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.