The 2017 Jets roster is filled with question marks, but one thing is clear: Woody Johnson wants evidence that Mike Maccagnan’s and Todd Bowles’ young core is making tangible improvements. I’ll be revealing my Top 10 Players for 2017 every weekday over the next two weeks. The list is made up of the 10 players that I believe will make the most impact in this watershed season for the Maccagnan-Bowles regime. A player’s accomplished resume does not guarantee him a spot on this list. This is about the present and future, not the past.
The countdown will be filled with surprises.
Top 10 recap:
No. 10: OLB Jordan Jenkins
No. 9: RT Brandon Shell
No. 8: CB Juston Burris
No. 7: S Jamal Adams
No. 6: WR Quincy Enunwa
No. 5: LG James Carpenter
No. 4: RB Bilal Powell
* * *
No. 3 Muhammad Wilkerson
Position: Defensive lineman
Age at the start of the regular season: 27
2017 Salary Cap Charge: $ 18 million (second year of a five-year, $ 86 million contract)
2016 Season in Review
The Jets rewarded Wilkerson last offseason with a monster contract extension that included $ 36.75 million guaranteed at signing. He returned the favor with a clunker in 2016 that included poor production (4.5 sacks), inexcusable tardiness and one infamous no-show that cost him a slice of birthday cake.
Wilkerson was disciplined by Bowles for a second consecutive season for lack of professionalism. He sat out the first quarter of a Week 8 loss at Miami for repeated tardiness/missed meeting(s). Bowles sat Wilkerson for the first quarter against the Giants in 2015 for the same transgression.
Wilkerson missed a walkthrough practice the day before a Week 7 contest against the Ravens, prompting fair questions about whether he actually was the team leader.
The veteran ultimately admitted his faults and promised not to be a distraction. He stayed on the straight and narrow path for several weeks before (unwittingly?) throwing the Jets training staff under the bus late in the season by claiming that it didn’t have a concrete rehab plan for him in the wake of his offseason leg surgery.
It’s unclear how much Wilkerson’s lingering ankle injury (resulting from the leg surgery) contributed to his diminished production that included his fewest sacks since his rookie season in 2011. Bowles insisted all season that Wilkerson’s health wasn’t a significant issue before backpedaling a few months ago. Wilkerson intimated late in the season that his health likely did play a role in his down year.
2017 Crystal Ball
Wilkerson might have been embarrassed into getting his act together. Let’s get real: It was a humiliating campaign for a player with a world of talent. If Wilkerson’s health truly was the source of his struggles, then that shouldn’t be a concern this year.
Impartial scouts and eyewitnesses told me in March that Wilkerson was looking a little hefty at Temple Pro Day. Wilkerson predictably disagreed and posted the obligatory video of his sweaty self on a treadmill to prove his point. He has subsequently taken umbrage with the notion that he mailed it in after getting his big pay day.
I don’t think Wilkerson quit on the Jets after cashing in, but there are two undeniable facts: 1) He finally got the big contract that he longed for after some strategically smart whining through the media and 2) He stunk on the field.
Can Wilkerson return to Pro Bowl form? Absolutely. He’s in his prime with tremendous skills.
Will Wilkerson finally take on the responsibility and accountability of a real leader regardless of whether the Jets are winning or losing? TBD.
(He has a six-year track record of ducking out of losing locker rooms and letting his teammates take the heat.)
One more thing to consider: The Jets can cut ties with Wilkerson after this season with minimal financial damage if he stinks up the joint again. The Jets will save $ 17 million and absorb only a $ 3 million dead money charge against the 2018 salary cap if they designate him as a post-June 1 cut after the season.
The powers that be have discussed this option even though the obvious preference is for Wilkerson to become a game-changer again in 2017.
Next on the countdown: A talented force in limbo.