New York Jets Five Difficult Decisions: Muhammad Wilkerson Edition

David Aitken looks at how the New York Jets could handle Muhammad Wilkerson’s contract situation this off-season

The third edition of Five Difficult Decisions looks at the most polarizing question of all – should the New York Jets trade Muhammad Wilkerson? The answer may be a little more complicated than simply keeping the team’s best player…

Muhammad Wilkerson – Keep or Trade?

Mike Maccagnan put himself in a unique situation by making Leonard Williams his first draft selection as the Jets General Manager. The Jets now have the ultimate surplus of defensive ends, an embarrassment of riches so strong that it actually justifies even discussing trading a player as good as Muhammad Wilkerson.

Because Wilkerson is so good, bringing him back at least on the franchise tag is an easy sell. He is an elite player in the prime of his career and the best player the Jets have drafted since Darrelle Revis in 2007. His 12 sacks this past season were the most for a Jets player since Shaun Ellis has 12.5 in 2003. Players like this are typically building blocks, not trade bait.

Moving past his value as a player, trading Wilkerson would mean investing in the checkered past of Sheldon Richardson instead. Richardson is probably looking at another suspension to start 2016 in regards to his traffic violations this past summer, and his current status in the NFL’s substance abuse program is a major red flag. Currently in stage two, Richardson testing positive for marijuana during this stage will result in a ten game suspension and advancement into stage three. A further incident while in stage three sees at least a year-long suspension with Richardson needing to apply for reinstatement. A year’s worth of clean tests could see him drop to stage one and eventually out of the program completely, but until he has proven to accomplish this he is a hard player to trust as a long term building block. The NFL’s recently relaxed policy toward marijuana is more lenient for occasional offenders, but the fact that Richardson even received a four-game suspension under the new policy means that he had already failed several tests prior. It would reflect incredibly poorly on the Jets to trade Wilkerson only for Richardson to become the next Josh Gordon or Justin Blackmon.

The Richardson issues raise the question – why not just trade him instead? While the Jets could do this if they deem him as too big a risk, the other 31 teams in the league are thinking the same thing Maccagnan and Bowles will be about Richardson’s recent troubles. This does not mean that the Jets couldn’t find a trade partner, but they would almost certainly not find a suitor willing to pay the trade compensation that Richardson’s on-field talent and youth should demand.

Keeping Wilkerson is the safe move. It is also a relatively restrictive move in terms of building on this past season. The Jets will have the greatest potential to improve, both in the short term and long term, by trading Wilkerson if he hauls in a return of at least a first round pick. Whether it’s the franchise tag projected to eat up about 15.5 million or signing Wilkerson to a long-term deal in the ballpark of J.J. Watt’s 16.6 million annual deal, the Jets would be paying Wilkerson the price of at least two major difference makers in free agency. Maccagnan would still have a little money to play with after retaining Wilkerson and some re-signings, but it would be hard to see many of the team’s needs being filled with quality in free agency or Damon Harrison coming back.

Imagine a scenario in contrast where the Jets re-sign Harrison, are able to make quality long term signings at right tackle and outside linebacker, and then have two first round picks to address more needs or simply add any blue chip prospects the draft makes available. Wilkerson’s trade value for the Jets isn’t just about what he would fetch the team directly, but also has to factor in the additional cap space that wouldn’t otherwise be available if he re-signs.

There is also the very real question of whether keeping all three defensive ends long term is in the team’s best interest. The Jets this past season had the best 3-4 front in the entire league. There is an argument to be made though that the Jets, even without Wilkerson, would still have the best 3-4 front in the league with a returning Harrison. Certainly Harrison and Richardson are two of the best players at their positions and Leonard Williams has the ability to be the best of all the Jets’ recent first round DE selections. It is one thing if all of these players work to elevate each other’s game when on the field, but the reality is that Richardson spent a good chunk of the season being miscast as an outside linebacker because finding a role for everybody was not easy. That could still change depending on Williams’ development as a pass rusher and adjusted roles for each player if Harrison leaves, but the Jets are also running the risk of overkill at the end position.

This is a classic case of risk and reward. It is impossible to call bringing back Muhammad Wilkerson a bad decision, but doing so also makes it harder for the Jets to take major steps forward at other positions. Can the Jets trust Sheldon Richardson enough to be comfortable with a trade? Is Leonard Williams ready for the big time in 2016? Will the Jets even receive an offer worthy of making a trade? Mike Maccagnan’s second offseason is a little more complicated than last year’s.

Prediction: Wilkerson receives the franchise tag. The Jets are open to offers and get interest from the Raiders and Giants who are ultimately unwilling to give up a top fifteen pick. Wilkerson remains a Jet for 2016, with both he and Richardson’s futures being decided by Richardson’s behavior over the next year.

Photo Credit: NewYorkJets.com