By Jeff Capellini, WFAN.com
NEW YORK (WFAN) — On the surface, the Jets probably don’t deserve to have many players singled out for individual achievement. This season has been a mixed bag of maddening play and only a rare few examples of what once made Rex Ryan’s bunch an opponent to be feared.
However, there have been a few stories that have warranted further attention. One stars Muhammad Wilkerson, a behemoth of a man who has quietly become a very good player.
With their 17-10 win in Jacksonville on Sunday, the Jets are 6-7 and somehow still alive in the AFC playoff race. I’m not going to waste your time or my own going through scenarios that could result in them sneaking into the postseason. They probably still have to win their final three games and get a lot of help, so thinking grandiose thoughts at this point would really be putting the cart before the horse.
But this much is true: if Wilkerson had not taken the steps he’s taken in his second year the Jets’ season would almost certainly be meaningless at this point.
While it’s no secret the Jets have struggled to develop anything resembling a consistent pass rush throughout Ryan’s nearly four years as head coach, they have maintained their status as one of the better defenses in the NFL. They have done this because most of their defensive linemen and linebackers have been resilient and, more importantly, adaptable.
The Jets entered Monday eighth overall in yards allowed, and while they have not stopped the run anywhere near as well as they have in the past and have just 22 sacks (29th in the NFL in both categories), you can make the argument that they are one game below .500 through 14 weeks almost entirely due to their well-chronicled struggles at quarterback and their lack of overall talent at the offensive skill positions.
Players like Wilkerson, Antonio Cromartie and LaRon Landry have basically kept this season afloat. They have teamed their efforts to make up for the loss of all-world corner Darrelle Revis, while at the same time providing just enough of the elasticity that is the makeup of the Jets’ bend-but-don’t-break defense.
And because the schedule is what it is and this team plays who it plays the rest of the way, there’s no reason to believe this unit won’t give the Jets every opportunity to have a chance to win, regardless of just how God-awful its counterparts on offense are.
For his part, Wilkerson does a little of everything right. He’s a disruptor of the opposing quarterback’s rhythm and a better run stopper than he gets credit for. The 30th pick out of Temple in the 2011 draft plays every bit as big as his 6-foot-4, 315-pound frame suggests, but his speed and agility are what stand out to the naked eye. The guy can move, fight through the double team and make the types of plays that may not result in gaudy statistics, but definitely alter how an opposing offense tries to get down the field.
In essence, Wilkerson’s mere presence has started to change games, maybe not in the same manner as an Aldon Smith, J.J. Watt or Von Miller, but he seems to be improving and making more of an impact on a weekly basis. The Linden, N.J. native’s stats may never suggest dominance, but when a defensive player consistently annoys the quarterback and stops the run, well, you have a player you can build a defense around.
That’s not to say Wilkerson solves all the Jets’ problems up front. They still need someone that can be primarily a sack artist, a force that can open lanes for Ryan to send his outside linebackers and corners. Wilkerson has assumed the role of jack of all trades of the trenches, and considering the injuries that have slowed Sione Pouha and sidelined Kenrick Ellis, and the extended learning curve of 2012 first-round pick Quinton Coples, it’s a good thing he has.
Wilkerson has 56 tackles, 4 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery and 1 touchdown. And while that might not be Pro Bowl worthy when compared to the rest of the league’s defensive ends, if the Jets were to give out airline tickets to Hawaii at the end of the season, Wilkerson would be at the front of the line.
JUST HOW GOOD ARE CROMARTIE AND LANDRY?
The short answer? Very good.
While Wilkerson probably won’t get named to the Pro Bowl, there should be an investigation if Cromartie gets snubbed.
I profiled him earlier this season, right after he embarrassed Houston wide receiver Andre Johnson. I said then this was shaping up as his best season. He then went out an shut down Indianapolis’ Reggie Wayne. And since then has either rendered null and void or helped wipe out Brandon Lloyd, Brian Hartline, Sidney Rice, Danny Amendola, Larry Fitzgerald and Justin Blackmon, among others.
With Revis out since the first half of the Week 3 matchup with Miami, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better cover corner in the entire NFL than Cromartie, who is by far the Jets’ defensive MVP this season and should be a shoo-in for the Pro Bowl.
While some may suggest exploring trade options with Cromartie in the offseason due to the fact that he’s the Jets’ most attractive chip and could bring back talent to an offense that is in dire need of help, I say stay the course with him. Next year will be the third year of a four-year, $32 million deal and at 28 he’s now in his prime years. And while the money is manageable and he will be attractive to suitors, the idea of the “new” Cro and a healthy Revis next season is just too big a proposition to pass up if I’m the Jets.
Remember, they will get Santonio Holmes back next season, Jeremy Kerley is developing into an impact player and Stephen Hill can only get better. The Jets’ No. 1 problem on offense is Mark Sanchez, but as we’ve seen he has struggled regardless of the talent around him. Until the Jets get serious about addressing the quarterback position, it’s hard to say if what they actually have out wide is inadequate.
In my opinion, it would be better to keep this defense near the top of the NFL, than it is to worry about an offense that is led by a quarterback that few people believe can take the next step regardless of his weapons.
As for Landry, the guy has been every bit the player the Jets hoped he’d be when they signed him to a one-year, $4 million “prove it” deal in the offseason. Fears of injuries to his back have not manifested themselves into anything through 13 games. He’s brought a hard-hitting and coverage element to the Jets that they haven’t had at free safety in ages.
Need more proof? Check out these numbers: 89 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, 5 passes defensed, 2 interceptions, 4 forced fumbles and a touchdown.
Landry needs to be a priority in the offseason for this front office, regardless of who actually makes the decisions. He’s also just 28 and from where I’m sitting, the idea of a healthy Revis, plus Cromartie, Landry and Wilkerson as the cornerstones of your defense going forward is about as good as you can ask for.
Yes, this Jets season has been disappointing and I’m not ready to buy into any hype off two brutal wins over terrible teams. I said back after the Thanksgiving disaster against New England that dropped the Jets to 4-7 that if they got to 7-7 I’d at least entertain the notion of the “P” word, provided things started to shake out favorably elsewhere. And while they have, what with Pittsburgh and Cincinnati looking hardly postseason-worthy of late, the Jets are still the Jets. They could easily go into Tennessee next Monday night and score 6 points.
But thinking long term, I do like many aspects of this defense. It’s just a matter of staying the course on that end and then brainstorming ways to turn this offense into something resembling a 21st century NFL operation.
In the interim, enjoy watching players like Wilkerson, Cromartie and Landry, because they’ve ratcheted their games up and led by example. The Jets just have to hope 50 other guys truly take notice and follow in their foot steps.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @GreenLanternJet
What do you see Wilkerson becoming down the road? What are your opinions on the futures of Cromartie and Landry? Please offer your thoughts in the comments section below …