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The Tangled Future Of The Jets Defensive Line

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William Hauser-USA TODAY Sports

On July 15, 2016 Muhammad Wilkerson was signed by the New York Jets to a five year contract extension which lowered his salary cap hit for 2016.   Prior to Wilkerson signing this extension he had been tagged with the franchise tag, resulting in the Jets carrying Wilkerson at a hefty cap hit of $15.7 million in 2016.  By negotiating a long term deal with a substantial signing bonus the Jets lowered Wilkerson's 2016 cap hit to $10 million.  This provided the Jets with some much needed cap relief for 2016, at the cost of rather large cap hits for the remainder of the five year agreement.  The structure of the deal made Wilkerson all but uncuttable for the 2016 and 2017 season.

When Wilkerson was signed the Jets had every reason to expect the same high level of play Wilkerson displayed the prior few years which earned him a rich contract.  Unfortunately things have not worked out that way.  The 2016 season has thus far been the worst of Wilkerson's career.  He has been so ineffective it is difficult to understand how his level of play could have fallen so far so fast.  There are two main theories as to why Wilkerson has been so ineffective in 2016. Either he is playing hurt, likely due to complications from off season surgery to fix a broken leg, or he is playing without motivation due to his new megabucks contract.  I personally lean towards the playing hurt theory, but regardless of the reason Wilkerson has played so poorly in 2016, his ineffectiveness together with his large cap hits in coming years present something of a dilemma for the Jets.

Due to his salary being fully guaranteed in 2017 and the prorated bonus money on his contract Wilkerson cannot be cut in 2017 without the Jets suffering a large salary cap hit of $8.8 million.  Wilkerson is essentially uncuttable until 2018 at the earliest.  He is also difficult to trade until 2018; trading Wilkerson in 2017 would get his guaranteed base salary off the books but would leave the Jets with  $12 million of salary cap on the books for Wilkerson but no Wilkerson on the roster. That's not a particularly desirable result.  Thus trading Wilkerson before 2018 is problematic.

For 2018 Wilkerson's contract has $16.75 million in non-guaranteed base salary, a $250,000 workout bonus and $3 million in prorated bonus money for a whopping $20 million cap hit.  The $16.75 million in base salary will become fully guaranteed if Wilkerson is on the Jets roster on the 3rd day of the 2018 league year.  To my knowledge the 2018 league calendar has not been finalized yet, but we do have all important dates for the 2017 NFL league year, and the 2018 dates, while slightly different, should be very close to the same, so we'll just use the 2017 dates to give you an idea of how this will work.

Wilkerson's guaranteed base salary clause for the 2018 season presents the Jets with something of a dilemma. The Jets need to decide if they want to continue to commit to Wilkerson on or before the 3rd day of the 2018 league year, which will be March 11, 2018 (again, all dates here are actually 2017 league year dates, but we'll use them as if they applied to 2018).  The 2018 league year will begin March 9, 2018.

Now let's examine three possible scenarios with respect to Wilkerson's level of play going forward.  Of course this is a gross oversimplification, but it should serve to illustrate the basic issues the Jets are presented with.

First, Muhammad Wilkerson might continue to struggle badly throughout the 2017 season.  This case is basically a no brainer decision for the Jets. If Wilkerson continues to struggle there will be no trade market for him in 2017 since any trading partner would be taking on the large base salaries on his contract for a player who isn't close to worth what he is being paid.  In this case the Jets would cut Muhammad Wilkerson on the first day of the 2018 season, March 9, 2018, to avoid having his salary become fully guaranteed for 2018.  That would leave the Jets with $9 million in dead money in 2018 and no Wilkerson, not exactly a great deal, but it's better than being tied to a terrible Wilkerson contract for another year.

Second, Muhammad Wilkerson might regain his Pro Bowl form and return to being the player the Jets thought they were getting when they signed him to his big contract extension.  This of course is the ideal scenario.  It gives the Jets options. Even at that level of play it's possible the Jets will not want Wilkerson on the books at a cool $20 million cap hit for 2018. If Wilkerson is playing at his former Pro Bowl level there will be a trade market for his services, although what the Jets are able to get in return would likely be much less than many fans would want.  The return in any trade is a function of how much the player will cost the acquiring team, how many years of premium play might be expected from the player, and what risk factors there are with respect to the player.  If the Jets wish to trade Wilkerson prior to March 11, 2018, when his 2018 base salary will become guaranteed, they will have two small windows of opportunity. First they will able to trade him any time from the start of the 2017 league year on March 9, 2017 through the 2017 trade deadline, which is November 1, 2017.  That window is problematic, in that Wilkerson has essentially made himself untradeable with his poor play.  Any attempt to trade Wilkerson for 2017 draft picks will be futile; no team would take on Wilkerson's contract with his current level of play.  That leaves the first half of the 2017 season for Wilkerson to return to his Pro Bowl form and create a trade market.  If the Jets wish to trade Wilkerson in 2017 they will have a brief window during the 2017 season when he might become marketable.  In order for a trade market to develop Wilkerson will have to prove he is all the way back, and that can't be done in just a couple of games.  The trade deadline comes after the first eight games of the 2017 season, so there is little room for error. Either Wilkerson dominates in the early part of the 2017 season or there will be no trade market for him.  Even if Wilkerson dominates the trade market will likely be much less than Jets fans want. Wilkerson will be 28 years old by the middle of the 2017 season. That's not old, but it isn't young anymore either.  The dreaded 30 year mark is only two years away at that point.  In addition  Wilkerson's horrible 2016 season will still be fresh in other teams' minds, adding an element of perceived risk to any acquiring team's calculations.

There is also the problem of the general difficulty of making in season trades.  You just don't see many in season trades, especially of star players like Wilkerson. It's just too difficult to plug such a player into a new system on the fly in the middle of the season, and teams are reluctant to pay much to try it.  All these issues will depress the trade value of Wilkerson in any proposed in season trade.  To get some kind of handle on what Wilkerson might bring back in a trade, Jamie Collins is a 27 year old Pro Bowl linebacker who brought back a 2017 3rd round compensatory pick (essentially a sandwich pick between the 3rd and 4th rounds of the draft). Collins had no obvious health or performance risk factors and he was a year younger than Wilkerson will be in 2017.  Brandon Marshall brought back a 5th round pick when the Jets traded for him in 2015.  Marshall was just shy of his 31st birthday at the time and was a perennial Pro Bowl talent who arguably had a better resume at his position than Wilkerson has at his.  Marshall came with character issues as a risk factor, as well as an injury shortened and somewhat disappointing prior season.  These aren't perfect analogies for a trade of Wilkerson, but they give you a sense of what he might bring back in a trade.  Given Wilkerson's age, his horrible 2016 season, and the limited time in which he might redeem himself in 2017, I would guess we're looking at no better than a third round pick, and maybe less, coming back to the Jets in a trade.  If Wilkerson is again playing at a Pro Bowl level I'm not sure why the Jets would go in that direction unless they were for some reason desperate to get out from under Wilkerson's contract.

That leaves a very narrow window in March of 2018 to trade Wilkerson, if a trade is the way the Jets want to go.  No trades can be done between the trade deadline and the start of the new league year on March 9, and if the Jets wish to trade Wilkerson they presumably will want to do so prior to March 11, when his $16.75 base salary becomes fully guaranteed.  They could of course wait and trade him later, but that carries the perhaps unacceptable risk that they might not find a suitable trade partner and the Jets would then be in the position of being stuck with a fully guaranteed Wilkerson contract, making him uncuttable in 2018.  Thus the Jets would be under the gun to consummate a trade of Wilkerson in the first two days of the 2018 league year.  The problem is the rest of the league will be aware of this and will be unwilling to offer up fair value, knowing that if the Jets want to get out from under the contract all an acquiring team has to do is wait and Wilkerson might well be cut, allowing the acquiring team to pick him up without compensating the Jets.  Thus the trade value of Wilkerson might rise in March if he has a full 2017 Pro Bowl type year under his belt, but any such rise might well be counteracted by the tight deadline the Jets face to consummate a trade.  Under the circumstances I doubt Wilkerson's trade value will be much higher in March of 2018.  If Wilkerson returns to Pro Bowl form in 2017 it seems to me the most likely scenario is that he will not be traded or cut by the Jets prior to the 2018 season.

That leaves the middle ground, where Wilkerson's play improves in 2017, but he never regains his Pro Bowl form. Basically this case is Wilkerson becomes a solid but unspectacular starter in 2017.  If that should happen there will be no trade market for Wilkerson given his enormous contract, and the Jets will be faced with a decision of whether or not to cut Wilkerson in the first two days of the 2018 season.  That decision should not be difficult; teams don't carry $20 million cap hits for lunch pail type players.  If Wilkerson rebounds partially but not fully in 2017 it seems to me he will be cut in March of 2018, unless the Jets can work out a large reduction in his contract with Wilkerson.

One consideration as to what to do with Wilkerson in 2017/2018 might be the status of Sheldon Richardson.  Richardson will play the 2017 season under his fifth year option, meaning the Jets will carry him on a one year deal at a cap hit of approximately $8 million.  The 2018 season is where things get interesting for Richardson.  Richardson is having a disappointing season in 2016.  He will need to improve the level of his play in 2017 if he wants to earn the kind of mega contract in 2018 he's been talking about for years.  In 2018 the Jets, in addition to facing a choice with Wilkerson, also have a choice with respect to Richardson.  The Jets can work out a long term deal, or they can use the franchise tag on Richardson, or they can let Richardson hit free agency in 2018 or they can try to trade Richardson.

If the Jets choose to place the franchise tag on Richardson in 2018 it will cost them quite a bit in cap space.  Wilkerson's franchise tag cost $15.7 million in 2016.  If we assume that goes up 7% per year, in 2018 Richardson's franchise tag will cost $18 million.  The Jets will have until March 1, 2018 to place the franchise tag on Richardson.  If they fail to do so and do not work out a long term deal by March 9, 2018 Richardson will become an unrestricted free agent.

If the Jets try to trade Richardson they will have a  limited window of opportunity to do so.  The Jets can trade Richardson beginning on March 9, 2017, the start of the new league year.  They will have from March 9 until April 27, the start of the 2017 NFL draft, to work out an acceptable trade.  If no trade is worked out by then it becomes much more difficult to trade Richardson.  Technically the Jets will have until November 1, 2017 to work out a trade, but realistically few NFL trades are completed after the draft.  Yes, it could still happen, but the best chance to trade Richardson is between March 9 and April 27, 2017.  If the November 1, 2017 trade deadline passes without Richardson or Wilkerson being traded the Jets will be in a bit of a bind.  At that point Richardson will no longer be able to be traded by the Jets unless they franchise him before March 1, 2018, or they work out a long term deal.  If the Jets work out a long term deal they won't be trading Richardson. If the November 1, 2017 trade deadline passes without a trade of Richardson and no long term deal worked out the Jets choices will be to either use the $18 million franchise tag on Richardson by March 1, 2018 or let him go in free agency.

If the Jets use the franchise tag on Richardson in March 2018 and they haven't yet traded Muhammad Wilkerson by then there will then be enormous pressure on the Jets to trade Muhammad Wilkerson in the two days after the start of the new league year before Wilkerson's 2018 salary becomes fully guaranteed on March 11.  The trouble is the rest of the league will know the Jets have urgency here and will likely lowball any offers they make for Wilkerson.  If the Jets fail to work out a trade for Wilkerson and fail to work out a long term deal for Richardson by March 11, 2018, the Jets will then be carrying Wilkerson at a $20 million cap hit and Richardson at an $18 million cap hit heading into free agency for the 2018 season. That would cripple the Jets ability to be a major player in the 2018 free agent market.

The bottom line for all of this is as follows:

1.  It is going to be nearly impossible to trade Muhammad Wilkerson for decent trade compensation prior to his 2018 salary becoming fully guaranteed unless Wilkerson returns to his Pro Bowl form, in which case the Jets probably won't want to trade him.

2.  Realistically the chance to trade Sheldon Richardson probably begins March 9, 2017 and ends April 27, 2017.  If no trade is done by then trading Richardson before he hits free agency becomes problematic.

3.  If no trade for Richardson is worked out he will have to be franchised or a long term deal will have to be worked out. Given Richardson's disappointing 2016 season and his often stated desire for a mega contract, a long term deal will not be easy to work out, nor is it necessarily desirable.

4. If the Jets franchise Richardson like they did with Wilkerson then by March of 2018 the Jets will be carrying Richardson and Wilkerson at a whopping $38 million cap hit going into 2018 free agency, something the Jets likely will not want to do.

5.  Given all of the above the most realistic scenario is that Richardson will be traded sometime between March 9 and April 27, 2017. Waiting past April 27, 2017 to make a decision on Richardson risks painting the Jets into a corner.  There will be zero trade value for Wilkerson until well into the 2017 season at the earliest, and if Wilkerson plays well enough to generate trade interest the Jets will probably prefer to retain him.  As a result, Wilkerson is largely untradeable.  If no trade for Richardson develops by the 2017 trade deadline, then the Jets will be crippled in free agency 2018 by the combined weight of Wilkerson's and Richardson's cap hits.

6.  The Jets could simply cut Wilkerson on March 9, 2018, and will likely do so if he does not return to Pro Bowl form in 2017.   If they do so, however, without first working out a long term contract with Richardson, it is possible the Jets will then end up with no Wilkerson in 2018, $9 million in dead money from Wilkerson's contract in 2018, a disgruntled Richardson playing under the franchise tag in 2018, and neither Wilkerson nor Richardson on the team by 2019.

7.  Just to complete the picture, Leonard Williams' 5th year option will undoubtedly be exercised by the Jets after the 2017 season for the 2019 season.  Since Williams was a top 10 draft pick his option will be more expensive than Richardson's. Currently that option for Williams in the 2019 season is projected to be somewhere in the neighborhood of $13 million.

It is a pretty tangled web the Jets have woven with their underperforming defensive line.  The next year and a half will be very interesting to see what decisions they make.