By Steve Lichtenstein
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So far, this Jets gig has been a breeze for new general manager Mike Maccagnan.
Flush with salary cap space, Maccagnan flooded the free agent market with cash and purchased a slew of players who should help the Jets, who went 4-12 in 2014, inch up the AFC East ladder this coming season.
Then, while waiting his turn with the No. 6 pick in the NFL Draft, Maccagnan was gifted USC’s Leonard Williams, who many viewed as the preeminent defensive player (and some experts even had Williams as the top overall player on their boards) in the pool.
Maccagnan’s offseason haul was impressive enough that it even appeared to stifle a bit of Jets fans’ rants over having to watch another year of Geno Smith playing quarterback. Maccagnan received a mulligan for not really addressing the Jets’ most urgent need since no franchise quarterback was readily available. The acquisition of well-traveled veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick as backup insurance was commendable but likely not a game-changer.
However, if Maccagnan doesn’t take care of Muhammad Wilkerson, the era of good feelings will come to an abrupt end.
Wilkerson, the Jets’ 6-foot 4, 315-pound defensive end and fan favorite, is not happy with his contract. The Jets exercised the fifth-year option on Wilkerson’s rookie deal at $6,969,000 for this upcoming season.
Wilkerson wants more and is not willing to wait until after the season to get it. To show his displeasure, he has skipped all of the Jets’ “voluntary” offseason workouts, including the organized team activities that began on Tuesday.
Jets owner Woody Johnson told the New York Post on Tuesday that he would not be pressured. “If something works out that’s agreeable to both sides, it’ll get done,” said Johnson. “If not…”
An earlier report from the Post claimed that Wilkerson is asking for around $40 million in guaranteed money.
I say pay the man.
Stats don’t show the full value that Wilkerson brings to the Jets’ defense. Some will look at his six sacks in 2014 and wonder how he could ask for more money than others who have higher totals, like the Rams’ Robert Quinn.
The answer is that not all defensive fronts are created equal. The Rams’ 4-3 offered Quinn significantly more one-on-one opportunities to get to the quarterback than Wilkerson had in the Jets’ 3-4. Wilkerson’s disruptive abilities should not be in dispute because without them, the Jets’ old and slow linebackers like David Harris, Calvin Pace and Jason Babin wouldn’t have had the lanes to drop the quarterback a combined 14 times last season.
Maccagnan can’t really believe the spin Johnson has floated in the press that the Jets can trade Wilkerson and seamlessly replace him with Williams, who may or may not be ready to step up to the NFL level in his rookie year.
A better plan would be to extend Wilkerson now using the Quinn template from last September. While it was initially reported that $41 million of Quinn’s deal was guaranteed, around $25 million of that was guaranteed against injury only.
There would be some differences to account for the fact that the Jets are only about $10 million under the 2015 cap with rookie contracts to be signed, per overthecap.com. Any fully guaranteed bonuses given to Wilkerson would have to be prorated over the next two seasons.
Wilkerson is worth it. He’s a hard-working 25-year-old core player who’s been durable. The three games he missed last season due to a toe injury were his only absences in his four seasons as a Jet.
He’s in a tough spot since he is under a contract, but the Jets would be equally distracted if this dispute becomes prolonged and/or turns acrimonious.
The Jets have built their defense around their young linemen. With Sheldon Richardson on the other end, Damon Harrison at the nose, and Williams in a rotation, the Jets could have a top 10 defense now that the secondary will be manned by a group of professionals.
And if Williams does indeed play as advertised, that provides the Jets with a different opportunity other than dealing Wilkerson. Why should new coach Todd Bowles be married to a 3-4? The 4-3 seemed to work pretty well in Seattle. The Giants used it to beat Tom Brady’s Patriots in two Super Bowls.
You want your coach to design his system to enhance his talent. If the Jets’ strength is in their defensive line quality and quantity and their linebacking corps is on the slow side, why should Bowles want more linebackers on the field than linemen?
But the next step belongs to Maccagnan, who has to convince Johnson that extending Wilkerson now won’t inhibit what the Jets can do in the future. High-salaried players such as Brandon Marshall, Antonio Cromartie and Quinton Coples, who I cannot see the Jets exercising their 2016 option of $7.75 million, can come off the books after this season to give Maccagnan more flexibility under the cap.
You know, so the Jets can maybe find their first quality quarterback this century.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.