Controversy and the New York Jets have become synonymous over the years, but not over well-mannered, star players like Muhammad Wilkerson. Headed into his fourth professional season, Wilkerson has established himself as one of the top young defensive linemen in the NFL and one of the new age of cornerstone players on the Jets.
Everyone agrees that Wilkerson is a good football player. Where Wilkerson ranks in the crowded group of premier, young, defensive players throughout the NFL remains up for debate.
Known as one of the top advanced statistics resources available to the public, the folks at Pro Football Focus (PFF) were among the first to recognize Wilkerson's greatness in just his second season. In 2012, PFF ranked Wilkerson (subscription required) as the No. 2 defensive lineman in football, second only to the great J.J. Watt.
With Wilkerson's numbers rising in his second season (notching a team-high 10.5 sacks), one would only assume that his increasing popularity in the mainstream would only validate PFF's original findings.
However, despite this statistical spike in production, based on their own numbers, Wilkerson took a significant step back in his third season:
While he was second only to Watt a year previously, this past season he was our eighth-ranked 3-4 defensive end and even in terms of total pressures could manage no better than sixth.
Keeping these numbers in perspective is important—PFF is not claiming that Wilkerson was a liability by any means. He was, in their eyes, a notch below the "elite" level that is occupied by the likes of J.J. Watt, a region he occupied in 2012.
Still, as deliberate and systematic as PFF's numerical rankings are, they are still based on subjective film analysis conducted by flawed human beings, and their findings can certainly be debated.
After his spectacular 2012 season, the general public was more aware of Wilkerson in 2013. Combined with the fact that he was taking over the team in more of a leadership role, Wilkerson's visibility alone played a factor in raising his stock in the eyes of the average viewer.
After missing the list completely in 2013, Wilkerson vaulted to No. 42 in NFL Network's Top 100 player rankings. In what was supposedly a sub-par year for Wilkerson, he was elected as team MVP by his teammates.
Who is closer to the truth—the fans and teammates of Wilkerson or the film-crunching database compilers?
While they left him off their almighty top 100 list, even PFF would admit to making a close call in leaving Wilkerson off the list completely. According to their own numbers, Wilkerson was on the field more than any defensive end in football, playing a grand total of 1,067 snaps. With that much wear on the tread, production per snap is bound to decrease.
They also admit that his penalties played a large part in his lessened grade, noting that "if you remove his penalties from the equation (an equal mix of pre-snap flags for jumping early and roughing the passer calls), he jumps up the rankings to a comparable grade with Sheldon Richardson" (Richardson ranked 81st on their list).
Whether or not Wilkerson deserves to be a part of an arbitrary list is only a small part of the story. The real question is whether or not Wilkerson deserves to be mentioned with the likes of Watt or even his own teammate Richardson.
Richardson may have been the superior player in the eyes of the advanced statistician, but the impact each player had on the game last year could not be accurately represented by play-by-play grades. Their own numbers reflect that while Richardson's overall grade indicates he was more dominant, Wilkerson was far superior as a pass-rusher—a much more rare talent to find in interior defensive linemen.
Pro Football Focus
The numbers indicate that while Wilkerson was inferior to Richardson in the run game (just about every defensive lineman was last year), he was far superior rushing the passer. In fact, when taking into account Richardson's negative pass-rushing grade, one could argue that Wilkerson's more well-rounded game automatically makes him a superior player.
Wilkerson nearly tripled Richardson's total sacks, doubled his quarterback hits and had a dozen more hurries. No wonder his teammates looked to him as the most valuable member of the team.
Another argument against Wilkerson is the fact that he was surrounded by such spectacular defensive talent. While that claim is true, it does not apply quite as strongly in the passing game as it does the run game. Not only was Richardson less-than-stellar against the pass, but nose tackle Damon Harrison was hardly dominant in this area as well, grading slightly better than Richardson (-3.8).
He was hardly aided by highly touted pass-rusher Quinton Coples, who had a quiet season while nursing a surgically-repaired ankle (-10.3 grade).
It would also be irresponsible to ignore the fact that he was playing behind one of the worst pass defenses in the NFL. The fact that Wilkerson notched 11 sacks in front of the fourth-worst coverage unit in the NFL (according to PFF) is beyond impressive.
At the end of the day, there are simply few defensive players on the planet—never mind Jets defenders—that are capable of making plays like this...
Was Wilkerson overrated in 2013? In a way, yes—there is no debating the fact that when taking into account his overall on-field performance, his sophomore campaign (that was buried underneath an embarrassing season for the Jets) was superior to his 2013 season.
Yet, the perception of Wilkerson has only increased in the eye of the average viewer simply because they are now caught up to his greatness on the field, in part thanks to the fact that the Jets simply had a better season in 2013.
However, while the sum total grade of his snap-by-snap performance may be lower, there are plenty of coaches who would prefer to have the 2013 Wilkerson on their team over the 2012 version, regardless of statistical grades. Having an interior pass-rusher who can bring down the quarterback 11 times without much help is an invaluable commodity in the modern, pass-happy NFL.
Wilkerson may have taken a slight step back in overall performance in 2013, but he produced when it counted most: when it was time to get after the quarterback.
That trait alone, especially in the environment he did it in, puts him in the elite category of 3-4 defensive ends in the NFL.