The NFL trading deadline falls on Halloween, October 31, 2017 at 4:00 p.m. Ordinarily nothing much happens at the NFL trade deadline. Unlike, for example, baseball, it is difficult to just plug in a newly acquired player at the deadline and see positive results. Consequently the impact trade is far less common in football. The Jets should make every effort to be the exception this year.
We have all seen Muhammad Wilkerson play this year and last, and it hasn’t been pretty. Wilkerson has a grand total of zero sacks and 16 tackles in the first five games of the 2017 season, and has rarely generated pressure. He is on pace for career lows in both categories, excluding his rookie year. Wilkerson has a total of 4.5 sacks in his last 23 games played, making him a glorified run stuffer who isn’t exactly other worldly in stopping the run. In short, Muhammad Wilkerson, in less than two years, has gone from Pro Bowl heights to his current low of being a little better than a replacement level player. How much is that level of play worth? Steve McLendon currently accounts for about $4 million in cap space; is Wilkerson more valuable than McLendon at this point? Even if he is, surely Wilkerson is not an $11.25 million player, which is the amount of cap space the Jets would save by cutting him in 2018.
Given this situation, it is fairly clear that, barring a miraculous last 11 games in 2017 for Wilkerson, Muhammad Wilkerson will not be playing for the Jets under his current contract in 2018. Consequently the Jets should be thinking about maximizing their return for Wilkerson before he has to be cut for zero return in approximately 5 months or less.
Muhammad Wilkerson’s contract contains a poison pill which guarantees his $16.75 million 2018 base salary will become fully guaranteed if he is on the roster on the 3rd day of the 2018 NFL year, which falls on March 16, 2018. Anything the Jets do regarding Wilkerson therefore has a deadline of March 16, 2018. If nothing is done before then the Jets will presumably cut Wilkerson so as not to have his 2018 salary guaranteed.
What can the Jets do? There are two basic options: trade Wilkerson or renegotiate his contract.
Under the current terms of his contract Wilkerson, with a $14.75 million base salary that will go to any acquiring team, is likely untradeable. However, there are ways to get creative here. At the trading deadline Wilkerson will already have been paid half his salary, meaning any acquiring team would only have to take on $7.4 million in salary to acquire Wilkerson. That is likely still too much to get another team to take on a half year rental of an under-performing player, but there are ways around that roadblock. The Jets might agree to take on an unwanted salary of the acquiring team, ala the Sheldon Richardson for Jermaine Kearse trade. If the Jets could acquire a draft pick as well that is something they should strongly consider.
Another possible way to acquire a draft pick would be to convert a substantial amount of Wilkerson’s 2017 base salary into a signing bonus which would stay on the Jets cap after the trade. If, for example, the Jets converted $4 million in base salary into a signing bonus then the acquiring team would only have to take on roughly $3.4 million to acquire Wilkerson for the remainder of the 2017 season. Would that be enough to entice a team to in effect rent Wilkerson for eight games, while also giving them first dibs on renegotiating his deal for 2018 and beyond? Maybe, maybe not. If not, the Jets should consider converting up to about $6 million into bonus money if they can manage to get a 5th round or better draft pick in return. Why $6 million? Because historically 5th round selections have produced, on average, players who would receive approximately $2 million a year for their services on the open market. On a 4 year deal that means an equivalent veteran replacement player would cost about $8 million, while a 5th round pick would cost about $2 million over the same 4 years, resulting in cost savings of $6 million for the 5th round pick. There is of course no guarantee the 5th round pick would ever play or even make the team; he might be worthless, or he might turn into a valuable starter, or even a Pro Bowl player. On average, however, a 5th round pick saves about $6 million over the equivalent performance at free agent market value prices, hence a 5th round pick is worth about $6 million in cap space.
All of this discussion of converting salary into bonus money in order to trade Wilkerson becomes moot if Wilkerson has no intention of being traded. Wilkerson holds most of the cards here; if he wants to remain a Jet the Jets cannot force him to change the terms of his contract, and without reducing the cap hit to an acquiring team no potential trading partner is likely to take on Wilkerson’s bloated salary, even for half a year, unless they can unload a bloated contract of their own on the Jets.
This brings us to the possibility of Wilkerson remaining a Jet. If he wishes to remain on the team for the foreseeable future, what can be done? Under those circumstances the Jets need to sit down with Wilkerson and work out a renegotiated contract. Wilkerson needs to give up the poison pill clause guaranteeing his 2018 salary and change his form of compensation going forward. This can be done in such a way as to give Wilkerson a chance to still earn his big bucks going forward, without making his contract an albatross around the Jets necks. If Wilkerson wants to stay here he should agree to give up the guaranteed salary clause and reduce his base salary for the 2018 season by at least 50%, if not more. The Jets should agree to performance incentives that allow Wilkerson to earn back the money he loses up front in this renegotiated deal. The incentives would be tailored to kick in only if Wilkerson returns to his Pro Bowl level of play, whether that is measured by post season honors, sack numbers, pressure numbers, Pro Football Focus grades, or any other appropriate measure which indicates a return to peak form. Such incentive bonuses will be deemed to be “unlikely to be earned” under the NFL salary cap’s somewhat arcane rules. Any incentives that are based on performance standards not achieved in the prior year are deemed unlikely to be performed. All unlikely to be earned incentive bonuses do not count against the salary cap, making the renegotiated contract much more cap friendly for the Jets, while still allowing Wilkerson to earn his money with a return to a high level of play. Of course there is no such a thing as a free lunch; if the incentive bonuses are earned the increased compensation will be reflected in the following year’s salary cap. However, the Jets would not mind that so much if Wilkerson returns to being a dominant player.
Why would Wilkerson agree to such a renegotiated contract? There’s a good chance he won’t. But we are assuming here that Wilkerson wants to remain a Jet. If he does, he and his agent certainly know he will not be a Jet in 5 months or less if he refuses to renegotiate. If Wilkerson is cut in 2018 he will certainly not get anything close to the same kind of contract he currently has with whomever signs him in 2018. By renegotiating such a deal with the Jets Wilkerson gets to remain a Jet and still has a shot at earning his mega dollars, if his play warrants it. The Jets get another year to evaluate and see if Wilkerson has anything left. It is a win/win deal, or at least as close to one as this situation allows.
The clock is ticking. Once the trade deadline has passed the Jets options become severely restricted, and if Wilkerson refuses to renegotiate the Jets will lose him for nothing in 2018. Time for Jets general manager Mike Maccagnan to get creative and turn this sows’s ear into a silk purse, or at least a prettier sow’s ear. Let’s see what Maccagnan can do.