FEBRUARY 29, 5:35pm: The Jets aren’t convinced Wilkerson is fit to serve as the centerpiece of head coach Todd Bowles’ defense, according to Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News, and will entertain trade offers for him as a result. Mehta adds that the Jets are higher on Richardson, who is entering a contract year and will require a significant financial commitment to retain past next season.
GMs and front office executives relayed to Mehta at the combine that they expect the Jets to have difficulty dealing Wilkerson because acquiring him would cost a club plenty in the form of at least one high draft pick and a new contract for the defender. Wilkerson is seeking at least $40MM to $45MM in guaranteed money, per Mehta.
5:08pm: The Jets have applied the non-exclusive franchise tag (worth $15.7MM) to Wilkerson, reports Albert Breer of NFL.com (Twitter link). As a non-exclusive tag recipient, Wilkerson is free to negotiate a new contract with other teams, but the Jets will have the right to match the offer or let him go and collect two first-round picks in return.
9:46am: While nothing is official yet, the Jets still intend to place the franchise tag on Wilkerson before Tuesday afternoon’s deadline, a source tells Kimberly Jones of the NFL Network (Twitter link). The tag will be worth $15.701MM.
FEBRUARY 15: The Jets and pending free agent Muhammad Wilkerson haven’t come close to an agreement on a new contract, and with the 2016 franchise-tag window set to open on Tuesday, the team intends to use its tag on the defensive end, according to Rich Cimini of ESPN.com.
[RELATED: 2016 NFL franchise tag candidates]
Wilkerson, 26, enjoyed his best season as a pro in 2015, racking up a career-high 12 sacks and forcing three fumbles, to go along with 64 tackles. Arguably the best defensive player for the Jets last season, Wilkerson also earned his first Pro Bowl berth.
Although Wilkerson’s performance showed he was worthy of franchise-tag consideration, there were also a handful of factors working against him. He broke his leg during the Jets’ regular-season finale, and while that injury isn’t expected to sideline him at all next season, it complicated his contract situation a little. Additionally, the Jets have two other talented defensive ends on their roster, in Sheldon Richardson and Leonard Williams, so re-signing Wilkerson could be viewed as something of a luxury.
Still, according to Cimini, GM Mike Maccagnan recognizes that Wilkerson is a valuable asset and that the Jets can’t simply let him reach the open market and sign with a new team without getting any real compensation in return. New York will have to clear some salary cap space in order to make a franchise-tag salary fit under the cap, but that appears to be the team’s plan for now.
Based on a projected $154MM salary cap, the franchise salary for defensive ends would amount to nearly $15.5MM, the highest figure for any non-quarterback position. Even though Wilkerson is a 3-4 end, rather than the sort of 4-3 edge rusher who would typically command higher contracts, that defensive end franchise salary will apply to him.
While Cimini predicts Wilkerson will ultimately play out the 2016 season with the Jets on his franchise salary, there are other ways the situation could play out. The club could entertain trade offers for its star defensive lineman after franchising him, or recommit to working out a longer-term agreement to keep him in New York. If the Jets franchise Wilkerson and don’t trade him, the two sides would have until July 15 to work out a multiyear deal this year. Otherwise, Wilkerson would be locked into his franchise salary for 2016.
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