The NFL's free agency is still two weeks away but the first moves are already in the books. One of the most noteworthy transactions so far happened yesterday when the New York Jets released defensive tackle Muhammad Wilkerson just two years after he signed a five-year, $86 million contract extension. Letting Wilkerson go frees up an additional $11 million in salary cap space for the Jets, but also creates a whooping $9 million in dead money.
The move is not a surprising one, though, as the Jets were expected to move on from the high-priced defender after bad two-year stretch both on and off the field. Still, timing and method of departure are noteworthy: By releasing Wilkerson now, he is free to sign with any team before free agency officially opens on March 14. Furthermore, signing him would have no impact on a team's compensatory draft pick formula as only players whose contracts expired are part of the calculation.
Putting all those things into consideration, the New England Patriots should not hesitate to take a look at the 28-year old defender. While Wilkerson's play has not been up to his price tag ever since he suffered a broken leg during the Jets' 2015 regular season finale, there is no denying his talent: When fully healthy – something he was not during the 2016 and 2017 seasons – and committed the former first round draft selection is a disruptive three-down defender.
Wilkerson proved that during his first five years in the NFL when he averaged 7.3 sacks, 17 quarterback hits and 60 tackles per season. He was a player to look out for at the heart of the defense. Since then, however, his play has declined drastically. While the 6'4, 305 lbs interior defender has still been stout against the run, his pass rushing left a lot to be desired and he registered only 8.0 sacks and 18 quarterback hits over the past two years – all while disciplinary issues reared their ugly heads.
After reportedly being late multiple times over the past three years, New York decided to bench the veteran for the final three games of the season more or less sealing his fate: By keeping Wilkerson out of harm's way, the team would not have to worry about the injury-guarantee of his 2018 salary kicking in. Now, the Jets opted to go for the easy out and released their starting defensive tackle – and, as noted above, the team's AFC East rivals from New England should check him out.
The Patriots' defensive line left a lot to be desired in 2017 both on the edge – due to a combination of injury, retirement and free agency departures – and on the interior as well: New England's defensive tackles were inconsistent against the run and when it came to generating pressure in the passing game. For example, only 9.5 of the Patriots' 53.0 sacks were produced by the team's interior linemen (not including edge players being moved to the inside on obvious passing downs).
Part of the reason was the composition of the depth chart: While Malcom Brown and Lawrence Guy had a solid year, the overall rotation at the defensive tackle spots lacked quality outside of the two starters. Rookie Adam Butler and in-season pickup Ricky Jean Francois played surprisingly well but were still downgrades from Brown and Guy, two players whose strengths primarily lie in the running game. Add Alan Branch, who took a big step back this season, and it can be seen why the defensive interior did not live up to its expectations.
This is where Wilkerson might be able to help. While his recent issues cannot be denied, the same goes for his upside and what he would bring to the table: proven playmaking ability against both the run and the pass, the latter of which New England lacked from the defensive tackle position in 2017. While – as usual – money will be the deciding factor, Wilkerson could very well turn out to become the Patriots' next reclamation project, a player who might benefit from a change of scenery.
Whether this scenery turns out to be Foxboro's Gillette Stadium remains to be seen, but the thought of Wilkerson playing in a rotation alongside Brown, Guy and Butler is definitely an intriguing one.