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Corey Griffin, TheJetsBlog.comGeno Smith got the back-page treatment Tuesday morning, but Muhammad Wilkerson made just as loud of a statement Monday night.
In front of a national TV audience, Wilkerson was the defensive foil to Geno and offensive coordinator Marty Morhinweg’s near-flawless game plan, delivering a message to the league that Jets fans have been well aware of for the past 10 months.
“Yes, I am that good. No, you cannot stop me.”
In case you missed the memo this summer, Wilkerson made himself impossible to ignore Monday in what became a coming-out party for the soon-to-be Pro Bowler. Unblockable most of the night, Wilkerson toyed with the Falcons’ offensive linemen while giving quarterback Matt Ryan fits.
The former Temple Owl entered the NFL as a run-stuffer and quickly developed into one of the best in that area, but his growth as a pass rusher has pushed him from “nice piece” to franchise player. Never was this more evident than on Wilkerson’s forced fumble late in the third quarter Monday night.
Wilkerson undresses right tackle Jeremy Youngblood, starting outside with his hand on the ground before quickly bouncing inside between Youngblood and right guard Greg Reynolds with a swim move that is showing up with much more regularity. At a time in the game when the Falcons seemed to be turning the tables, Wilkerson steadied the Jets’ ship and set Geno & Co. up with ideal field position for an eventual field goal. It was an impact play at a crucial moment in the game – the kind All-Pros make.
Teams have learned to run away from him – hence only 19 total tackles – but through five games, Wilkerson already has four sacks, six tackles for loss and eight quarterback hits. The sacks are one shy of his career high and he’s yet to face the abysmal offensive lines in Miami, Oakland and Pittsburgh – not to mention a rematch with the Buffalo unit he absolutely destroyed in Week 3.
As much credit as Wilkerson deserves for his development, it’s impossible to overlook Rex Ryan’s impact. Ryan, a former defensive line coach, compared Wilkerson to Trevor Pryce on draft night, but he’s vaulted past that approximation before the mid-point of his third season. The name you hear most often associated with Wilkerson now is former Patriot and Raider Richard Seymour, whose own comparables on Pro-Football-Reference read like a who’s who of Hall-of-Fame linemen.
Ryan’s system and coaching have allowed Wilkerson to be as dynamic a defensive lineman as there is in the game today. In Rex’s unique, multi-faceted attack Wilkerson can line up in the 3-technique, 5-technique or out wide. We’ve seen Rex stand him up and Monday night Wilkerson even dropped into coverage. By surrounding Wilkerson with players like Damon Harrison, Sheldon Richardson and Quinton Coples, Ryan has the ability to keep Wilkerson away from double and triple teams that could limit his impact in the pass rush. Ryan’s Truck Series front gives opposing teams a Sophie’s Choice of blocking assignments. Do you double Wilkerson and leave single coverage on the ultra-quick Richardson or massive Harrison? Even if Wilkerson receives the attention he deserves, he’s proven just as adept at shedding two blockers in order to make a play at or behind the line of scrimmage.
Would Wilkerson have been as good had he been drafted elsewhere? It’s hard to tell. He’s so naturally gifted in terms of size, strength and quickness that Wilkerson likely would’ve been at least a Pro Bowl-level player for a few seasons with any well-coached team. But under Ryan’s tutelage, he’s developed into a player with no clear ceiling. I shudder to think of his potential with even two more seasons in Ryan’s schemes.
After his sophomore season, Wilkerson graded out as the second-best 3-4 defensive end behind the inimitable J.J. Watt. Yet somehow, Wilkerson was left out when Pro Bowl time came – a possible side effect of a voting process that ended before he blossomed in the second half of the 2012 season. Wilkerson admitted publicly he took the snub as an insult and vowed to become a complete player in his third season. We’re barely a quarter of the way through that campaign, but Wilkerson is well on his way.
Can he be the best defensive lineman in the game one day? Maybe. In this defense, the sky’s the limit. After Monday night, everyone can see that.
Corey Griffin is a sports web producer for NBCSports.com. You can reach him on Twitter at @cgriffin415.