- Rich Cimini, ESPN Staff Writer
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CORTLAND, N.Y. -- Muhammad Wilkerson doesn't smile a lot. When it comes to his job, he's one serious dude.
On Monday, he smiled. Laughed, even.
It came in response to a question about his sack goal for the upcoming season. The New York Jets defensive end recorded a team-high 10 1/2 sacks last season, and he's aiming higher in 2014. But he won't say how high.
"I've got a personal goal, but I'm not telling you. I don't tell it out to people," he said, chuckling. (I'm not sure a 315-pound man can chuckle, but you get the idea.) "I've got a number in my head and I'm going to do my best to get it and get past it."
Just a hunch, but it looked like a 15-sack smile.
That, of course, would be a monster season, but Wilkerson has that kind of potential. He was up to 10 sacks after the first 11 games last season, but a hand injury, coupled with increased double-teaming from opponents, caused his production to fall off in the homestretch. And maybe, just maybe, fatigue was a factor, too. He still deserved to make his first Pro Bowl, but he was overlooked -- a snub that defied explanation.
"Yeah, it did, but I'm not even worried about the Pro Bowl," Wilkerson said. "Right now, it's all about getting back to Jets football and trying to get to the big game. I don't even care about the Pro Bowl anymore. If I make it, I make it."
Wilkerson felt he deserved the honor two seasons ago, and he used that snub as motivational fuel for 2013. He said that doesn't drive him anymore, but, of course, every premier athlete covets recognition. When you're among the best, you want people to acknowledge it. Wilkerson is humble, but he also has a tremendous amount of self-confidence.
"I consider myself an elite player," he said.
Wilkerson is a "red dot" player, according to defensive line coach Karl Dunbar.
"When opponents watch our tape, they put a red dot on him and say, 'We've got to stop that guy,'" Dunbar said.
Dunbar said opponents changed their protection schemes late in the season, shifting them to neutralize Wilkerson. That, he believes, contributed to the decline in sacks. People also tend to forget that Wilkerson, though listed as an end, spends more time as an interior lineman than on the edge. About 70 percent of his pass-rushing chances came over a guard, not a tackle, according to Dunbar's estimate. That makes it hard to get to the quarterback.
Nevetheless, there's a part of Wilkerson that feels unsatisfied by his '13 performance.
"I feel like I got off to a good start, but I had some games where I could've done more," he said. "I want to play at a high level and get better every game. I don't want to have a game where I'm falling off. They may game-plan against me, but somehow, some way, I still need to have an effect on the game."
But by drawing double-teams, Wilkerson helps those around him. He helped Calvin Pace to a career-high 10 sacks. He helped Sheldon Richardson win NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. He helped the Jets finish with a No. 3 ranking in run defense.
"He's a Pro Bowler in my mind," Dunbar said. "I think he knows what he is now. Now, he has to keep doing it, be consistent, and let people know."
If Wilkerson hits his sack goal, people will know. And, just maybe, he'll smile then, too.