Time to put on the Jets hat for the day and look at the situation between Muhammad Wilkerson and the New York Jets. Wilkerson is currently not attending offseason activities in part to show his unhappiness with his lack of a contract extension. Wilkerson is reportedly asking for a big contract in excess of $14 million a year which may be too much for the Jets to consider. So let’s explore the market (or lack therof) for 34 defensive ends and focus on Wilkerson’s place with the Jets….
I think one of the difficulties in currently placing a value on a 34 defensive end is that the concept of the position seems to be evolving. In general the typical 34 defensive end was rewarded for doing the dirty work on the field that rarely showed up on a stat sheet. Their responsibility was keeping blockers at bay and opening up lanes for the linebackers to clog and receive most of the glory following the game. Finding players who would often get noticed was rare.
I think a player like Justin Smith, who recently retired, was arguably the best 34DE in recent memory. He was a solid all around player that was always praised by his peers and rewarded with 5 Pro Bowl selections and one All Pro nod, despite never reaching double digit sacks in his career. He was a difference maker for the 49ers. Smith also never earned more than $7.5 million per year in his career playing with the 49ers, a far cry from what his 43 counterparts were making.
The first player to really break the salary system was Haloti Ngata of the Ravens in 2011. Ngata was considered one of the most versatile players in the league, being able to seamlessly transition from a 34 defensive end, to a 34 defensive tackle, or a 43 defensive tackle. Ngata was considered a unique, one of a kind talent that would be named to 5 Pro Bowls and two All Pro teams. The Ravens paid him $12.2 million a year, right on par with the best pass rushers at the time, despite the fact that Ngata best year saw him record just 5.5 sacks.
Towards the end of his contract, however, he seemed to be considered a financial liability (he was traded to Detroit in 2015) as the position was evolving and there were more players than ever capable of providing what was once a uniqueness to the position. What seemed to once be Smith, Ngata, and the Cardinals’ Calais Campbell is now a plethora of names that show the ability to fill a stat sheet and bring more and more versatile play at the position.
The Jets themselves has two of those players in Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson and they anticipated adding a third when they drafted Leonard Williams. Around the NFL is Jurrell Casey in Tennessee, Cameron Heyward in Pittsburgh, Fletcher Cox in Philadelphia, and of course the great JJ Watt in Houston.
It is an expanding position but still one incredibly difficult to value, because of the lack of truly big veteran contracts at the position. At the top of the market is Watt, at $16.67 million, and he has no peer. Any player using Watt as a comparable will likely be told that it’s not valid because he transcends the position similar to an Aaron Rodgers playing the QB position. From Watt there it is a massive drop to Campbell at $11 million and then Casey at $9 million. The drop is steep from there to Jason Hatcher at just under $6.9 million. You could slide a few other players into the argument such as Kyle Williams of the Bills ($10M) who will likely again be asked to play 34DE this season.
This market uncertainty is why Wilkerson is rumored to be looking at the contract of 43 defensive end Robert Quinn as a baseline. Quinn earns just over $14.25 million per season and is a recent contract. It may seem easier to work down from him than up from an older contract like Campbell’s. Quinn, however, produces a monstrous amount of sacks and I can’t really see that working for him or any of these other players. I would think that for Wilkerson or any of the younger players at the position that the best approach is to work within the parameters of the Campbell contract and argue the merits of the increase in salary cap (about 19%) since he signed his deal being a reasonable raise. That would put the contract in the $13 million range.
Is Wilkerson worth that much to the Jets or any other team in the NFL? That may be debatable. Here are the relevant pass rush statistics from Pro Football Focus’ data for the position over the last two seasons for players with a minimum of 400 pass rush attempts combined over the last two years:
|Rank||Player||Sack %||Hit/Hur %||Tot Pres %||Sack Rate||APY|
Wilkerson is above average in terms of generating sacks but slightly below average in total pressures. Is that because of the presence of Richardson taking away opportunities? Is that because of the defense they run? Did he just have a fluke run of plays that turned into sacks? Do the Jets face a ton of short passes that limits his ability to pressure? For the Jets many of those questions won’t matter since he is what he is in this system, which should be similar to what they ran last season despite the new coaching staff. But for other teams those are all very valid questions when they decide if he will be a better statistical rusher in their system than he seems to be in New York, where he will likely be considered second fiddle to Richardson.
Let’s look at the run performance with a similar 400 snap cutoff:
|Player||Stop %||Tck %||APY|
Wilkerson would certainly look to be one of the better run defenders at the position. Perhaps not the best player, but he would be in the conversation among all players not named Watt. While run defense is less valuable these days than pass rushing it is still valuable and will be helpful for Wilkerson.
One thing important to note is that just 20 names make the cutoff on this list. Though some of that is due to positional switches for some players between 2013 and 2014, these are the rarer subset of players who can play all three downs for a team which is a valuable trait. If you do not have a 3 down player clogging up $12 million a year in salary and have to add another $3 million player to cover for him on first down and run downs, you are essentially paying for JJ Watt at the position even though the sum of the two parts will leave the team way short of Watt’s performance.
The other thing we should notice in these charts is how low the salaries are, which just reinforces the point why these are difficult valuations. After this season when many of the young players who are the top performers are extended we will have a better idea of the NFL valuation, but who will be the first to blink is an interesting debate.
When the Jets discuss a fair number for both sides when discussing Wilkerson, my assumption from looking at the above charts and knowing that they have so much invested in their defensive line they likely view him as a lesser player at this point than Calais Campbell. That was probably not the case prior to the 2014 season, but Richardson continued to excel, Wilkerson did not produce at the same level he did in 13, and they invested a high draft pick in Williams. In addition the Jets spent heavily on the secondary making it difficult to spend highly on another unit.
I would imagine that the Jets will work up from the Casey contract when talking with Richardson. Though Casey did not make the run chart above, it was only because of the defensive change in Tennessee, where he played a more traditional defensive tackle spot in 2013. His stop rate was 10.1% in 2014. If that is the case that is a very large gap between the Jets and Wilkerson’s reported asking price.
My gut feeling is that Wilkerson would be able to earn a bigger contract outside of New York than in New York because of all the circumstances with the Jets. The team just spent over $16 million per year on Darrelle Revis to be the “quarterback” of the defense for the next three years. There is almost no way that the team can commit similar money to another defensive player over the same contract term. Richardson and Williams’ contracts won’t overlap with Revis high earning years the way Wilkerson’s would. $30 million per year or even $28 million per year on the two players would be quite excessive and most likely the highest paid defensive tandem in the NFL over the next three years.
Looking at the Jets salary cap structure the next two years I am not sure they should take on another player at the position worth more than $10 million a season. An extension now at anything greater would probably lead to some excessive prorated charges to make it work which is something that the Jets have looked to avoid in their recent contracts. I am confident that Wilkerson would earn at least $12.5 million as a free agent even if his numbers might be lesser than some of the others he is competing with. The Jets will be a better team with Wilkerson this year since Williams is a complete unknown, so I doubt they would consider moving him during the summer since they know at some point he will be a member of the team.
For those you old enough to remember when John Abraham was a dominant pass rusher on the Jets, I see some similarity here. Abraham had questions about injuries and his commitment to the game that Wilkerson doesn’t have, but the general nature of the relationship was that Abraham would be taken care even though the sides were at an impasse and they wanted to see more from him as a franchise player. In that one season, though, the Jets head coach left the team and they re-assigned the general manager. Abraham was considered an afterthought after that but the Jets applied the franchise tag for a second time to hold his rights for a trade, which was eventually worked out with Atlanta for a late first round pick.
The question is would the Jets give up that trade option in the future to keep Wilkerson happy for the year? The worst situation for him would be to see his role reduced this year and then have his list of potential teams limited by the Jets demanding trade compensation if you want to sign him. That might not be easy with the Jets cap, but it was not realistic for the Jets to hold Abraham in 2006 either, but they made it work because of the true value of a draft pick being worth the short term scramble for cap room. The Jets could negotiate a no franchise/transition designation for Wilkerson into his contract to let him know that if he plays well this year he is free to get a deal with the Jets or any other team he wants.
The situation with Wilkerson shows just how fast things change in the NFL. He and former Jets GM John Idzik were rumored to be close to an extension last year but tabled discussions. Idzik was fired and the new regime didn’t seem to focus as much on Wilkerson as the prior one. By March it seemed clear that the Jets priorities had dramatically changed and Wilkerson probably changed his asking price in light of some big defensive contracts signed around the NFL. Now the player who seemed to be the most indispensable piece looks to be the odd man out.
Jason is the founder of OTC and has been studying NFL contracts and the salary cap for over 15 years. Jason has co-authored two books about the NFL, Crunching Numbers and the Drafting Stage, which are widely circulated in the industry and hosts the OTC Podcast. Jason’s work has been featured in various publications including the Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, NFL Network and more. OTC is widely considered the leading authority on contract matters in the NFL.