FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- On the day the Jets re-signed Muhammad Wilkerson in the summer of 2016 to a blockbuster, five-year, $86 million contract, they made it clear they were banking on him and not Sheldon Richardson. Fourteen months later, Richardson was traded.
Now Wilkerson looks like a man on his way out, too.
The way Wilkerson has been playing this season -- and, to an extent, last season too -- it's impossible to envision a scenario where he's part of the Jets' future, or even one where he's with the team in 2018. Through the first six games of this season, he has no sacks, no quarterback hits, and just nine solo tackles. He's had 4 ½ sacks and just 42 solo tackles in 21 games after signing his massive deal.
He has not given the Jets their money's worth -- not at the price of $36.75 million guaranteed -- and given that they can get out from under his contract in March, he probably never will.
The Jets know that, and so do the coaches. Which might explain why Todd Bowles got so testy on Wednesday when he was grilled about the startling lack of production from Wilkerson and Leonard Williams -- the theoretical cornerstone of their future defense -- who both have zero sacks this year.
"There are a lot of things that we have to get better at that are unacceptable to me, but winning games is the biggest thing to me," Bowles said. "The other stuff comes with it. Sometimes you can get sacks and win games. Sometimes you can get sacks and lose games. It doesn't bother me. If we can win ball games, we're fine."
Pressed more on their lack of production, Bowles said "They're playing hard. They're playing well and they're doing everything we're asking them to do. I'm not disappointed in those two at all."
Asked why not, Bowles told reporters "I've made my comment guys, take it or leave it."
Bowles did have one good point in there, that defensive ends can be incredibly productive without sacks, which do tend to come in bunches. The problem is that for Williams and Wilkerson it's a trend. Williams actually has just two half sacks in his last 15 games, dating back a full calendar year. Wilkerson, who has battled shoulder and toe injuries this season and was coming off leg surgery last season, has just 4 ½ sacks in his last 24 games, dating back to late 2015.
Any concerns about Williams' numbers are tempered, though, because he's 23, he's making only $2.1 million this season (including his $1.5 million roster bonus), he's signed for $2.9 million next season and the Jets still hold his fifth-year option for 2019. He doesn't come cheap, but those aren't cap-busting numbers either.
Wilkerson, meanwhile, is 27 and making $14.75 million this season with a salary cap number of $18 million and he still has three years and more than $48 million left on his contract. And knowing the Jets can cut him in the offseason and clear $17 million off the cap … well, that's looking more and more like a no-brainer decision every day.
But the more immediate concern is this: Where are the sacks? Because a big part of why Wilkerson got that big money was because of his supposed ability to get to the quarterback and bring him down.
"I think sacks just come. Sometimes they come in bunches," said Jets defensive coordinator Kacy Rodgers. "Sometimes it'll be zero and the next week you'll have six. I've had a lot of good rushers that were shutout for a while and then all of a sudden they break through."
"It's a long season," Wilkerson added. "You can ask any defensive guy: Sacks come in bunches. It's Week 6, Week 7. There's no need to panic about sacks. Last I heard about this league, it's about winning games. That's what we're trying to do here."
The Jets have unexpectedly won three games this season, but it's hard to argue that Williams and Wilkerson have had a lot to do with that. Their combined production includes 38 tackles, two quarterback hits, one pass defensed, no forced fumbles. By any measure that ranks them among the worst defensive end tandems in the league.
Not surprisingly, that's right where the Jets pass rush ranks - second-to-last in the league (seven sacks). And their run defense, ranked 28th (138.8 yards per game) isn't great either. The truth is that Wilkerson and Williams haven't made much of an impact at all.
"Nobody is playing great when you're 3-3," Bowles insisted. "You're playing average football. It has nothing to do with Mo or Leonard. It has to do with our entire team. I'm not going to sit here and make excuses about two guys when we have 11 guys on each side of the ball, so if you want to nitpick, go for it."
It's not nitpicking, though, to suggest more was expected out of Williams, who was expected to be a cornerstone of the Jets future, and Wilkerson, the team's highest-paid player by far.
Williams at least has time on his side. He's got a few years, even, to shake off his extended slump and prove he can be an elite pass rusher and defensive end. But for Wilkerson, his time has expired. Maybe he aged faster than expected. Maybe the injuries caught up to him. Maybe he got too complacent after the big contract. Who knows?
What's clear is he has not been the player the Jets envisioned when they decided to give the big money to him instead of Richardson. They expected him to be one of the most dominant defenders in football. Instead, he's been virtually invisible.
And as a result, the future now feels inevitable. In less than five months, Wilkerson will be gone.