FLORHAM PARK, N.J.
In a perfect world, Mo Wilkerson gets his money, the Jets lock up one of their best defensive players, and we dispense with the contract talk while looking ahead to the 2016 season.
But this is the NFL, where the financial tug-of-war is as significant as the forward pass. Wilkerson is the latest in a long line of players frustrated over not being paid what he thinks he deserves, and his inability to secure a $100-million-plus deal with the Jets has him bristling.
In an interview with the New York Post, Wilkerson said, “It’s shocking, it’s frustrating, because I feel like I’ve earned it and I deserve it . . . The stats speak for themselves. Basically, what more do I need to do?”
Evidently, his body of work is not enough to convince the Jets to make a significant long-term investment. General manager Mike Maccagnan doesn’t want to make Wilkerson one of the league’s highest-paid players. With the franchise tag at his disposal, a financial tool that owners negotiated for more than two decades ago, Maccagnan would rather keep Wilkerson for the season and risk losing him as a free agent in 2017 than commit the kind of guaranteed money that would bloat the salary cap.
Maccagnan also could use the franchise tag on Wilkerson again next season to prevent him from becoming a free agent, which means this situation is far from over.
There is no doubt Wilkerson deserves a significant raise after playing out his four-year, $6.875-million rookie deal. As the franchise player, he can make $15.7 million on a one-year deal in 2016, but Wilkerson wants a longer deal with more than twice that much in guaranteed money. And therein lies the problem.
Wilkerson places his value at one level — similar to or even greater than the $100-million deal the Texans’ J.J. Watt signed in 2014 — while the Jets place it well below that. The sides have yet to find a middle ground, and a resolution doesn’t appear imminent. It would be a shock if a breakthrough led to a long-term deal.
I don’t blame Wilkerson for asking for as much as he can for as long as he can.
And I don’t blame the Jets for not paying him, at least not Watt money. Why? Because Wilkerson isn’t close to the player Watt is.
Both were drafted in 2011 and play defensive end in a 3-4 scheme, and that’s where the comparison ends. Wilkerson is a very good player, with 36.5 sacks in five seasons, including 12 in 2015. But Watt is a historically great player who will wind up in the Hall of Fame. He has 76 sacks and has won The Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year award three of the last four seasons.
They’re not in the same conversation.
Wilkerson has very good talent around him, including tackle Sheldon Richardson (who is more athletic than Wilkerson, by the way), and has been productive. But he is not a consistent game-changer, certainly not in the mold of Watt or Denver’s Von Miller, the Super Bowl MVP who also has been designated with the franchise tag this year. Wilkerson also is not as disruptive as Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, who recently agreed to a six-year, $103-million deal.
The Jets drafted Leonard Williams in the first round last year, meaning they have a younger, less expensive talent who can play the same position as Wilkerson. If Williams continues to blossom, Maccagnan can designate more salary-cap space to other positions of need rather than tie up a bundle of money in a long-term deal with Wilkerson.
It makes financial sense for the Jets, which greatly limits Wilkerson’s leverage and undoubtedly has contributed to his mounting frustration. But if Wilkerson, still recovering from offseason surgery to repair a broken leg, continues to play at a high level, he will be paid handsomely. If not by the Jets, then by another team once he is able to hit the open market.
In this league, good players are paid well, even if their payday doesn’t come as quickly as they’d prefer, especially those dealing with the franchise tag.
Wilkerson can vent all he wants, but the reality doesn’t change: The Jets don’t believe he’s worth the money he thinks he deserves.
A mere $15.7 million this year will have to suffice.