- Rich Cimini, ESPN New York Jets reporter
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CORTLAND, N.Y. -- While the rest of the team was splintering around him, losing the final three games by a combined score of 93-50, Muhammad Wilkerson was growing up in a hurry.
No one recognized it, of course, because the spotlight was on the New York Jets' dysfunctional locker room and the fall of Rex Ryan's ego, but the rookie defensive end was dominating opponents -- and raising the expectation level for 2012.
"I think he can be mentioned with guys going to the Pro Bowl," defensive coordinator Mike Pettine said this week at training camp. "He's that good."
The Jets haven't drafted a defensive stud since Darrelle Revis in 2007, but Wilkerson has a chance to be The Next One. You wouldn't normally say that about a kid from Temple coming off a three-sack rookie year, but Wilkerson has special qualities.
At 6-foot-4, 305 pounds, he's mountain big and powerful and deceptively quick, with a maturity level that belies his age -- 22.
His former prep school teammate, Quinton Coples, got most the of the pub in the offseason because he was a first-round pick in April, but Wilkerson is the guy who can make the biggest difference on the Jets' defense.
"I really believe he's going to have a huge year for us," Ryan said. "There are so many things you can do with him. He can play outside, inside, right, left, down the middle of the center, whatever it is. He's got great athleticism. He's in great condition.
"I just think he's going to have a great year. He knows the system, and I'd be shocked if he doesn't have a huge year."
So you think Ryan is excited about Wilkerson or what? In the offseason, he said Wilkerson possesses a Revis-like work ethic.
Ryan has been known to lay it on thick with the superlatives -- he compared Wilkerson to Richard Seymour, likely a future Hall of Famer -- but the gushing might be justified in this case.
Wilkerson dropped about 10 pounds in the offseason, not because the team told him to, but because he wanted to improve his quickness and decided to slim down. The objective is to become a better pass-rusher. The early indications are encouraging. Pettine said he'd have no problem using Wilkerson as an edge rusher in certain pass-rushing schemes.
"I feel I'm definitely going to improve in that area," said Wilkerson, who rushed last season mostly from an interior position.
Wilkerson was solid as a rookie, but he didn't start to make serious strides until the final three games. A lot of rookies disappear in the stretch, worn down by the long NFL season, but he got better.
"He was playing his best at the end of the year," Pettine said. "You watch the last three games and he was playing really, really well. He wasn't one of those rookies who peaked and faded at the end -- the rookie wall."
Imagine what Wilkerson will do now that he's had an entire offseason to train and study. He didn't have that last year, due to the lockout. He was thrown into the starting lineup and didn't embarrass himself. No one had to throw out a life preserver for him.
Now he knows how to read blocking schemes and how to diagnose backfield sets, things new line coach Karl Dunbar has stressed. Wilkerson knows how to play off line stunts. The mental aspect of his game is catching up to the physical part.
"I see him being more aware of how teams are going to try to attack him," linebacker David Harris said.
The Jets finished No. 5 in total defense last season without a dominant defensive lineman. In fact, they haven't had a Pro Bowl lineman since Kris Jenkins in 2008. Wilkerson could be next.
"He might not have a lot of production on the stat sheet," said Pettine, alluding to the team-oriented approach within the scheme, "but he could be a dominant player for us. I think this is his time."
Jets say Muhammad Wilkerson can make jump from three-sack rookie to Pro Bowl.