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Over the past few years the New York Jets have concentrated a high amount of talent on the defensive line, more specifically at defensive end. This is a good problem to have. However, they have struggled handling this wealth of talent, which is now likely to end with selling low on Sheldon Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson trying to prove they should continue paying him after 2018, while the team still lacks a pass rusher. How did we get here?
1. In 2011, the Jets made one of their better picks in recent years when former GM Mike Tannenbaum grabbed Muhammad Wilkerson with the 30th pick. After an encouraging rookie season, Wilkerson continued to improve in year two and hit another level in year three as an All-Pro, racking up 10.5 sacks while being a force against the run.
2. In 2013, the Jets were one of the few teams who found a quality player in the first round (seriously go back and look at the picks), with the somewhat surprising selection of Sheldon Richardson by John Idzik. Despite having a similar skill set to Wilkerson, both players thrived with Richardson grabbing Defensive Rookie of the Year honors.
3. In 2014, the mismanagement began
The Jets’ first opportunity to extend Wilkerson should have presented itself early in 2014…That was a good time for an extension for a couple more reasons. One is that teams still were approaching contracts conservatively because the cap had failed to rise between 2011 and 2013. Wilkerson would have considered any big offer, especially before the cap limit for 2014 was set.
Secondly, the market for players like Wilkerson was somewhat limited. The top paid 3-4 defensive end earned around $11 million, and that was an outlier, with most far below. The Jets easily could have surpassed that figure with Wilkerson, without compromising their cap situation…Instead, the Jets dragged their feet. The 2014 cap rose significantly, and rather than being the first to sign a player from that draft to a new deal, they watched as Robert Quinn, J.J. Watt, Patrick Peterson and a slew of young players were re-setting markets at every position. The Jets spent nothing in free agency and had all this cap space burning a hole in their pocket. Any agent will to see that as a sign that the sky should be the limit in a contract offer. Wilkerson’s price immediately went up as he started to ask for a contract somewhere between Quinn and Watt.
Basically, they missed their first window to extend Wilkerson. Regardless of their internal evaluation after 2013 about who had a higher upside long term, Wilkerson or Richardson, the Jets had the resources to pay Wilkerson, demonstrate to Richardson they take care of their young talent and go forward building the rest of their defense.
4. The mismanagement continued in 2015, even after a switch was made at General Manager.
Idzik was let go in 2015 and replaced by Mike Maccagnan, who had his sights set on using all the cap space that Idzik failed to use. Again, the thought was that Wilkerson would be the first extension of the Maccagnan era. But there was no movement.
The 3-4 defensive end market grew considerably. More players earned $10 million-$11 million a year, which further justified whatever Wilkerson was seeking.
They chose to miss another window to pay him leading into the 2015 NFL Draft, after both Wilkerson and Richardson played well in 2014, although after 2014 it was fair to make the case Richardson looked to have more upside. There was no progress being made in negotiations after roughly a year of dialogue, so many began to assume the Jets would eventually have to trade Wilkerson and would pay Richardson long term.
5. In the 2015 NFL Draft, defensive end Leonard Williams surprisingly dropped to the Jets with the 6th overall pick. From a pure talent perspective, he was the best player on the board and the Jets selected him. It is debatable if they should have chosen last year’s sack leader Vic Beasley instead because it is about building the right 53, not the best 53 but that is an article for another day.
Regardless, the decision to pick Williams should have been paired with a trade of Wilkerson because from a resource allocation standpoint, it is illogical to have three players who play the exact same position when you have holes all over the rest of your roster. No matter how good the coaching is, it is a near impossible challenge to get the most out of all three at the same time in any defensive scheme.
6. The Jets didn’t trade Wilkerson and then found out in July Sheldon Richardson was suspended for four games and then saw him get arrested later in the same month. In the “success” of the 2015 season it was swept under the rug that the Jets never addressed how to move forward with all three players. Richardson missed 5 games and Williams was good but not somebody who demanded to be on the field 95-100% of the snaps yet. There were warning signs of the Jets not knowing how to use all three when we saw Richardson lining up at outside linebacker.
7. When the offseason hit, the conventional wisdom became Wilkerson would be franchised (he was) and traded (he wasn’t). The Jets instead surprised everybody and paid Wilkerson to a reasonable 5 year, 86 million dollar contract with an out after three years. Once they paid Wilkerson, it became clear they weren’t going to pay Richardson big money (if it wasn’t after his off the field issues), especially after an encouraging rookie year from Williams.
It is also fair to wonder if paying Wilkerson was a fall back plan after a reported failed pursuit of Oliver Vernon, especially with how the money matches up.
8. In 2016, Williams took a major step forward while both Wilkerson and Richardson took a major step back. With the season going nowhere, it was rumored the Jets passed on an opportunity to trade Richardson at the deadline for a second round pick to the Dallas Cowboys, setting the bar at a first rounder. This was a mistake, particularly with Richardson’s production declining after 2014 and it blatantly apparent they weren’t going to give him a contract
The hope is that Wilkerson’s decline was related to recovering from an injury at the end of the 2015 season. 2017 will hopefully prove last season was an outlier but the Jets are stuck with him for this year and 2018 regardless.
9. The Jets are now in a position where they want to trade Richardson but will likely need to settle for a 3rd or 4th round pick. Richardson’s value is low after an unproductive season, a public feud with Brandon Marshall and him being one strike away from a major suspension.
The 2016 season also showed the Jets have no clue how to effectively use all three players at once. We saw Richardson at inside linebacker and outside linebacker, both of which were failures. It was almost like having three, 3-4 defensive ends with identical skill sets and no edge rushers is not an ideal use of resources.
10. A common argument against trading Richardson is why give him up for anything less than a 3rd rounder when they can let him play here in 2017, walk as a free agent and then receive a 3rd round compensatory pick for the 2019 NFL Draft.
First off, there is no guarantee on what round they would receive the compensatory pick in. It will depend on their spending in the coming years and multiple other factors. Second and more importantly, it is foolish to cater your defense around Richardson in 2017 when he will not be here in 2018 and beyond. Every rep he plays is a rep that should be taken by Wilkerson, Williams, Deon Simon or Darron Lee, Lorenzo Mauldin and Jordan Jenkins (if they were going to stick with the linebacker experiment). Why are you wasting 16 games playing a defense you will not be playing long term with Richardson moving all over the formation?
11. Wilkerson is going to be here until at least after the 2018 season. Williams looks like a star in the making and will be here for even longer than that. Neither player brings the off field baggage that Richardson does, who is now complimenting that baggage with two years of declining production. He is still a very good player who is going to produce wherever he goes next but it is not happening for him in New York.
12. From a pessimistic perspective, the Jets waited too long to pay Wilkerson, paid him a fallback contract after missing out on Vernon and also have waited too long on trading Richardson after showing they can’t play all three defensive ends together but here they are. They have Wilkerson on reasonable money but concerns about him bouncing back. They have Richardson likely to be traded for a middle round pick and an ascending star in Williams. The Jets would be wise to take what they can get for Richardson, add collateral for the 2017 NFL Draft and begin adding to the second and third level of their defense.
One final note, the Jets did let nose tackle Damon Harrison walk in free agency. It is easy to criticize that move in a vacuum after a bad year from Wilkerson but the Jets run defense did not greatly suffer without him and as a two down player (in their system), it was logical not to pay him big money.
Photo Credit: NewYorkJets.com