Time to Recognize Muhammad Wilkerson as an Elite 3-4 Defensive End

Erik Frenz@ErikFrenzSenior Writer IOctober 2, 2015

New York Jets defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson (96) walks the sidelines during the second half of a preseason NFL football game against the New York Giants Saturday, Aug. 29, 2015  in East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
Seth Wenig/Associated Press

At this point, the "mo' money for Mo Wilkerson" jokes have gotten tired. There's nothing funny about New York Jets defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson's talent level, or the fact that he's still not recognized in the light that he should be recognized: as one of the best players at his position in the entire NFL.

His position is one of the less glamorous in football. As a 5-technique defensive end in the Jets' 3-4 scheme, Wilkerson's primary responsibility is to stuff the run. Instead of charging hard into the backfield, he must hold his own at the line of scrimmage. Instead of being responsible for one gap, and having free reign to destroy that gap as he pleases, he is in charge of two gaps and must be able to make a play in either one.

As a 6'4", 315-pound lineman, Wilkerson is a perfect fit for that style of play. His size and length make him hard to move off the line of scrimmage, as evidenced by his 10 stuffed runs, currently third-most among 3-4 defensive ends through three games, according to Pro Football Focus.

But that's not the only area Wilkerson is dominating. In fact, his overall grade of 12.4 is the highest among all 3-4 defensive ends through three games. 

Yes, even 0.3 points higher than Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, the only 3-4 defensive end who seems to get the recognition he deserves.

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Through three games, Wilkerson has applied more pressure to opposing quarterbacks than any other 3-4 defensive end. Pro Football Focus credits Wilkerson with 14 total pressures (nine hurries, four hits, one sack), more than both Watt and Tennessee Titans defensive end Jurrell Casey (13 each). 

But wait, didn't I just say that 3-4 defensive ends aren't typically asked to generate suffocating pressure on the quarterback? 

That may be true in some schemes, but it is not true in head coach Todd Bowles' defensive scheme. Under Bowles, the Jets ask their linemen to penetrate gaps in the line. Against the Indianapolis Colts, Wilkerson and Quinton Coples engaged in a twist, which created confusion on the offensive line as to who was blocking whom. 

With Coples absorbing the blocker in front of Wilkerson, Wilkerson was able to loop around to the other side before the blocker in front of Coples could respond. Those are the kind of plays that are made possible by great play design, but not every 6'4", 315-pound lineman has the quickness to get from one gap to another in time to hurry the quarterback.

Wilkerson has that, and so much more.

"I think Mo is good in any scheme," Bowles said. "He's just one of those players, he can play two gap, one gap, 3-4, 4-3. His ceiling is as high as he wants it to be. He's a heck of a player."

And the Jets are in the process of learning how high his value could be, too. The Jets and Wilkerson have been talking contract since 2014, but the talks have not resulted in a new deal. Former NFL agent Joel Corry of CBS Sports says Wilkerson should be looking for a contract in the neighborhood of the hefty payday for Buffalo Bills defensive tackle Marcell Dareus:

Wilkerson broke off contract talks at his self-imposed deadline of the start of the regular season to reach agreement on a new deal. The two sides reportedly weren't close during negotiations. Although Marcell Dareus is a 4-3 defensive tackle, the six-year, $95.1 million contract extension the Buffalo Bills gave him only complicates matters for Wilkerson. Dareus' deal, worth a maximum of $100.35 million through salary escalators, contains a defensive player record $60 million in guarantees.

The Jets might have preferred to avoid such a lofty contract, especially after signing so many big deals this offseason, but they may have no choice. Yes, Leonard Williams could develop into a dominant defensive lineman, but the bigger question is whether Sheldon Richardson can keep his nose clean and stay out of trouble.

The best solution for now would be to hit Wilkerson with the franchise tag, which would guarantee him roughly $15.75 million, according to Corry. That way, the Jets could keep Wilkerson and would still get to see how the Richardson and Williams situations play out.

The Jets know they have a great player on their hands. They can't let him walk away for nothing.