- Rich Cimini, ESPN Staff Writer
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FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Muhammad Wilkerson was tending to something in his locker, paying no attention to what was happening behind him. When he turned around, the hulking defensive end was surprised to see about 10 media types, hovering.
"Whoa, what’s all of this?" he asked Wednesday in the New York Jets’ locker room.
This, Mo, is what happens when you’re a big man on the New York football stage.
Wilkerson is coming off one of his best games as a pro, a dominating Monday night performance that had ESPN analyst Jon Gruden gushing like a groupie. If America didn’t know about Wilkerson before then, it does now.
Quite simply, Wilkerson has a chance to be the franchise’s next Darrelle Revis, sans the player-management acrimony. He’s a homegrown star, not an import, ascending to the upper tier of his position.
"I think he’s right there with the top defensive linemen in this league right now that aren’t named J.J. Watt," said Rex Ryan, praising Wilkerson with the effusiveness he once reserved for Revis.
Ryan talked up Revis so much in 2009 that his words, no doubt, were thrown back at management when the two sides went to the bargaining table in the summer of 2010 -- i.e. the long and nasty holdout. Ryan didn’t stop with the superlatives because, back in those days, he wasn’t shy about speaking his mind and he felt Revis was an all-timer.
In a few months, the Jets and Wilkerson will be talking contract. He has only one year remaining on his rookie deal, and the team almost certainly will try to lock him up next offseason with a long-term deal -- probably the first mega-contract of the John Idzik era. The franchise-tag amount this year for a defensive end is $11.2 million, so that should provide a basic idea of how much of a yearly average we’re talking about.
Wilkerson said he hasn’t given any thought to the pot of gold that awaits him. Not surprisingly, he said he doesn’t want to go anywhere.
"I’m from New Jersey and, just being here these three years, it’s been great for me," he said. "I’m happy here. I definitely plan on hopefully being a Jet for life."
New York Jets
Revis used to say the same thing, but it got complicated, as we all know. The Jets missed an opportunity to hammer out a long-term extension in 2010 and well, there’s no point in retracing that chapter. Presumably, they learned a lesson and will take care of Wilkerson before there’s any tension.
He’s a monster, the kind of player who can anchor a defense for a decade. Wilkerson already has four sacks, one shy of last season’s total. Because he’s not exclusively an edge player -- he often lines up inside -- it’s not easy to pick up sacks. A double-digit total would be a ridiculous season.
"In my opinion, I’d say he’s the best [defensive lineman]," said linebacker Calvin Pace, the elder statesman of the defense.
Wilkerson was drafted 30th overall in 2011, so it wasn’t like he was a can’t-miss lottery pick. He went 19 spots after Watt, the Houston Texans stud. The Jets took some risk because Wilkerson didn’t play in a power conference. He attended Temple and left after his junior year.
"We just saw a guy we thought could be a truly dominant player," Ryan said.
At the time, Ryan compared him to former New England Patriots star Richard Seymour, a potential Hall of Famer. People snickered. On Wednesday, Ryan claimed, "He actually does some things better than Richard does."
The best thing about Wilkerson is there’s not an ounce of diva in him. If there were any more blue in his collar, he’d be playing in construction clothes. He stepped briefly out of character in an offseason interview, admitting he felt snubbed by not being selected to the Pro Bowl. That, he promised at the time, would motivate him.
Reminded of his Pro Bowl ambition, Wilkerson backed off.
"Some people say I’m going to make the Pro Bowl," he said, probably alluding to Gruden’s on-air hosanna. "I appreciate all the kind words, but at the end of the day, I have to play each game. Hopefully, we’ll see at the end of the year."
Pace said it best: "I don’t think he knows how good he is."
The Jets know. Maybe, just maybe, they’ll get it right this time and make sure he sticks around for a long time.