The NFL is experiencing something of a golden age for interior defensive linemen, with Aaron Donald and J.J. Watt bringing in the last four No. 1 spots in our annual Top 101 rankings, and Fletcher Cox agreeing yesterday to a deal with the most guaranteed money in league history for a non-quarterback Additionally, players such as Malik Jackson, Mike Daniels, Derek Wolfe, Cameron Jordan, and Corey Liuget are all 3-4 defensive ends that received long-term, big-money (more than $9 million annually) deals during the last calendar year. Muhammad Wilkerson of the New York Jets has been absent from the aforementioned list, having to settle for the one year, $15.7 million dollar deal under the franchise tag for the 2015 season.
Since entering the league as the 30th-overall pick in the 2011 draft, Wilkerson has been an unmitigated force, finishing fifth, third, 15th, and second the last four years amongst 3-4 defensive ends in overall grading. Last season, with Sheldon Richardson and Leonard Williams in the mix, Wilkerson was forced to play everywhere along the defensive line, and responded by finishing with 80 pressures (second amongst 3-4 DE), which was good for a pass-rush productivity of 10.7, tied with Richardson for fifth-best among 3-4 DEs. His 12 sacks were third-best among all interior defensive linemen, trailing only Watt and Geno Atkins last season. He was his usual self against the run, as well, finishing sixth amongst 3-4 DE in run-defense grade, tallying 21 stops and posting a 7.6 run-stop percentage. All of this productivity was done without committing a penalty and grading negatively just once all season.
Despite the absence of a draft-day trade involving Wilkerson, he and the Jets do not appear close to reaching a long-term deal at this point. Let's take a look at the complexities keeping such a deal from being imminent before the July 15 deadline.
Jets’ other defensive ends
Although they lost NT Damon Harrison to the Giants in free agency, the presence of Richardson and Williams give the Jets some leverage at the negotiation table. Richardson has been as good or better than Wilkerson at times during his career, grading out as the third- and second-best 3-4 DE in 2013 and 2014, respectively, earning PFF second-team All Pro honors in 2014. Last season, he missed time with a suspension for substance abuse, and subsequently returned to post a negative grade against the run. However, he was still productive as a pass-rusher, generating seven sacks, nine QB hits, and 39 hurries. The Jets picked up his fifth-year option this offseason, keeping him under contract for at least the next two seasons.
Williams had a fantastic rookie season, posting a positive grade in all but two of 16 games played. His run defense grade was fourth among all 3-4 DEs, and his 9.8 run-stop percentage was eighth (better than both Wilkerson and Richardson). His pass-rushing productivity mark of 8.7 was respectable, as well. Getting him on the field was one of the reasons the Jets moved Wilkerson around so much, and the benefits were palpable. While depth would be a concern if the Jets were to eventually move on from Wilkerson, especially given Richardson’s troubles off the field, they would be relatively set at both of the end spots in Todd Bowles 3-4 defensive scheme, giving New York seemingly little incentive to commit to Wilkerson long-term at this juncture.
On the other hand, Wilkerson played admirably as an edge defender last season when pressed into that role. Despite his size (6-foot-4, 315 pounds), he posted a total pass-rushing productivity mark of 10.7, which was on par with some of the better edge rushers in the league. If Wilkerson can convince the Jets that he’s a plus edge player (at least part-time) for the foreseeable future, re-signing him to a mega deal to play him alongside Richardson and Williams will give New York a much-coveted trio to build around up front.
While Wilkerson doesn’t have a long-term deal, he still possesses the third-highest per-year salary of all 3-4 DE at this moment, below Cox’s $17.17 million per year and Watt’s $16.67 million per year, and ahead of Jackson’s $14.25 million per year. Unless Calais Campbell (who is set to become a free agent next offseason) signs contract extensions before the season starts, this is where Wilkerson’s annual salary will rank going come Week 1. The absence of deals to Campbell and/or Kawann Short setting a market for Wilkerson will allow Cox’s deal (six years, $103 million) to be the pivot point moving forward. With Cox’s per-season salary already higher than Wilkerson’s current franchise tag rate, it’s unlikely the Jets will want to commit to six seasons of Wilkerson at a comparable rate. A shorter deal at a higher rate may assuage both parties (especially if it’s to further test Wilkerson as an edge player), but will leave the Jets having to choose between Wilkerson and Williams down the road.
Another option that remains (however unlikely, now that we’re in June) is that the Jets trade Wilkerson for players and/or draft picks. It’s difficult to say what a team would give up at this point in the game, but it’s possible that a team such as the Browns, who run a 3-4 defense and have stockpiled draft picks for future drafts, could produce a package that would entice the Jets.
Jets’ other needs
Generally, when a team has a stockpile of excellent players at one position, they have a relative dearth of talent at another, and the Jets are no different. While the quarterback position is the most glaring of said positions, the Jets also have weaknesses at linebacker, cornerback, and the offensive line. With just roughly $3 million in cap space left for 2016 and the possibility of significant money being used in upcoming years on a contract to re-sign quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (or acquire a legitimate franchise quarterback), committing a large amount of resources to Wilkerson long-term leaves the Jets with less to apply across the roster as they try to improve upon their 10-6 record in Bowles' first season as head coach.
Wilkerson and the Jets have been at an impasse almost the entire offseason. With the lack of a draft-day trade or an apparent consensus on Wilkerson’s true value to the Jets, it looks as though both parties will go into the season under the terms of the franchise tag. Given Wilkerson’s stature as one of the most productive interior defensive linemen in the league and the Jets' ability to replace him with comparable talent were he to leave or hold out, this seems to be the optimal solution going into the 2016 season—with all long-term considerations to be kicked down the road.
[More: See where Muhammad Wilkerson ranked among Senior Analyst Sam Monson's 101 best players in the NFL right now.]