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Mehta: Jets like Muhammad Wilkerson — but only to a point

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Muhammad Wilkerson’s long-term future with the Jets remains as uncertain as ever after the long expected news surfaced Monday that the team willindeed place the franchise tag on him.

Wilkerson will make $ 15.7 million in 2016 under the tag, but here’s the elephant in the room: The Jets remain unconvinced that he should be the centerpiece of Todd Bowles’ defense.

In fact, the organization smartly believes that Sheldon Richardson is the indispensable defensive piece to the puzzle.

The Jets were open to trading Wilkerson before last year’s draft, but no substantive discussions with interested teams (and there were interested teams) materialized. The brain trust will absolutely entertain a tag-and-trade scenario involving Wilkerson now too, but the buzz around the league is that it could be a daunting task.

I spoke to general managers and front office executives in Indianapolis during the Scouting Combine last week, who were skeptical about the Jets’ ability to execute a deal. General manager Mike Maccagnan would trade Wilkerson for a Top 10-15 pick in a heartbeat, but is there a team actually willing to part with such a valuable draft pick AND pay the Pro Bowl defensive lineman the $ 40-$ 45 million in guarantees (at least) that he wants as part of a long-term deal? It isn’t an either/or proposition.

One GM told me that he wouldn’t even part with a package of second- and third-round picks for Wilkerson, because of the large financial investment required to land the Pro Bowler this offseason. He would simply take his chances and make a run at Wilkerson if he hits the open market as an unrestricted free agent in 2017.

The logic is simple for teams that value Wilkerson’s skill set, but don’t want to dole out valuable draft pick compensation and significant money for him. Teams with ample salary cap space will likely need years to be viable contenders. By the time they are ready to consistently compete, Wilkerson, who will turn 27 this season, will be trending downward. Competitive teams that could use the defensive lineman right now simply don’t have the finances to make it happen.

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A second GM also expressed real reservations about Wilkerson’s recently surgically repaired leg. Although Wilkerson, who broke his fibula in the season finale against the Bills, has provided optimistic updates about his rehab on social media, it takes a lot more than 140-character tweets to convince decision-makers around the league.

The consensus among personnel men around the league is that Richardson — not Wilkerson — is the player to keep provided that Richardson proves the can stay on the straight and narrow path. He has the highest upside of any of the Jets’ defensive linemen in the eyes of those evaluators.

Wilkerson might be a New Jersey native, but he’s wisely not giving any hometown discounts. Contract talks last offseason stalled after a great divide in valuation. His patience is running on empty. He’s willing to play for another team that shares a belief in his worth. In other words, Wilkerson is amenable to leaving the Jets for a place that is willing to pay him.

The Jets and Wilkerson’s camp have until July 15 to work out a long-term deal, but that’s unlikely to happen unless one side makes significant concessions. (A team could make Wilkerson a long-term offer if they’re willing to give up two first-rounders, but the chances of that happening are approximately 0.0000001 percent… or less).

The Jets, of course, can buy time by keeping Wilkerson on the roster in 2016. It will give the brain trust another year to monitor Leonard Williams’ development and ensure that Richardson steers clear of off-field trouble.

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Patriots quarterback Tom Brady throws over Muhammad Wilkerson.PETER FOLEY/EPA

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady throws over Muhammad Wilkerson.

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If Jets’ decision-makers feel comfortable enough in Williams and trust Richardson a year from now, then Wilkerson could walk. The team would get a compensatory 2017 draft pick in exchange for losing him in free agency.

Todd Bowles surely would like to keep his defensive line, which also includes impending free agent nose tackle Damon Harrison, together for years, but it’s simply not practical. It’s also bad business to sink so much money into one position group when you can use one piece (like Wilkerson) as an asset to improve other areas of need.

It’s myopic to suggest that the Jets should re-sign all their good players. When you have a surplus in one area, you need to use that to your advantage to address other deficiencies.

A third GM pointed out that the Jets didn’t maximize Richardson’s skill set last season by playing him in a two-point stance as an outside linebacker. Bowles’ rationale made sense — he wanted Richardson, Williams and Wilkerson on the field together as often as possible — but talent evaluators across the league thought that Richardson was being wasted in that role.

Personnel executives, frankly, believe that the Jets will have a dominant defensive line with or without Wilkerson. Richardson and Williams can be the anchors. The team needs a difference-making edge rusher to complement the duo. Trading Wilkerson for a draft pick or two could help to that end too.

Wilkerson is a very good player deserving of his first Pro Bowl berth last season, but the Jets’ actions have spoken much louder than their words: They like him… to a point.

Tags:
muhammad wilkerson ,
sheldon richardson ,
new york jets ,
nfl ,
nfl transactions

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