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New York Jets Finally Give Muhammad Wilkerson the Reward He Deserves

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystJuly 15, 2016

FILE - In this Saturday, Aug. 29, 2015 file photo, 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 in East Rutherford, N.J. The New York Jets have signed Muhammad Wilkerson to a five-year contract extension, beating the deadline after which the Pro Bowl defensive end would have had to play this season under the franchise tag amount of $15.7 million, Friday, July 15, 2016. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)
Associated Press

For most of the 2016 offseason, the New York Jets and defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson were like two siblings engaged in a bitter dispute. Both had retreated to their respective rooms and scrawled “KEEP OUT!” on a hastily made sign that was then stuck to the door with an angry thud.

It seemed the Jets had also added a second sign that read “NO WILKERSONS ALLOWED!” while attempting to do a delicate salary-cap dance.

But deadlines have a funny way of toying with the human mind as pivotal decisions draw near. Jets general manager Mike Maccagnan surely saw Friday’s deadline to sign franchise-tagged players crawling closer and realized a team-altering mistake was looming.

One of the best and most versatile defensive linemen the NFL has to offer was under his control. Sure, the Jets had drafted a safety net in the form of Leonard Williams in 2015, and he would have far exceeded the average next man up if Wilkerson sat out regular-season games.

Did Maccagnan really want to be the guy who stoked the fire with Wilkerson again and risked further alienating a 26-year-old defensive cornerstone just entering his prime years?

No, of course, he didn’t want that. So Maccagnan shrugged, sighed and ripped down that sign on his bedroom door. Then he knocked on Wilkerson's door and gave him what he’s deserved all along: a contract on par with the league’s highest-paid defenders.

NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport broke down the details:

Ian Rapoport @RapSheet

#Jets 5-yr deal for Mo Wilkerson is for more than $85M, source said, with $54M in guarantees over 3 years. $37M fully guaranteed thru year 2

The agreement was jarring given all the hostilities dragged out over months, highlighted by Wilkerson sitting out OTAs and minicamp. Although there was a point when it felt like hope was first floundering and then fading, both sides had their understandable motivations for being dug in so deep that their heels met the earth’s core.

The Jets were (and are) fully aware of Wilkerson’s talent and his ability to anchor their defense for many years. However, they’re facing another issue that’s also slightly important on the other side of the ball with quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick still unsigned.

But as former agent and CBSSports.com analyst Joel Corry noted, signing Wilkerson to a new long-term contract could help the Jets on the Fitzpatrick front. They had only enough money to buy a cheap dinner by NFL salary-cap standards before the deadline deal Friday.

Now there’s at least hope for a short-term compromise with Fitzpatrick since the Jets aren’t paying Wilkerson a fully guaranteed $15.7 million in 2016 under the franchise tag.

Joel Corry @corryjoel

Muhammad Wilkerson's deal could free up salary cap room for a 1 year deal with Ryan Fitzpatrick. Jets had $3.425M of space before the deal.

So there is a scenario evolving here where everyone wins, although plenty of uncertainty is still hovering around Fitzpatrick. What’s important right now is that logic prevailed over emotion, and the Jets finally gave Wilkerson what he earned.

That was his simple motivation all along, and it’s an easy one to understand. As a player, there are fleeting opportunities to get what you’re worth while playing in a league that puts rigid financial obstacles in your way. Wilkerson was handcuffed by the franchise tag, and it could have prevented him from getting long-term security.

He had placed a check mark beside every box on the unofficial evaluation sheet we use to gauge whether a pass-rusher should be given top-tier money.

Can he consistently create pressure? Sure, as Wilkerson was second among 3-4 defensive ends in 2015 with 78 pressures, according to Pro Football Focus.

And can he finish the job even from the interior? Let’s go with a nod there too. Wilkerson posted a career single-season high 12 sacks in 2015. That ranked third among all interior defensive linemen behind only the Houston Texans' J.J. Watt and the Cincinnati Bengals' Geno Atkins. His sack total wasn’t a one-year fluke either, as in 2013—Wilkerson’s last fully healthy 16-game season prior to 2015—he recorded 10.5 sacks.

Oh, and what about defending against the run? That’s even more critical on the inside. Wilkerson’s pass-rushing production shows he’s much more than some one-dimensional lug, but he can plug running lanes too. The 6’4”, 315-pound minitractor has produced three seasons with 60-plus tackles, and in 2015 he finished with 21 run stops, per PFF.

He’s the sort of quick-moving, but still powerful, lineman who does things that don’t seem scientifically possible at his size. Which is why eventually common sense won in this standoff.

As Rapoport also noted, instead of using the tag to squat on a player, the Jets went in the other direction toward its designed purpose—to set a baseline value:

Ian Rapoport @RapSheet

Looking at the #Jets deal for Mo Wilkerson, it seems they paid him about what consecutive franchise tags would be. Solid blueprint.

Now Wilkerson will receive more guaranteed money than any other defensive end, according to Spotrac. That includes Watt ($51.9 million) and the New York Giants’ Olivier Vernon, who was this offseason’s shiniest prize ($52.5 million). And among all defenders, his guaranteed money ranks fifth.

That’s quite the course correction for a player who dealt with buzzing trade rumors leading up to the draft in April, and until late Friday afternoon, he seemed destined to sit out throughout August and into September too. Beyond that, October also wasn't out of the question.

But here we are with peace in the Jets kingdom, at least as far as Wilkerson is concerned. Now they just need a quarterback.

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