Todd Bowles expects Muhammad Wilkerson to be back being himself and he's not the only one.
"My leg is definitely feeling way better now than it did last year at this point," Wilkerson said. "It feels great, so I'm definitely looking forward to being who I was before the injury."
Wilkerson, who fractured his right fibula in the Jets' 2015 finale vs. the Bills, had a long offseason of rehabilitation before the team's 2016 training camp. After starting camp on the Active/Physically Unable to Perform list, Wilkerson appeared in 15 games last season while racking up 47 tackles and 4.5 sacks. Bowles acknowledge that Wilkerson "gutted it out" in 2016 and showed what kind of "warrior" he is.
"That was my first major injury," said Wilkerson. "I had never gotten injured like that playing football. I didn't have the get-off and change of direction. Just running, I was sometimes in pain in the game."
But the pain has left the 6'4", 315-pound Wilkerson. He has been a full participant on the field during OTAs and will not be limited when training camp has kickoff next month. The Jets' defensive lineman is being mentored by a coach in Robert Nunn.
"He's a great coach, his résumé speaks for itself," Wilkerson said. "Right now, in OTAs he's teaching us to go back to the basics, the fundamentals with hands, footwork, shedding off blocks and hand placement. I think it's a great start for the season leading up to training camp and the season."
While some pundits expect a young Jets team to struggle in 2017, Wilkerson says the only opinions that matter are the ones inside the Atlantic Health Jets Training Center.
"At the end of the day, it's all about what's in this building," he said. "Who cares what the naysayers and the outsiders say? We know what we need to do, we know what we're capable of doing and we're just going to go out there each and every Sunday and prove it to ourselves."
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A first-round selection of the Jets in 2011, Wilkerson is entering his seventh NFL season and he is the third-longest tenured player on the roster.
"I know guys look up to me and I still look up to David Harris," he said with a laugh. "I'm learning things from him on how to be a great veteran, wise leader and I'm all for it. Definitely always willing to help out the young guys when I can."
The Jets will again possess one of the most talented defensive lines in football. Leonard Williams was the team's MVP last season, earning a Pro Bowl invite after collecting 86 tackles and 7.0 sacks. Sheldon Richardson is a dynamic athlete who can take over a game at any point and Steve McLendon provides some veteran toughness. There are intriguing young players in the mix as well including Deon Simon and Lawrence Thomas.
"I tell Leo and Sheldon that those guys push me. I want to get better every day," Wilkerson said. "I tell them that's what keeps me going. I know what I need to do as a pro, but those guys just push me along with Mac and all the young guys in the room. It makes it fun."
Wilkerson wears a smile these days, knowing he has gotten over a major hurdle. Crediting the medical staff for helping him through his transition, Wilkerson sounds like a man intent on inflicting some damage in 2017.
"I'm itching. I'm pretty sure everybody in the locker room is itching," he said. "It's time to take baby steps and we're learning every day just to get ready once it's time to get things going."