Mo Wilkerson had been a willing participant in the Jets’ sweeping offseason makeover, a player who was anxious to be heard and enthusiastic about assuming more of a leadership role both on and off the field.
“There’s multiple leaders on the team, and as a defense, we have to look for who’s going to be that voice,” Wilkerson told Newsday in June. “I can be that voice. I choose to step up and be that voice. I’m just ready to be a dominant player and help the team the best I can.”
Such empty words from a player who turned out to be anything but a leader and trusted voice. And anything but a dominant player. And certainly not worth the $86 million the Jets invested in him only last year.
Wilkerson’s final days with the Jets — and there’s no question they soon will move on from him — are a sad reminder of how disappointing he turned out to be after showing such initial promise.
He was considered a cornerstone player, someone to help build a defense around, when the Jets made him their first-round pick in 2011. Instead, he is one of the Jets’ biggest failures.
Their highest-paid player was told not to travel with the team for Sunday’s game against the Saints because he arrived late to the Jets’ facility on Friday. He was late to a team meeting about two weeks ago, prompting coach Todd Bowles to bench him for the first quarter of a Dec. 3 game against the Chiefs. That makes it three years in a row that Bowles has had to discipline Wilkerson for being late, an inexcusable rate for any player, much less the team’s most richly rewarded one.
That’s it for Wilkerson. No more chances. No more patience from Bowles or team management. He’s done. The Jets need to de-activate him for the rest of the season and release him outright at their first opportunity in the offseason.
Some might suggest that the Jets ought to release him immediately, but that’s not the right way to go. With defensive linemen at a premium, there’s nothing to stop a team like, say, the Patriots from signing Wilkerson and putting him on a roster capable of winning the Super Bowl. That would in essence reward Wilkerson for failing the Jets and wouldn’t send the proper message to the rest of the team.
Bowles clearly has had enough of Wilkerson’s act, and when he announced the decision Friday, he repeatedly told reporters that he was only “worrying about the guys I’m coaching.”
Bowles repeatedly has defended Wilkerson during his three seasons as the Jets’ coach, but that time is over. With only three games left in a season that once showed playoff potential but now will end in disappointment, there is simply no defending the indefensible.
Wilkerson has checked out, and so has Bowles when it comes to dealing with the defensive lineman’s inability to offer a positive contribution on or off the field.
General manager Mike Maccagnan also has been a Wilkerson defender, but the player is out of excuses. Maccagnan himself bears his own responsibility in this mess, because he was the one who gambled and lost by re-signing Wilkerson instead of letting him play out the 2016 season on the franchise tag. It would have been better to have him play on a one-year deal instead of investing all that money in a player who hasn’t measured up to a long-term market-value deal.
Wilkerson was an immediate starter as a rookie under Rex Ryan and flashed the kind of dominant play the Jets had envisioned when they selected him out of Temple. But he produced double-digit sack totals only twice in seven seasons and clearly was not in the same class as elite defensive linemen such as J.J. Watt, Fletcher Cox and Calais Campbell. The Jets paid him as a front-line player after he produced a career-high 12 ½ sacks in 2015, but he has had only eight sacks in the last two years. That’s an awful return on the investment.
Maccagnan wisely chose not to plunk down similar money for Sheldon Richardson, who was traded for wide receiver Jermaine Kearse and a second-round pick before the season. Too bad he didn’t take a similar approach with Wilkerson, who now will command nothing in return.
The Jets surely will be done with him after this season and will save $11 million on the salary cap. With plenty of money to spend in free agency, Maccagnan needs to make wise choices and not simply splurge the way he did in 2015, when he overpaid for Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie, both of whom were in decline.
Wilkerson was given every opportunity to be the kind of player he vowed he’d be coming into the season, but he’s out of chances. Like Wilkerson’s penchant for not getting to team meetings on time, it’s too late to let him earn his way back into the team’s good graces.
A miserable end to a once-promising career.