FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — For Jets defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson, there couldn’t be a more different set of circumstances than what he faced at this time last year. Not in terms of his health, his wealth and his team.
There is no more pain in his lower right leg, which was shattered in the final game of the 2015 season and required surgery. There is no more contractual uncertainty after having signed a five-year, $86 million contract last July. And there is a stunningly different vibe in a locker room now bereft of so many recognizable faces who were swept in an enormous off-season roster purge.
The 27-year-old Wilkerson remains as unflinching as his gaze as he speaks in a corner of the Jets’ locker room about what lies ahead and about his new and uncustomary role as one of the Jets’ elder statesmen.
“It’s part of the business, so it’s pretty much the older guys that are left on the team, we have to step up and be more of a role model and leaders for the team,” Wilkerson told Newsday.
The Jets’ salary cap dump of veterans included Darrelle Revis, Nick Mangold, Nick Folk, Brandon Marshall, Breno Giacomini and most recently David Harris and Eric Decker.
Wilkerson is willing to be more of an outspoken presence, especially after the release last week of Harris, a widely respected leader whose ouster sent shock waves throughout the locker room. It is a different dynamic for Wilkerson, who had previously ceded his vocal leadership presence to the many veterans who clearly felt more comfortable in that role.
“The vocal guys aren’t here anymore, and it wasn’t just Dave,” Wilkerson said. “There’s multiple leaders on the team, and as a defense, we have to look for who’s going to be that voice. I can be that voice. I choose to step up and be that voice.”
It’s as important a role as he’s ever played, and one he believes will be easier now that his health is no longer an issue. Looking back on it now, Wilkerson may have chosen to alter his rehabilitation process, and perhaps waited to resume playing until he was more fully healed.
“I love this game, so it’s the difference between playing hurt and playing injured,” he said. “I basically played hurt all last year. My leg wasn’t feeling the way I wanted it to feel, but I still decided to play through it. I feel like if it happened again, I’d probably change the way things went as far as the rehab started out. Sometimes [last season], my ankle didn’t feel right. Other times, it felt better. But all that matters now is the leg’s feeling good.”
He had one of his worst years statistically, going from 12 sacks in 2015 to just 4 ½ last year. His 58 tackles were his second lowest total since his rookie season in 2011. And there were more than a few suggestions that the Jets had made a mistake in signing Wilkerson to a monster deal in the offseason.
He is intent on changing that narrative, even in the face of a roster transition that has many observers wondering whether the Jets will even win a game this season as a way to be in position to draft a franchise quarterback in 2018.
“I’m just ready to be a dominant player, and play some good ball and help out the team the best I can and be even more of a vocal leader, since Dave is not here anymore.”
How will that dominance be manifested?
“Not only sacks, but quarterback disruptions, batted balls, tackles for losses, doing what dominant defensive linemen do,” he said.
Wilkerson also is unwilling to suggest that this will be a rebuilding year. Or a potentially catastrophic one in terms of the Jets’ record.
“[The roster turnover] is part of the business, but we’ve got guys here who are picking up on the system fast,” he said. “I’m excited to see what they can do once the season rolls around. Even though we lost some older guys and they were wise veterans, these young guys, they’re going to play some good ball. Everybody’s giving energy. It’s a new team. I can tell everybody is excited about the season.”
That starts with Wilkerson, who insists he will provide a more commanding presence.
With his play and his words.