Muhammad Wilkerson is an absolute force along the defensive line for the New York Jets, which is why the team can’t risk losing him as a free agent this offseason. News broke on Monday that Gang Green is planning to place the franchise tag on Wilkerson to prevent him from bolting this offseason, and it’s absolutely the right move. Wilkerson suffered a broken right fibula during the season finale against the Buffalo Bills, but he expects to be ready for training camp this summer.
While the Jets already have emerging stud Leonard Williams and Sheldon Richardson under contract along the defensive line, Wilkerson and defensive tackle Damon Harrison are both headed for free agency. While Harrison is developing into a really nice two-down run-stuffer, Wilkerson is a difference-maker on all downs. Add to that that in his five-year career he has played in 77 of a possible 80 games and you realize why the two-time second-team All-Pro is a guy New York can’t afford to lose.
The tag for a defensive lineman is projected to cost $15.5 million, and the Jets don’t have that kind of room under the salary cap for 2016. That means they must accelerate their push to sign Wilkerson to a long-term contract, or trade him for assets and then focus on inking Harrison to a deal. Either way they do it, tagging Wilkerson makes the most sense because they can’t risk letting him walk and getting nothing in return.
While a trade is an option, the dream scenario for New York would be getting a long-term deal done quickly. Unfortunately, the two sides have been talking since 2014 with little progress towards an extension.
Wilkerson is a 26-year-old All-Pro defender who is still at the top of his game and should stay there for a while. Given the Jets’ roster situation they can’t just let a guy like that go. They need to be stockpiling talent, not allowing it to walk. Tagging Wilkerson is the right move, now it’s on head coach Todd Bowles to figure out how to deploy all his defensive resources up front.
The Jets could wind up with an all-time great defensive line if they can convince Wilkerson, Richardson and Williams to stick around for a long time. Having those three together would create the kind of unit that could elevate a solid team into the playoffs and a good team to greatness.