Since the New York Jets drafted Leonard Williams with the 6th overall pick in the draft, a common question has been if the Jets should look to keep all three of Williams, Sheldon Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson long-term. In the fallout from Sheldon Richardson's four game suspension, there has been a debate if this would sway the balance to where Richardson is ultimately going to be the odd one out.
Earlier in the offseason, it seemed if any of them would eventually move on it would be Wilkerson. Richardson is a year younger, with two years left on his rookie-scale contract and a further option year that would certainly be applied by the Jets if he wasn't yet under a long-term contract. They are both great players but Richardson might already be better, certainly at least in the eyes of his fellow NFL players who ranked him the 55th best player in the league, compared to 74th for Wilkerson. Only two years into his professional career, Richardson might also have more room to continue developing. The suspension does have an impact here though, this would have been at least his second failed test and he would have been made fully aware that he was in Stage 2 of the Substance Abuse Program with a suspension looming. The revised terms of the substance abuse policy as negotiated between the NFL and Players Association last year are generally more lenient towards positive tests for marijuana, but even so another failed test would mean a 10-game suspension plus bring with it the dreaded Stage 3, and the looming threat of banishment for at least a full year. Any other regulated substance will skip Richardson straight to that full missed season.
With this, and Richardson's previous comments suggesting Wilkerson should hold-out if needed and look for 'Suh money', it might start to look like Wilkerson is the safer choice in the longer-term. Especially if the price demands between the two are significant enough to where the Jets may be able to afford Wilkerson and another useful regular for the money they would need to pay Richardson. Helpfully, for Mike Maccagnan, even if it does come down to a choice between the two of the best players on the current Jets roster, it won't be a choice that has to be made right away.
Of course, the Jets already have Wilkerson under contract for the rest of this season on his fifth-year option, and they have the option of the franchise tag next year. Wilkerson may not be thrilled by playing two further seasons without a long-term deal, but the Jets have the option of asking him to do just that. However, the Jets can give him a long-term deal now, hopefully for a lower annual cost than the franchise tag - likely upwards of $15 million next year. In rewarding a key contributor and removing the threat for a holdout, the Jets will be committing significant future salary. A frame of reference for the market might be the contracts of Pro Bowl defensive ends Calais Campbell and Cameron Jordan; 5 years, $55 million. Jordan's deal earlier this summer came with about $33 million guaranteed. Wilkerson's deal may end up being in a similar ballpark, perhaps somewhat higher on both total dollars and guaranteed commitment.
Committing big money to key player like Wilkerson may not necessarily need to hamper flexibility though. As John has pointed out here, Maccagnan's first offseason as Jets manager may have seen a big financial outlay but in general the lack of massive signing bonuses has allowed the Jets to retain valuable flexibility. These deals do require big cap-hits earlier than contracts with heavy signing-bonuses, and the Jets do have less cap space in 2016 with which to maneuver, but Maccagnan does have ways to open up room.
The Jets have $151 million tied up for next season, already a higher number than the salary cap this year, but the cap is expected to rise in 2016; perhaps as high as $160 million. In any case, the Jets have five players - D'Brickashaw Ferguson, Brandon Marshall, Nick Mangold, Antonio Cromartie, and Quinton Coples - who each could bring potential cap savings of over $7.75 million. There is up-to $43 million available to trim from just those five, and while Mangold and Marshall should earn their 2016 salaries if they stay healthy, the other three might all need to take pay cuts to stay on the roster.
The upshot here is Maccagnan has room to sign Wilkerson to an extension with a first-year cap hit of $10+ million, thus opening up the possibility of a five year deal with the first three years guaranteed and a low signing bonus. This means minimal dead money after year four, and even if the team did look to move on from Wilkerson within the first three seasons of an extension there is always the possibility of a trade. Consider the Percy Harvin trade, not the one Jets fans might remember all too well but rather the Vikings to Seahawks deal. Seattle sent Minnesota a first-round pick, a seventh-round pick, and a third-round pick the next season, all for the privilege of paying Harvin $67 million over six years. Even for contenders in the NFL willing to pay market value, there is a premium on talent.
Should the Jets find themselves heading into 2018 with Richardson and Williams both performing at a high level, and if the team decides there are better ways to spend the eight figure sum they would have devoted to Wilkerson, he should have plenty of interest on the trade market.The hypothetical perfect trade partner would be a team built like the present day Colts; a great offense but perhaps a defensive line anchor away from being the Super Bowl favourites. The trade haul there could be significant, but even without such an obvious match a then 28-year old Wilkerson with one guaranteed year and effectively two options should be an extremely appealing asset.
Because of how team-friendly deals are in the NFL, there is usually value in keeping talented players where the cap figures make sense, making decisions only when forced. In this specific case though, there is even more reason to extend Wilkerson now and delay any choices by at least a couple of years. Right now the other two key players on the defensive line come with significant uncertainty, but the picture should clear up somewhat in the coming seasons.
Two years from now, if Richardson has managed to stay clean, he could have completed Stage 2 of the NFL Substance Abuse policy. If the regional NFL medical officers are happy with him following the training program, it is possible that he would no longer be tested regularly in-season, and go back to the once-a-year test before the season starts. At this point, the Jets might have a lot more confidence in giving Richardson a long term deal. On the flip side, another failed test and he could have already missed another 10 games and find himself in Stage 3. This would naturally change Richardson's career and contract outlook, but the Jets don't have to price that uncertainty just yet. They can wait this season out, and next if necessary, and make a decision with more certainty. As for Williams, the team should have a much better idea of what kind of player they have on their hands two seasons into his career compared to where he is now; a highly regarded rookie but a rookie nonetheless.
In the end, it is entirely possible that the Jets will need to choose between Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson. If the team is to compete in the longer-term it will need to manage effectively its valuable cap space, and paying three Pro-Bowl level players at the same position may not be the best way to maximise value. Helpfully though, by giving Wilkerson an extension now they can push that decision to where it is made later rather than sooner. Hopefully where the front office can make a much more informed call on a decision that has the potential to alter the future of the franchise.