By Jeff Capellini
Muhammad Wilkerson is an animal.
The Jets may want to reconsider their reluctance to deal with his contract, because he’s giving every indication that what we’re seeing now is not going to stop any time soon.
While it’s true that general manager Mike Maccagnan holds the hammer in negotiations with the big defensive end, Wilkerson is making things more and more interesting with each passing week. He’s making a case for monster money, and nobody would blame the team that eventually gives it to him.
The 30th overall pick in the 2011 draft is enjoying one incredible season. He has transformed himself into a premier pass rusher, an aspect of his game that wasn’t quite there heading into 2015. A very well-rounded lineman, Wilkerson had been known for being more of an immovable object than an unstoppable force, a player who could get to the quarterback but was really better at containment and stopping the run. It is one of the main reasons why he didn’t make the Pro Bowl in any of his first four seasons.
Well, if he doesn’t make it this season there should be an investigation, for Wilkerson has morphed into the total package, a menacing sack master who is forcing opposing quarterbacks to run for their lives and offensive linemen to tremble in his presence. He’s been the unquestioned anchor of a defense ranked fifth overall in the NFL, including No. 1 against the run.
Wilkerson has 12 sacks, two behind league leader Khalil Mack of the Oakland Raiders. He totally terrorized Tennessee’s Marcus Mariota last Sunday, dropping the promising rookie quarterback three times during the 30-8 win, an effort that featured the Jets not allowing the Titans into their end of the field until the second half.
A lot has been made of the money Wilkerson reportedly wants. While he’s never actually said he wants to be paid like Houston Texans superstar J.J. Watt — who signed a six-year, $100 million deal with nearly $52 million guaranteed last year — there have been many who have suggested he wants something comparable.
At the time Wilkerson supposedly made those demands, he had yet to take his game to the next level, and that made Maccagnan less inclined to give him his full attention.
It’s safe to say Wilkerson has everyone’s attention right now.
According to Pro Football Focus, one of the leading sites for analysis and metrics, Wilkerson ranks fourth among 3-4 defensive ends. His 20 quarterback hits trail only Watt (30) and his 38 hurries trail only Philadelphia’s Fletcher Cox (45).
Maccagnan stated on more than one occasion earlier this year that he would be willing to pay Wilkerson, but within reason. But the rookie general manager made those admissions back when Wilkerson was just a good player, not the budding superstar he has become. I, for one, would love to know what Maccagnan’s thought process is now that he’s seen his best defensive player become one of the best defensive players on the planet.
Popular belief has always been that the Jets really like Wilkerson, but view him as an asset as much as they do someone who can help them win a ton of games. The prevailing thought has been that the Jets could use Wilkerson in some kind of trade to fill a glaring positional need.
Like quarterback, for instance.
Well, now that Ryan Fitzpatrick has emerged as an undisputed No. 1 signal caller, following years of being discarded as nothing more than a serviceable stopgap option, the Jets really don’t have a hole at quarterback. At least they shouldn’t for the next few years, assuming Fitzpatrick, who will be an unrestricted free agent at season’s end, is brought back.
Another prevailing thought is that Wilkerson simply isn’t as good as Sheldon Richardson, and the Jets can afford to play hardball with him because they also have a star in rookie Leonard Williams waiting in the wings. Though the latter remains true — Williams has gotten better and better as his maiden NFL voyage has sailed along — Wilkerson has proven to be the Jets’ best defensive lineman, bar none.
Richardson, though extremely talented, has yet to ratchet his game back to where it was last season when he was named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. His four-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy likely has forced him to play catch-up all season, and an even longer suspension next season for his role in an alleged October street racing incident on a Missouri highway remains a possibility, given the NFL’s penchant for meting out punishment on its own time frame.
And let’s not forget that big defensive tackle Damon “Snacks” Harrison will be unrestricted at season’s end and will undoubtedly be one of the most attractive players on the open market, meaning the bidding war could get out of hand in a hurry.
So, yeah, all of a sudden Wilkerson has become indispensable. With what he’s shown through 13 games this season, if he hasn’t proven his long-term value to the Jets he may never. And that would be a crying shame.
Wilkerson only recently turned 26 and could remain among the league’s elite defensive ends for several years. In addition to his pass rushing numbers, he’s already set a career high for passes defensed and is on pace to set career bests for combined tackles and forced fumbles.
Again, to be a fly on Maccagnan’s wall right now would be something.
If the Jets don’t have any glaring needs to address this offseason — and right now they really don’t look like they will, short of maybe needing to tweak the offensive line and perhaps the linebacking corps a bit — they really should consider getting a long-term deal with Wilkerson done.
Sure, the Jets can put the franchise tag on him and pay him a projected $16 million, and Wilkerson will always run the risk of not having as good a season in 2016 as he’s having this season, but there’s something to be said about bad blood. The Jets have a chance to lock up a man who has turned into a pillar of the franchise — both on the field and off — for a long time. An opportunity like that doesn’t come around very often, especially for the Jets.
Wilkerson should be the priority this offseason because the job Maccagnan has done has turned out to be a lot better than was previously thought. The Jets have stability and depth at many positions, and, let’s be honest, Wilkerson is not a guy you trade to help fill out a 53-man roster.
You consider trading him when you must have an immediate upgrade, but like I said earlier, I just don’t see where the Jets are in need of one.
In fact, the only way they will have a big hole to fill is if somehow Wilkerson isn’t around next season.
In this high-stakes game of chicken, it’s time the Jets blink. There’s no shame in that when the goal is the same for everyone involved.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @GreenLanternJet