Jets Keep Muhammad Wilkerson With Franchise Tag

Setting the tone for the offseason and upcoming year, the New York Jets have placed a franchise tag on Muhammad Wilkerson. According to ESPN, the Jets want to make sure their Pro Bowl defensive end stays put. Wilkerson was in the final year of his rookie contract that was severely underpaying one of the best defensive players in the NFL.

Wilkerson, who played last season for the amount of his fifth-year option ($7 million), has been seeking an extension for more than a year. Frustrated by the lack of progress, he skipped the voluntary portion of last offseason. The Jets new GM, Mike Maccagnan, is aware of Wilkerson’s frustration and sealed the deal for at least one more year.

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The tag will give Wilkerson a guaranteed $15.7 million for the coming season. While it’s not the long-term deal Wilkerson has been seeking, this payday is a more deserving acknowledgement, in contrast to the salary he was earning through his rookie contract. By rule, the Jets would receive two first-round picks as compensation if they decline to match an offer sheet.

It’s unlikely that any team would surrender that much. The Jets might be willing to take less in a tag-and-trade scenario. The idea of trading their top defensive player in 2015 might seem unthinkable, but the Jets haven’t ruled it out because of a tight cap situation and a surplus of young defensive linemen.

The Jets have until July 15 to negotiate a long-term contract. After that, Wilkerson will play in 2016 for the franchise amount.

Wilkerson has been the rock of the Jets defensive line since joining the Jets as a first-round pick in the 2011 NFL Draft. He is coming off perhaps his best season to date, setting a career-high with 12 sacks while playing stout run defense. He was also responsible for seven pass deflections. Wilkerson’s status, as one of the most productive and versatile defensive linemen in football, puts him in position for a big pay day.

Per NFL Network, Wilkerson ranks No. 3 on their list of most desirable free agents of 2016. So far, New York has played hardball with the talented Wilkerson. They know that the stout defensive end will demand a serious salary for his services.

Further complicating the situation is the Jets’ limited amount of cap space and other players that need to be considered. Defensive tackle Damon Harrison is also a pending free agent. Maccagnan said at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis that the goal was to sign both players. With quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick also approaching free agent status, the job doesn’t get any easier.

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The Jets are looking at a trio of defensive linemen that they want to keep. The bottom line is money. Wilkerson’s contract leverage was hurt when the Jets chose defensive end Leonard Williams with the sixth overall pick in last year’s draft. Williams joined a talented group that included former first-rounder Sheldon Richardson, whose rookie deal expires after the 2016 season.

Maccagnan has hinted that the Jets could possibly put the franchise tag on Damon Harrison. By using the tag on Wilkerson, Harrison can start negotiations with other teams. He realizes that it will be impossible to keep everyone involved.

“Mo is a very good player and, obviously, we’d like to have him with the organization going forward, but… all options are on the table.”

The Jets were lucky to have Wilkerson at a bargain price for so long. He’s currently recovering from a broken leg, suffered in the season finale. Chances are, he’ll miss the offseason. New York will have their trio of studs returning for next season, but they may be going through the same thing with new faces.

[Photo by Ron Antonelli/Getty Images]