There were a lot of things that were supposed to be bad about the Jets season and to their credit they were able to make the most out of what looked like a bad situation, but the one issue that still remains is the relationship with star defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson. Wilkerson signed a monstrous $17.2 million per year contract just last year and was expected to be the leader of the defense if not the team. Things have gotten so bad that Wilkerson has more or less been suspended by the team for the game against the Saints after he missed another team meeting.
Wilkerson’s perceived effort since signing his contract is one of the reasons why teams will always be hesitant to guarantee money. While players generally cant avoid injuries on the field (and in fairness Wilkerson was injured last season) or the natural aging process they can control effort. Unfortunately teams can never be certain about how players react to the big contract and if the effort remains. Whether Kenny Britt with the Browns, who was cut this week, or Wilkerson with the Jets the fear of players giving less than stellar effort is real and pretty much unacceptable.
Wilkerson’s numbers fell dramatically post contract. In 2014 and 2015 he averaged 38.5 tackles, 9.7 sacks, 13.5 tackles for loss, 26.4 QB hits, and 6.6 passes defensed over a 16 game season. Since signing his new contract the numbers are 33.6, 4.5, 7.8, 10.1, and 4.1. His impact numbers have pretty much all vanished and he comes across as just a guy on the field. He simply isn’t producing like the Jets would have hoped and most of it is going to be pinned on effort.
While Wilkerson did break his leg at the end of the 2015 season and may not have been at 100% in 2016, the lack of responsibility he showed was glaring. Wilkerson was deactivated for a quarter last year when he missed a number of meetings. He was deactivated again this year for a similar issue again for a quarter. This time it’s a full game. That’s on the player. He is, if anything, lucky that the Jets have not suspended him for conduct detrimental to the team based on what seems to be a pattern of behavior. Suspensions cost a player a weeks salary and potential a week of prorated bonus money and for Wilkerson that would have been $1.04 million and would have been more of a statement than sitting for a quarter.
Wilkerson’s contract was certainly one of the most bungled in Jets history. This dated back to the days of John Idzik when Idzik dragged his feet on making moves and created a situation where Wilkerson’s market price continued to rise because of the changing dynamics in the league. When Mike Maccagnan took over things continued to go in the wrong direction. Maccagnan’s approach to fixing the team in his first season mainly consisted of spending on free agents to fill big holes and also seemed to draft a Wilkerson replacement. Wilkerson sat and waited while his rookie contract expired.
It was no secret the Jets were shopping Wilkerson and looking for too high of a price while they controlled his rights under the Franchise tag in 2016. In a stunning decision Maccagnan at the last minute seemed to change course and decided to sign Wilkerson to a long term contract that gave Wilkerson just about everything he had been looking for and more. It cost the teams millions more than it would have had they signed in 2014 or 2015 and probably more than if they just signed him in early 2016 rather than playing the tag game.
Wilkerson has a $20 million salary cap charge and a $17 million salary in 2018. Those figures rank 4th and 3rd in the entire NFL for non-quarterbacks. There is no feasible way that either would happen in New York or anywhere else. The Jets paid Wilkerson a $15 million bonus when he signed his contract so they would take on a $9 million cap charge if they release him next year. While that number seems big it would represent $11 million in cap savings and $17 million in cash savings meaning it should be a guarantee to happen.
Wilkerson’s salary is guaranteed for injury next season and becomes fully guaranteed on the 3rd day of free agency. I mentioned this a few weeks ago when the Jets had fallen out of the playoff chase and stand by my statement that there is no reason for the Jets to allow Wilkerson to see the field again in uniform. The way these injury guarantees work is that the player has to be incapable of passing a physical in order for the injury protection to activate. If Wilkerson were to get injured and not be able to pass that physical in March his salary would then be fully guaranteed for the season. You protect yourself by benching him and not allowing that injury protection to mean a thing.
There is no logical reason for the Jets to use what is called a June 1 designation when the decision is made to release him. The June 1 designation allows a team to spread the dead money across two years (rather than $9 million in 2018 it would be $3 million in 2018 and $6 million in 2019) but if the team did that they would carry the full $20 million cap charge through free agency.
The Jets have so much cap space next year (projected at well over $70 million) that there is no valid reason to worry about a $9 million dead charge. While dead money in the past was a hindrance and may still be to some teams, the rules that allowed teams to carry over huge amounts of cap room year to year and frontload cap charges has made the concept of dead money relatively moot unless you are one of the few teams that simply mismanages the salary cap every year.
While the Jets could waive Wilkerson now and try to save the last $2.6M of his contract if he was claimed via waivers its doubtful the Jets would do that. I’d think the last thing the Jets would want to do is reward what seems to be behavior that seems to indicate a hope to be released by cutting the player and allowing him to play for a team like the Patriots in the middle of a playoff run.
The Jets have struggled with some of their contract decisions in recent years and Wilkerson’s contract is probably going to be at the top of that list. Its not a great look for the GM when so many decisions seemed to blow up so quickly but its something you learn from in the future. The Jets will be faced with a similar scenario starting with Leonard Williams who will be extension eligible this January. Williams hasn’t set the world on fire but hes been a good player and if they still believe in him they should get that contract done this summer. If not and they head down this same path it will just be repeating mistakes for no reason.
As for Wilkerson there is still name value and teams that will think that he can be fixed with a change of scenery. Much like this year there will be talk about how hes the healthiest he has ever been, in the best shape of his life, and so on and then they will keep their fingers crossed for a better result. I would guess he is looking at a two year $14-$16 million contract with half guaranteed which is a far cry from his current situation, but at that price there should be some market for him.
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.