It wasn’t that Muhammad Wilkerson didn’t have anything to say. He most certainly did. It’s just that others were there to say it for him.
But now that he is heading into his seventh season and playing for a Jets team that has transformed itself into a much younger one than at any previous point in the defensive end’s career, it’s time to talk.
“I’ve always had it in me, but I always had a lot of older guys here who spoke more than I did,” Wilkerson, 27, told Newsday after practice Thursday afternoon. “So I didn’t necessarily have to be vocal. But those guys are no longer here, so I just took it upon myself to speak up more.”
It is a new role for Wilkerson, and he embraces it as he prepares for what he hopes will be a transformative season — both for himself and his newly recast team.
He has personal goals in mind, although he will keep any statistical milestones to himself. There are team goals that go beyond individual accomplishments. That’s why he frequently has urged teammates, both in group settings and individually, to improve their concentration and effort in practices.
As the Jets prepare for their second preseason game tonight against the Lions at Ford Field in Detroit, Wilkerson will continue to take the leadership role he began to embrace early in the offseason. And with almost universal agreement from outside the organization that this will be an epically disappointing season record-wise, Wilkerson is heartened by what he sees from inside the locker room. It’s the Jets against the world, and that’s fine with him.
“I think that’s what we are,” he said of the no-one-believes-in-us dynamic. “We hear all the noise, but we don’t care about it. We know what we’re doing here at 1 Jets Drive, putting in the work each and every day, competing against each other, learning and trying to get better mentally and physically. We’re doing all the things we need to do to prepare and get ready for the season, and that’s all we can do.”
Wilkerson enjoys a rare luxury on this year’s team by being a member of the most accomplished unit on the roster — a defensive line that includes Leonard Williams, a rising star at defensive end; defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, a former first-round pick, and veteran tackle Steve McLendon.
Almost every other grouping on the team is far less experienced and talented, so the defensive line has the burden of being counted on to carry the team through what could be an extremely difficult period.
Wilkerson insists he is up to the task. Said the 2011 first-round pick, “I love this game, I play it with a passion, and it’s all about coming out here, another year, to get better, stronger, faster and help the team out as best I can.”
The sweeping roster turnover has in some ways energized him.
“From my rookie year to now, there have always been a lot of different guys on the roster, new guys each and every season,” he said. “There are more younger guys now, but at the end of the day, the guys they brought in can play ball. They just have to come in, know their assignments and do their job, just like everybody else.”
Wilkerson vows to lead by his words and his example, and toward that end, he is intent on improving on last year’s production. After signing a five-year, $86-million contract extension in July 2016, he had one of his least effective years with only 4 ½ sacks. He says he wasn’t fully recovered from an ankle fracture suffered at the end of the 2015 season, but he no longer is limited by the injury.
“I have goals, but I’ll keep that number to myself,” he said of targeting a sack total. “I just have to make sure each and every week I’m working hard on the practice field to make sure I can achieve those goals come game time.”