgrades over Bell/Eric Smith in their ability to platoon off coverage and run stuffing.

    Defensive Tackles do not rush the passer or not because they do or do not have confidence in the safeties. That argument is dumb, and your line of thinking is for the birds. They rush the passer, tackle runners and play football because that’s what the coach tells them to do. A Lineman does not let a running back go through a hole because he thinks the safety will stop him for a short gain, he tries to blow up the hole and stop him for a loss. That’s not confidence, that’s his job.

  • Geronimo

    Pip “overly optimistic”? Dickens sometimes used children’s natural openness and purity to show what has gone wrong with the “adult” world. The petty motivations and bitter cruelty of the characters Pip encounters (at all levels of society) force him to re-think his notions of class, status, etc. and come to a deeper understanding of heart, and what is important in life.

    What Pip comes to understand isn’t “reality”, it is the falseness in the ideas that most people see as “reality”.

    This is a difficult, but priceless lesson.

    And Wilkerson has it much better this year. Coples, a healthy Ellis, and Richardson are all threats who will take attention away from #96.

    You have to innovate in this league. You have to at least TRY. You can’t just copy what you see, year after year. Do that and you will always be behind SOMEONE.

    Whether Ryan’s plans with Wilkerson, Richardson, and Coples works out or not, nobody knows…

    YET…

    But the ideas that I have read about in the analyses sound good to me. DT has the shortest route to the QB. Having three big guys who can penetrate any gap is something special.

    Behind the line, we also have a couple of the fastest (40 timed) linebackers to come out of the draft in recent years (Davis and Barnes). So we now have guys who can really shoot through gaps on twists and drop stunts.

    All of this = Big year for Wilkerson, who, I hope, has a long, sack-filled career, and who, ummm, I also hope, through his struggles in this wide world, chooses compassion every time, and comes to lives his life with great feeling, to find the kind of warmth and happiness that Mr. Dickens wished for all of us.

  • KAsh

    “Great Expectations” is the reason I dislike Charles Dickens as an author. But I do admire how well he creates stories. Pip’s character does evolve throughout the book; he becomes a lot less naive. But his optimistic nature against the actual facts does not change. He believes he has a chance with Stella (? – I apologize, I read the story in eighth grade) repeatedly, although she is always interested in someone else and tells him as much, he believes his benefactor is a man of good standing and position, he believes he can save Stella from her misfortune, he believes he can save his benefactor from his execution, and he is always wrong. The most distinct memory I have of the book is the very end, where Pip meets Stella again after many years have passed, and she once again tells him that nothing will ever happen between them, but Pip’s very last thoughts are full of hope and expectation.

    Of course, this was a hated book read long ago, so maybe my memories and the lessons I took from it were warped by time, but referencing this book in an optimistic analysis summons all kinds of ill omens for me.

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