CORTLAND, N.Y. (CBSNewYork/AP) — The words stung Muhammad Wilkerson more than he let on.
He heard Sheldon Richardson, his New York Jets linemate, boldly proclaim in an interview last season that he – not Wilkerson – was the best defensive player in the NFL.
Wilkerson was fired up. And it helped him sharpen his focus.
“He’s the one who really pushes me,” Wilkerson said of Richardson. “He can talk and say some things that can really tick me off. Not in a bad way, but to get me to push myself and let me know that I can go much harder.”
Richardson went on to become the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year, while Wilkerson led the Jets with 10 1/2 sacks and firmly established himself in his third season as one of the league’s top defensive players. But that one remark stuck with Wilkerson.
“When he said he felt like he was better than me, as a man, you’re supposed to feel like that, but that’s my teammate and we both love each other,” Wilkerson said. “At the end of the day, I feel like that’s what’s going to make me outwork him and push myself.”
The 24-year-old Wilkerson might be the Jets’ most valuable player. A first alternate for the Pro Bowl last year, he heads into his fourth season with even higher expectations.
“I feel like I’m an elite player,” he said. “I feel like I’m one of the best defensive ends in this league, and I feel like I can be as great as I want to be. It’s up to me. I can go out here and pretty much go through the day and be lazy. Or I can get up in the morning and fight through everything, have that mental toughness to get through the day and want to work hard and get better.”
That’s why Wilkerson has refused to make a stink about his uncertain contract situation. He considers himself a team leader and didn’t want anything to get in the way of what he believes the Jets are building – especially on an intimidating defensive line.
“As a whole, we feel like we’re the best,” Wilkerson said. “We always feel like that. We’re young. We’re really talented, and at the end of the day, we can say it, but we have to go out there and prove it as well.”
Wilkerson knows he’ll get paid. The question is when – and he’s willing to wait for that answer.
He’s scheduled to earn $1.2 million in base salary this season, underpaid for a player with his production who’s still on the rise in a big way. The Jets have already exercised a fifth-year option for 2015, worth just under $7 million – meaning they might not need to make a move for a while.
“We know that he is an ascending player,” Rex Ryan said. “When we drafted him, you’re hoping that a guy turns out like this, pans out like this.”
Wilkerson, a native of Linden, New Jersey, has said he wants to play his entire NFL career at “home,” but the Jets could be hard-pressed to match the money he would fetch in the open market.
None of that matters to Wilkerson right now.
“On the business side, everything will be handled when the time will come,” he said when he reported for camp two weeks ago. “I’m here to bust my tail for this organization, for my team.”
During Wilkerson’s rookie season, veteran defensive linemen Mike DeVito and Sione Pouha raved about their new teammate’s potential. He was a star at Temple, and his mix of raw strength and speed made him an immediate favorite of Ryan and a first-round pick.
The hiring of Karl Dunbar as the Jets’ defensive line coach in his second year was a turning point for Wilkerson.
“It was just the icing on the cake, him coming in,” Wilkerson said. “He evolved my game to a totally different level.”
For the Jets, a lot of their success could hinge on how much better the already-dominant defensive line of Wilkerson, Richardson, Damon Harrison, Kenrick Ellis and Leger Douzable performs.
Wilkerson will be leading the way.
“We come out here every single day to compete,” Wilkerson said. “That’s what’s so great. That’s what can make us special.”
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(TM and © Copyright 2014 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2014 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)