Many of the offseason headlines have focused on the New York Jets’ phantom quarterback -- Ryan Fitzpatrick, who is unsigned and out of sight, but not out of mind. His ongoing contract saga has overshadowed another absent teammate, Muhammad Wilkerson, who may not show up for a few months.
The Pro Bowl defensive end hasn't signed his franchise-tag tender, meaning he's technically a free agent until July 15 -- unless he decides to sign the tender and rejoin his teammates before then. Why would he do that? He'd hurt his leverage for a long-term contract by signing and reporting to the team. What's more, he's still not able to participate in football activities, as he continues to rehab his surgically repaired broken leg.
It wouldn't be a surprise if Wilkerson skips next month's minicamp (he can't be fined because he's not under contract), and there are some who believe he may consider not reporting to training camp in late July.
"I know he wants to be here, because he's from here," said cornerback Buster Skrine, alluding to Wilkerson's New Jersey roots.
Team officials say they want him back, but that sounds like posturing. The two sides aren't close to a new contract.
The Jets were open to trading Wilkerson before the draft, but no suitors emerged. A sign-and-trade simply isn't realistic, considering his contract demands. By rule, he still can sign an offer sheet with another team, but the compensation the Jets would have to give up (two first-round picks) is prohibitive. He could try to force a trade, but he'd probably have to threaten to sit out the season to make that happen. That would be ugly.
Wilkerson's teammates understand the business side of the sport, but they want him back.
"He's the leader of the D-line," linebacker David Harris said. "Actually, he's one of the leaders of the defense. He's a tremendous talent. He's one of the best D-ends in the league, hands down. I hope he's here."
Skrine agreed: "He's one of our better players on defense, maybe our best player on defense. So we need him back."