Packers have inside track in pursuit of former Jets DE Muhammad Wilkerson

Tom Silverstein
Packers News
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New York Jets defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson (96) celebrates with teammates during the first half of a game against the Buffalo Bills on Sept. 10, 2017, in Orchard Park, N.Y.

GREEN BAY – The connection between new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine and defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson will give the Green Bay Packers an inside track on signing the former New York Jets veteran.

But a lot must happen for that to become a reality.

The Jets announced Feb. 28 that they had released Wilkerson, but with the NFL scouting combine in progress in Indianapolis, the Jets didn’t get around to officially letting him go until Monday.

Wilkerson became a free agent and can negotiate with anybody in the NFL. According to a source, the Packers have a mutual interest in Wilkerson and will throw their hat in the ring fairly quickly.

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How far it goes will depend on several things, not the least of which is how much money the Packers would be willing to pay a guy whose last contract averaged $17.2 million a year. The Packers have about $20 million in cap room heading into the start of the football year March 14 and might be looking for a bargain.

Pettine was the defensive coordinator for the Jets in 2011 when the team selected Wilkerson with the 30th overall selection and pushed hard for the Jets to draft him, according to accounts from “Collision Low Crossers,” author Nicholas Dawidoff’s behind-the-scenes account of the season.

Now coach Mike McCarthy’s defensive coordinator, Pettine saw Wilkerson develop into an impact player in the defense he and coach Rex Ryan oversaw together from 2009-12. Wilkerson, 28, can play any position on the defensive line and would provide Pettine with both pass rush and experience in the system.

“He has a ton of ability but is an underachiever of late, especially since he got paid,” one NFC scout said. “I do think he can still play and perform; he just needs to play with more consistent effort and energy. He still has the physical tools.”

Naturally, the Packers are interested given their desire for more pass-rush help, but they won’t be the only team kicking the tires on Wilkerson. General manager Brian Gutekunst said he would be aggressive in pursuing free agents, but he also said that didn’t mean the Packers would pay a lot for free agents.

In this case, Gutekunst and McCarthy are going to want to meet with Wilkerson, who signed a five-year, $86 million deal in 2016, $37 million of which he has already collected.

The Jets released Wilkerson after two down seasons in which he dealt with leg, shoulder and toe injuries. In ’16, he was still recovering from a broken leg suffered late the previous season and managed just 4½ sacks. Last season, he was banged up and managed just 3½ sacks in 13 games.

Wilkerson also was held out of the start of several Jets games in ’15, ’16 and ’17 as punishment for being late to meetings, something McCarthy would have a problem with given the number of young, impressionable players he has on the defensive line. It is undoubtedly something the McCarthy would have to address with Wilkerson and Pettine.

Wilkerson has told people he desperately wants to play for a winning organization, and he might have been worn down in New York. In his seven seasons, the Jets were 46-66 and didn't make the playoffs.

At his best, the 6-4, 315-pound Wilkerson was a pass-rushing force, collecting 10½ sacks in 2013 and 12 sacks in ’15. He accomplished it playing just about every position in the hybrid 3-4/4-3 Pettine employs, including nose tackle.

Wilkerson would join Kenny Clark and Mike Daniels as front-liners in a 3-4 or 4-3 look and could potentially provide a big shot in the arm to the Packers’ pass rush. It would be much harder to double-team Daniels and Clay Matthews or Nick Perry with Wilkerson rushing the passer.

Wilkerson seemed to get over his habit in college of taking plays off, but the Packers would have to study his film carefully to make that assessment.

In 2013, Wilkerson was voted team MVP by his teammates after playing more than 1,000 snaps and compiling 63 tackles, 10½ sacks, an interception and two forced fumbles. In ’14, he missed three games, but had 56 tackles, six sacks, five pass breakups and a forced fumble.

He was voted to the Pro Bowl after his 12-sack season in ’15.

The Jets cleared $11 million in salary-cap space by cutting Wilkerson. He carries a charge of $9 million in dead money.

Jets coach Todd Bowles had nothing bad to say about Wilkerson upon announcing the move, saying, “Obviously it didn’t work out, but I have a lot of love for Mo. I think he’s still got a lot of football ahead of him, and he’s got some good football ahead of him. I just wish him the best.”

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