Free agent linebacker Joe Thomas signs with Dallas Cowboys ending tenure with Green Bay Packers.
GREEN BAY – When his plane touched down in Green Bay, there were no skyscrapers waiting for him outside. The big-city distractions from his past were left far behind.
Muhammad Wilkerson hopes to keep them there.
This is not where Wilkerson expected to be two years after signing a mega contract with the New York Jets worth $86 million over five years. He was a Pro Bowler in 2015, coming off a 12-sack season. Offensive lines posted little resistance. The NFL was his oyster.
Then, the downward spiral. Missed meetings. Suspensions. Poor production. Finally, his release. In two years, Wilkerson went from dominant to dormant, from franchise cornerstone to unemployed.
No, Wilkerson didn’t expect to be here, starting over with the Green Bay Packers on a one-year, prove-it deal.
“It’s different,” Wilkerson said Thursday, “but at the same time they say change is good, and I’m looking forward to a great change in Green Bay. … Being in a small city, it means more focus. It’s all about football.”
If Wilkerson keeps it all about football, the Packers could have a gem.
The $4.7 million they’ll pay him this year, with up to $2.75 million in additional incentives, will be a bargain if Wilkerson returns to the player he was earlier in his career. From 2013-15, he was one of the NFL’s fiercest interior pass rushers. He had 28.5 sacks in those three seasons, reaching double digits twice. Among defensive linemen, only Houston’s J.J. Watt, Los Angeles’ Robert Quinn, Buffalo’s Mario Williams and New Orleans’ Cameron Jordan had more sacks in that period.
For the Packers, this was general manager Brian Gutekunst’s first effort to upgrade his team’s pass rush. There are still glaring holes on defense, but a front line bolstered with Mike Daniels, Kenny Clark, Dean Lowry and Wilkerson could be among the NFL’s best. For that to happen, the Packers hope they signed the Wilkerson of old, not the player he’s been lately.
Wilkerson has just eight sacks combined in the past two seasons.
“I’m ready to get back to my dominant play,” Wilkerson said. “I know what type of player I’m capable of being, and I’m just ready to do it at a new place, a new organization and a new group of guys. I’m just really excited about the things to come this year.”
Wilkerson, who doesn’t turn 29 until October, said he’s capable of “being a dominant player” and producing like he did in the past. It’s far from certain whether he can ever be a double-digit sacker again, but this offseason should serve as a wakeup call. Wilkerson’s career is at a crossroads. What he does in 2018 — both on and off the field — will determine which way he goes.
With the importance of this upcoming season as a backdrop, Wilkerson didn’t rush deciding where to play next. He could’ve signed with the Packers after visiting them one week after his release, but kept his options open. Wilkerson ultimately visited the New Orleans Saints, Kansas City Chiefs and Washington before circling back to the Packers.
Perhaps his visits elsewhere were a negotiating ploy, trying to coax a more lucrative contract. Wilkerson said he wanted to visit every team, ensuring he found the best fit. In Green Bay, he’ll reunite with first-year Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, Wilkerson’s first defensive coordinator with the Jets. Pettine reportedly pushed for the Jets to draft Wilkerson with their 30th overall pick in the first round when he entered the league out of Temple in 2011.
Wilkerson said reuniting with Pettine was “key” in his decision. Also important was the chance to play for a contender, something he hasn’t experienced since early in his career.
“When I went on my visit,” Wilkerson said, “walking around the facility, it just brought a different energy in me.”
Near the end in New York, the downward spiral accelerated.
In each of the past three seasons, Wilkerson was suspended one quarter of a game for being tardy or missing a team meeting. He was also benched Week 15 last season when the Jets traveled to the New Orleans Saints. Wilkerson finished the season as a healthy scratch in the final two games.
Wilkerson said he has no regrets with how things ended with the Jets. Hard as that is to fathom — his release cost him a lot of money, including a $16.75 million roster bonus this month — it did give Wilkerson a much-needed fresh start. He’ll get a chance to play for a contender, something he hasn’t experienced since early in his career.
If things go well, there will be more money waiting after the season.
“It’s a mindset,” Wilkerson said. “It’s a mindset and a want-to. I’m ready for that. That’s what I want to get back to — the years when I was very successful and being dominant.
“I had some dominant years with coach Pettine. Looking forward to that.”