NEW YORK (AP) The Jets decided it was time for Mo to go.
Defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson was released by New York on Wednesday, ending the one-time Pro Bowl selection’s stint with the team that drafted him in the first round in 2011.
The long-anticipated move clears $11 million in space under the salary cap, although there will still be a $9 million charge in dead money that will count against the cap. Wilkerson was due to make $16.75 million next season – which would have become fully guaranteed if he remained on New York’s roster by the third day of the league’s new year in March.
Coupled with running back Matt Forte’s retirement announcement earlier Wednesday, the Jets now have about $90 million in cap space.
”I’m disappointed for the team, I’m disappointed for him,” coach Todd Bowles told reporters at the NFL combine in Indianapolis. ”Obviously, it didn’t work out. I have a lot of love for Mo. I still think he’s got a lot of football ahead of him.”
But that won’t be in New York with the Jets.
It became increasingly clearer late in the season that the 28-year-old Wilkerson’s time with the Jets was coming to an end. He was benched at New Orleans on Dec. 17 for being late to a team meeting. Wilkerson then sat out the final two games for what Bowles called a ”coach’s decision.”
The $16.75 million was also fully guaranteed against a serious injury, so the Jets would have been on the hook if Wilkerson got hurt during a game or practice and the injury sidelined him all of next season.
”It was a business decision,” Bowles said about the move to release Wilkerson. ”It wasn’t disciplinary at all. It was good for both parties.”
Wilkerson was the Jets’ highest-paid player and was in the middle of a five-year deal worth $86 million. After vowing during training camp last summer that he would be more of a leader for the Jets, he was disciplined for tardiness twice this past season. He was also benched for one quarter of a game in each of the past two seasons.
”I think when you sign a player, you think of the potential he has and you try to help him fulfill that,” general manager Mike Maccagnan told reporters at the combine. ”When something doesn’t work out, you wish it would have, but it didn’t.”
The divorce caps what has been a stunning and disappointing fall from grace for Wilkerson, who was a homegrown kid from the Elizabeth and Linden areas of New Jersey and made it big after a terrific college career at Temple.
He was the 30th overall pick in 2011 and steadily became one of the NFL’s top young defensive ends. Wilkerson made his first Pro Bowl after the 2015 season, but didn’t play in it after breaking his right leg in the Jets’ regular-season finale.
Despite that, Wilkerson was rewarded by New York with the big contract. He returned in time to start in Week 1 in 2016, but was noticeably affected by lingering issues in his right ankle.
Wilkerson then got off to a slow start in 2017 while dealing with shoulder and toe injuries. The off-field issues became magnified with the decline in Wilkerson’s play and the one-time fan favorite was knocked by many fans and media for what was being perceived as a subpar work ethic.
He had just eight sacks in his last 28 games, dating to the start of the 2016 season, including 3 this past season – his lowest total since having three in his rookie season. That came after Wilkerson had a career-high 12 sacks in 2015.
Wilkerson expressed remorse for his actions in December, saying that he ”let the team down.” But he was also defiant when asked if he deserved the $37 million he made during the last two years.
”I feel like I’ve earned everything I’ve gotten,” he said. When asked why he felt that way, Wilkerson replied simply: ”Because I feel like I’ve earned it.”
For his career, Wilkerson has 44 1/2 sacks, one safety, 10 forced fumbles and 405 combined tackles.
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