Sports fans are fickle. It is not unique to New York Jets fans and not a criticism but a reality of rooting for the laundry of a team you identify with. New and unknown equates good. Recency bias runs rampant. Players become old news quickly. The Jets ongoing contract negotiations with Muhammad Wilkerson and selection of Leonard Williams have provided a perfect microcosm of this.
Wilkerson was a first round selection of the Jets in 2011. He was an immediate force against the run and showed promise getting after the quarterback. In 2012, he somewhat quietly ascended into one of the best 3-4 defensive ends in the NFL. Wilkerson didn’t blow up the stat sheet (69 tackles, 5 sacks, 3 forced fumbles) but his game has always went beyond that. As Robert Mays said in the above linked column
But with Wilkerson, it’s more than just some desired ideal. On any given play, Wilkerson lines up at any point along the defensive line. He’s asked to do more in his defense than almost any down player in football. Wilkerson is typically classified as a 3-4 defensive end, which is nominally correct. It’s the position he plays most, and that makes sense. Playing the defensive end in a 3-4 probably requires the widest range of talents for any defensive lineman. In a 4-3 defense, players are typically responsible for one gap — most often the one in which they line up before a given play. On most plays, Wilkerson is responsible for two gaps — the ones to either side of his tackle.
For those who follow Pro Football Focus, a valuable tool but not necessarily the Bible some make it out to be, Wilkerson was the second rated defensive end behind JJ Watt in 2012 in the NFL. Ironically, he missed their top 100 team in 2013, despite having his most “productive” season on the stat sheet with 63 tackles, 10.5 sacks and 2 forced fumbles. Wilkerson’s presence was a key component to freeing up Sheldon Richardson, who went on to be named Defensive Rookie of the Year. Despite not being elected to the Pro Bowl (as he should have been), Wilkerson was named 2nd Team All-Pro.
This past year Wilkerson only played in 13 games, missing the last few with a toe injury that was senseless to push with the Jets heading to a 4-12 record. He finished with 55 tackles, 5.5 sacks and a forced fumble and got himself back on PFF’s Top 100, coming in as the 24th best player in the NFL. Despite missing the final few weeks (and creating some inevitable recency bias against him from fans who are forgetting just how good of a football player he is), Wilkerson remains a dominant, versatile chess piece. Everybody was slamming their fist on the table for him to get a new contract in November but the tune has started to change for some with the selection of Williams and Wilkerson missing voluntary OTAs.
Williams is a great prospect but we do not know what his NFL ceiling is yet or when he is going to reach that ceiling. It is hard to doubt he can be at least a very good 3-4 defensive end but can he move around the formation and can he be a 10+ sack player in the NFL? Those questions still need to be answered. Despite the assumption by some, Wilkerson is not going to get JJ Watt money but is more likely to see a contract in line with Robert Quinn’s (per Joel Corry)
The Jets salary cap situation is more flexible than it appears at first glance, particularly with some of the contracts that could be coming off the books next off-season or that may be restructured. We don’t know where the Jets have drawn their line in the sand but if they can find way to get a deal done, while they aren’t spending on a quarterback, they should push to close when Wilkerson likely returns for mandatory minicamp. If they can’t, they will likely opt to franchise him next season, which will eat up short term cap space. It also sets a dangerous precedent for Sheldon Richardson, who you can bet is watching these negotiations very closely. Ideally, you want to build a culture of taking care of your young homegrown talent, particularly players who are leaders on and off the field. More simply, Wilkerson is 25 years old and arguably the best 3-4 defensive end in the league not named Watt. It is smart business to find ways to keep great, not good, great football players.
@TalkJetsRadio Robert Quinn neighborhood ($40M in guarantees/$14M per year).
— Joel Corry (@corryjoel) May 20, 2015
Don’t let a few missed games or a shiny new draft pick (who should be very good but should is the operative word) let you forget just how good of a NFL player Wilkerson has already become.