As the salary cap swells and the market for veteran defensive linemen grows, teams hoping to remain on the right side of the spending limit have to decide whether to break the bank to keep talented players at the end and tackle positions or whether to replace them with cheaper in-house options.
The Jets clearly are choosing not to break the bank for defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson.
Wilkerson claims that the team doesn’t “want” him, but he’s wrong about that. The Jets want him, for one more year at $15.7 million. They don’t want to sign him to a Fletcher Cox-style deal, and they presumably don’t want to give him a 20-percent raise over his current franchise tender to keep him for 2017.
As noted by Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News, the Jets have compiled through sound drafting and development a trio of competent defensive linemen: Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson, and Leonard Williams. They can hold the threesome together for one more year, let Wilkerson walk in 2017, and try to replace him with a younger, cheaper player.
If they can’t, the Jets eventually may have to pay something close to market value to Richardson or Williams. For now, though, the one thing that Jets don’t have to do — and surely don’t want to do — is sign Wilkerson to a huge-money deal.
Doing that would serve only to increase the expectations of Richardson, who already has said both he and Wilkerson want to be paid like Ndamukong Suh. Then, if Richardson gets a big contract, Williams will be counting the days for his own large pile of cash.
They can’t sign all three of them to large contracts. They probably can’t sign two of them to large contracts. So, for now, the Jets are taking full advantage of rules that allow them to continue to squat on Wilkerson, a first-round pick in 2011, for one more year before the cost for keeping him for another year spikes to $18.8 million.
Of course, this permits Wilkerson to take full advantage of rules that allow him to skip all of training camp and the preseason and still get the full $15.7 million. And none of the rules prevent Jets players from wondering why a team that hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2010 isn’t rewarding quality in-house players with big contracts, opting instead to throw money at guys who have made their contributions with other teams, like Eric Decker, Brandon Marshall, Matt Forte, and Darrelle Revis (who returned to the Jets after winning a Super Bowl with the Patriots).
This offseason alone, the Jets have squeezed tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson into retirement, allowed tailback Chris Ivory and defensive lineman Damon Harrison to exit via free agency, engaged in a three-months-and-counting stare down with quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, and by all appearances refused to offer a meaningful long-term contract to Wilkerson. The public nature of the Fitzpatrick situation and, more recently, the Wilkerson dispute could eventually create a problem in the locker room.
Coach Todd Bowles has shown that he can deal with anything and everything that comes his way, most notably the fist that came Geno Smith’s way last year. At some point, the franchise’s approach to handling its own free agents could give Bowles a headache that even he will have a hard time resolving.