Now that the Houston Texans have made J.J. Watt the latest member of the impressive draft class of 2011 to receive a huge contract extension, the focus on the New York Jets and Muhammad Wilkerson becomes a little sharper. Many around the NFL would argue that Wilkerson is second best 3-4 defensive end in football behind only Watt, and there is no doubt that Watt’s new contract will be a major influence on negotiations between the Jets and Wilkerson.
There are a few key factors that must be looked at here. Wilkerson’s camp will argue the two are similar players by pointing to last season’s numbers, when Watt had 80 tackles, 10.5 sacks, and 4 forced fumbles compared to Wilkerson’s 63 tackles, 10.5 sacks and 2 forced fumbles. They will also make the point that both the Texans and Jets rely on their star defensive end equally heavily, and they are right about that.
However, the Jets will use the fact that Watt has been named to more All-Pro teams (3 to 1) and Pro Bowls (2 to 0) while also winning a Defensive Player of the Year Award. Additionally, Watt has been far more productive throughout his three seasons, while Wilkerson really only blossomed into a dominant force last year. None of that is meant as a knock on Wilkerson, who is an outstanding player, but the point is that he doesn’t deserve a 6-year, $100 million contract.
It does seem fair to look around the rest of the league, however, and argue that Wilkerson should be made the second highest paid player at the position. Currently, the next highest paid 3-4 defensive end is Calais Campbell, and Wilkerson would easily be able to argue that he is worth more than the 5-year, $55 million contract the Arizona Cardinals gave Campbell. Campbell is a very good player, but both traditional and advanced statistics point to Wilkerson as the superior player.
With that in mind, what could a potential Wilkerson contract look like? Wilkerson turns 25 next month and has never missed a game, so length isn’t a big issue. We know that he will want more than Campbell, but also that the Jets will certainly give him less than Watt. Splitting the difference, a five or six year contract worth $12-14 million annually seems reasonable, and that would put Wilkerson right up there with the highest paid defenders in the NFL. Such a contract would be fair to both sides, and it would reflect both Wilkerson’s standing around the league and his importance to the Jets.
It should be noted, however, that there is zero pressure on the Jets to get a deal done. Wilkerson is under contract through the end of next season (the Jets already picked up his option), and the franchise tag in 2016 would cost much less than a contract extension. However, refusing to pay your best player what he’s worth creates a negative reputation around the league, and it’s not like the Jets have cap problems to worry about.
Maybe a contract extension won’t happen until the offseason, but it is fair to assume a deal will get done by this next time year. Now that the Texans and Watt have set the market for contract extensions for outstanding 3-4 defensive ends, the Jets have the parameters to base Wilkerson’s deal on. Wilkerson won’t quite reach Watt money, but he will certainly receive a huge contract in the not too distant future.