FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) — Muhammad Wilkerson was back on the field with the New York Jets.
His playing status, however, remains uncertain. As does his future with the franchise.
The star defensive end was a full participant at practice Wednesday after being benched at New Orleans on Sunday for being late to a team meeting last Friday. But head coach Todd Bowles would not commit to Wilkerson playing Sunday in the Jets’ home finale against the Los Angeles Chargers.
“We’ll decide that at the end of the week, like everybody else,” Bowles said.
The coach added that there is no lingering disciplinary reason for which Wilkerson would not be allowed to play. He added that Wilkerson made “a mistake” and the team has “moved on.”
Bowles had said Monday that the team was “working through some things” in regards to Wilkerson’s situation, but he wouldn’t address on Wednesday whether there was any talk of shutting down the defensive end for the rest of the season.
“I’ll leave those things to keep inside (house),” Bowles said. “We talked about a lot of things, but he served his sentence.”
The 28-year-old Wilkerson is the Jets’ highest-paid player and is in the middle of a five-year deal worth $86 million. He vowed during training camp to be more of a leader for the Jets, but has twice been disciplined for tardiness this season. He was also benched for one quarter of a game in each of the last two seasons.
“It’s just about respect,” Wilkerson said in the locker room. “I let the team down. I respect what coach did and it’s (about) moving forward and getting ready for the next opponent.”
Wilkerson’s $16.75 million salary for next season would become fully guaranteed if he remains on New York’s roster by the third day of the league’s new year in March, so it would appear likely that the Jets will cut him during the offseason. Throw in the fact that New York would get $11 million of salary cap relief, and parting ways seems a certainty.
“That’s up to Todd and the organization,” Wilkerson said when asked if he wants to remain with the Jets. He later added that he remains happy with the organization, but his future is out of his hands.
One aspect of his contract puts a curve into how the Jets might handle Wilkerson the rest of this season. That $16.75 million is also fully guaranteed against a serious injury. If he gets hurt during a game or practice and the injury sidelines him all of next season, New York would be on the hook for the money.
“We’ll discuss everything as the week goes on,” Bowles said.
It has all been a disappointing fall from grace by a player who was on track to be one of the franchise’s greats. Wilkerson was a first-round draft pick by the team in 2011 and steadily improved while becoming one of the NFL’s top young defensive ends. He made the Pro Bowl for the 2015 season, but didn’t play in it after breaking his right leg in the regular-season finale.
Wilkerson was still rewarded by the Jets with a big contract, even as he rehabilitated. He returned in time to start in Week 1 last season, but was clearly affected by lingering issues in his right ankle. Wilkerson then got off to a slow start this season as he dealt with shoulder and toe injuries.
The issues with tardiness have become magnified as his play — he has just eight sacks in his last 28 games — has not been up to par with what the Jets expected. Still, Wilkerson believes there’s no question whether he deserves the $37 million he has made the last two years.
“I feel like I’ve earned everything I’ve gotten,” he said.
And, why does he feel that way?
“Because I feel like I’ve earned it,” he said.
Wilkerson said he spoke to his teammates Monday and addressed the situation, although he wouldn’t share details on what he discussed.
“If they respect me, they respect me,” he said. “And if they don’t, they don’t. I’ll understand. We’ve just got to move forward.”
Wilkerson said “of course” he wants to play the last two games, and added he was happy to be back in the facility and on the field with his teammates after having a “difficult” time watching from afar as the Jets lost 31-19 at New Orleans. He also doesn’t think his relationship with Bowles has been fractured because of what has transpired over the last few weeks.
“I still respect coach,” he said. “I guess you have to ask him how he feels about our relationship, but I respect coach. I have the utmost respect for him.”
NOTES: CB Morris Claiborne (foot), RB Matt Forte (knee), C Wesley Johnson (hip), RB Elijah McGuire (illness) and RG Brian Winters (abdomen) all sat out of practice. … WR Robby Anderson (hamstring/hip) and DE Leonard Williams (concussion) were both limited.
(© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)