With a depleted roster to fill and cap room to spend, the New York Jets are set to have a tremendous amount of turnover this offseason.
However, before they can start adding new toys to their collection, the Jets must take care of their own—starting with stud defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson.
The Jets' top draft pick from 2011 has been a blinding bright spot on an otherwise average roster over the past two years, establishing himself as one of the best 3-4 defensive ends in the business. After coming in as the second-best 3-4 defensive end in 2012 (behind J.J. Watt) in Pro Football Focus' rankings (subscription required), he recorded a team-high 10.5 sacks in 2013.
There is no question that Wilkerson has earned a big-time deal that will make him among the highest-paid at his position. The task for the Jets now is to figure out when to pay him. Wilkerson, who is set to make just over $1.2 million in base salary, has a contract that runs out at the conclusion of the 2014 season.
The Jets have fumbled the finances of plenty of star players in the past—most recently Darrelle Revis—and risk suffering a devastating blow to their rebuilding efforts if they take a hard-nosed approach with their latest star who is due for a payday.
Value on the Field
Wilkerson is one of the best players at his position, but does his positional value demand such a big contract?
In a league where dominant defensive linemen can spoil even the most carefully planned offensive game plan, Wilkerson is worth his weight in gold.
The most impressive aspect of Wilkerson's 10.5-sack season is that he was able to rack up so many sacks as a two-gapping lineman. Most players at Wilkerson's position center their game around stopping the run—Wilkerson is able to add a pass-rushing element to his game while remaining stellar against the run.
The Jets defense may have slipped to 11th overall in 2013, but when considering that they were fielding one of the worst cornerback tandems in the league, the Jets can thank Wilkerson (among others) for fielding even a respectable defense. Their two starters, Antonio Cromartie and Dee Milliner, were ranked 103rd and 66th overall by Pro Football Focus, respectively.
Without Wilkerson's 10.5 sacks, their lackluster pass defense would have been exponentially more inept, void of drive-killing sacks from Wilkerson. As much as the Jets struggled against the pass (22nd overall), their third-ranked run defense kept them afloat.
Capable of playing in every gap along the defensive line, Wilkerson's versatility is second-to-none in a scheme that demands its players to be versatile in their alignment and technique.
Wilkerson is not just a good defensive lineman whom the Jets stumbled upon—he is the best at his position since the days of the New York Sack Exchange that was littered with Hall of Fame-caliber players.
His perfect attendance in 48 straight games is the icing on the cake, as his uncanny ability to stay healthy and/or fight through injuries is matched by few. He has also emerged as a young leader on the team, filing the void left behind from the previous regime's defensive leaders.
The Jets have a young, dynamic, durable leader at a premium position on their roster. So, what's the hold up on Wilkerson's extension?
Risk vs. Reward
As with any premature contract extension (with "premature" being a year before it expires), the Jets are paying a premium on Wilkerson's services in 2014 in exchange for not having to undertake the risks and costs associated with waiting until he plays out his contract as scheduled.
Should the Jets choose not to extend Wilkerson this offseason, keeping him under contract for 2015 and beyond will prove to be a much more difficult challenge. If Wilkerson continues his upward trend of production, his contract demands will only increase, especially since he will be (hypothetically) underpaid for the 2014 season.
Unless he is willing to take a hometown discount (something few athletes are crazy enough to do), the Jets will be forced to pay the sticker price for Wilkerson as if he were to hit the open market. If the Jets don't get him under contract before the start of the 2015 league year, he may wind up as the latest star player the Jets let slip away.
The Jets do have an option to extend Wilkerson into the 2015 season (and the ability to give him the franchise tag in 2016), which could potentially delay his free agency until 2017. According to Rich Cimini of ESPNNewYork.com, the option is expected to cost the Jets roughly $6 million.
This would be a bargain for the Jets relative to Wilkerson's value, but it would undoubtedly raise the possibility of Wilkerson hosting an ugly holdout.
If the Jets are smart enough to settle the Wilkerson situation this offseason, they will not have to pay the top market value for his services because he still has a year left on his deal. Wilkerson will essentially shave some cash off his annual income in exchange for security.
After all, he is just one awkward turn away from tearing his ACL and ruining his chances to land the almighty second contract that so many players fail to achieve.
The injury factor is one of the few reasons why the Jets should hold off on handing Wilkerson an extension just yet—the last thing they want is to have a ton of guaranteed money tied up in a player who tears an ACL or ruptures an Achilles to end a season.
Rob Gronkowski has dealt with his share of injuries during his career, but it did not stop the New England Patriots from rewarding him with a $54 million extension in 2012. Their proactive approach to Gronkowski's contract saved them the headache of trying to match the astronomical contract Jimmy Graham of the New Orleans Saints is sure to get in about a month.
On the other hand, you can bet that the Saints would much rather have Graham secured under a relatively digestible contract than be scraping for cap space to keep their best offensive weapon on their roster. Graham is all but certain to get an even heftier deal (from any team) that will exceed Gronkowski's now-outdated deal.
While there is some risk involved due to the injury factor, locking up a player a year (or two) prior to his arrival on the open market pays off in the long run.
The Watt Effect
One of the players the Jets need to keep an eye on is J.J. Watt, and not just when they are trying to block him on Sundays. Watt is recognized as one of the best defensive players in the league (if not the best), head and shoulders above everyone else at his position, including Wilkerson. He was Pro Football Focus' 2013 Defensive Player of the Year.
Also drafted in 2011, Watt is set to make just under $2 million this season—a criminal rate when compared to his production. Should he hit the open market in 2015, his massive contract will only drive up the price of Wilkerson's, as he can make a strong case to be in the same range as Watt from a statistical standpoint (which is largely what contracts are based on).
Because he was also drafted in 2011, Watt also has a 2015 option on his contract—but at some point, the contractual paths of Wilkerson and Watt will cross.
According to Spotrac.com, the highest-paid defensive end is Mario Williams, who rakes in $16 million per season. The highest-paid 3-4 defensive end is Calais Campbell, making $11 million per season.
While Watt is listed as a 3-4 defensive end, look for him to make something closer to what Williams is making than what Campbell is.
Let's say, theoretically, Watt matches Williams' contract and averages $16 million per season. If Wilkerson hits the open market, he will argue for something very close, perhaps $14 or $15 million per season thanks to the new standard set by Watt.
On the other hand, if Wilkerson is extended now, the Jets can pay him just over Campbell's total with $12 million per season. Wilkerson will get what he wants as the highest-paid player at his position, and Watt can simply leapfrog him next offseason.
The Jets will be paying roughly $10 million more for Wilkerson this season, but it would save them precious cap space down the line, all while giving them security that he won't hit the open market in 2015.
Not extending Wilkerson in the coming months would be shrewd business that makes some sense from a pure financial standpoint, but the Jets are in a position to establish their young nucleus by locking up the best young leader on the roster.
The Jets were in a similar position with Darrelle Revis in 2010 with the previous regime under Mike Tannenbaum. Refusing to budge from their position that Revis had time left on his contract and therefore was not going to be paid as if he were on the open market, the Jets essentially forfeited any possibility to extend their best player in decades thanks to an ugly holdout that burned bridges to a char.
Biting the bullet and giving their star defensive end a sizable contract a year too early would do more than just give the Jets security that their best player won't be wearing a another team's colors anytime soon. It would send a message that the Jets are willing to reward the players on their team who outperform their contracts and establish themselves as cornerstone pieces of the team.
Underpaying Wilkerson for two more years without giving him any financial security is a recipe for a nasty holdout that could result in another situation similar to that of Darrelle Revis back in 2010.
On the other hand, should they let Wilkerson get away by playing hardball with his contract, they will have earned a reputation of being a shrewd team that has little interest in rewarding its top players for the sake of a few million bucks.
Wilkerson is more than just a quality defensive end. He is a leader of what is easily the strongest position group on the team—the defensive line—and is on course to be a name that will be synonymous with that of Joe Klecko and Mark Gastineau.
If the Jets are truly committed to rebranding and separating themselves from the previous regime, giving their best player the financial security he deserves is an excellent way to start.