According to Jason LaCanfora, Jets star Defensive End Muhammad Wilkerson, will not attend the team’s voluntary offseason workout program that begins today. Wilkerson is in the final year of rookie contract that will pay him $6.969 million but had been hoping for a contract extension that would solidify his status as the defensive leader of the Jets. While these workouts are voluntary and there is no reason for Wilkerson to attend (Wilkerson has no workout bonus in his contract) usually such absences in today’s NFL are to show a sign of unhappiness with a contract unless the player is one who simply never attends these programs.
Wilkerson’s situation illustrates just how fast things change in the NFL. It was rumored last year that he and former GM John Idzik had worked on paramters of a new deal and the sides were somewhat close on an extension. For one reason or another the deal was never completed and Idzik was fired as soon as the season ended. With a new regime in place that take a contract year player like Wilkerson and bring the negotiations right back to step one.
The dynamics of the negotiation may have completely changed at this point. From the Jets side you have a new GM and coach that may have a very different opinion on Wilkerson than the former staff. Mike Maccagnan, whose background is in scouting, may not have graded Wilkerson as high as the Jets did and may prefer to see him more on a practice field before he is convinced of the high worth. He was also very close to JJ Watt and may hear any comparison to Watt and immediately not consider it valid. He also may not just believe in early extensions or that other positions are more important to target.
From Wilkerson’s side the price has likely gone up in light of recent contracts signed in the NFL and more specifically signed by the Jets. The Jets went on a wild spending spree this offseason that included $16 million a season to Darrelle Revis, $8 million to Antonio Cromartie, $7.5 million to David Harris, and over $6 million to 3rd string corner Buster Skrine. With the market for defensive linemen being completely turned on its head with the Dolphins QB like contract with Ndamukong Suh there is no reason for Wilkerson to hold to any contract based on numbers from 2014. If Wilkerson sees himself as the leader of the defense then there is almost no reason to settle for much less than $16 million a year and with a very large guarantee that mimics those of Revis (55.6%) and Harris (69.8%) in terms of percentage of contract truly guaranteed.
In hindsight, this really was a contract the Jets needed to get done last season regardless of Idzik’s status. All the uncertaintly of free agencies impact on the team would have been avoided and they likely could have gotten him done at a better price for the team. Why they did not focus on him is still a bit of a mystery to me.
One of the misperceptions about the Jets is that they no longer have the cap room to extend Wilkerson. The Jets have close to $12 million in cap space and that figure includes Wilkerson’s current cap charge. The team could give him significantly more money this year and only knock a few million more off the number. The Jets just need to maintain some flexibility for the contract in 2016, where they will likely be closer to the bottom of the NFL in cap space.
The reason I say that is that the Jets are in a position where they have to make certain they have something available to spend in the event a quareterback does become available. Currently Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, and Cam Newton could possibly hit free agency next season. It is also possible that Drew Brees will be available next offseason. While it is highly unlikely all would be available, there is a possibility one would be available and for a QB needy team like the Jets they need to be able to make the strongest pitch for the player. So any additiona extensions will likely need to be designed to maximize that potential.