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Times Have Changed Along the Defensive Line

Big Cat Remains an Integral Part of the Foundation, Key Wilkerson Decision on the Horizon


On the Active Roster in 2017 (GP/GS, Defensive Snaps)
Leonard Williams (16/16, 877), Muhammad Wilkerson (13/12, 698), Steve McLendon (15/13, 487), Kony Ealy (14/4, 452), Mike Pennel (15/2, 303), Xavier Cooper (8/0, 203), Ed Stinson (4/0, 51), Lawrence Thomas (3/0, 24), Claude Pelon (1/0, 17), Deon Simon (0/0, 0).

Potential Free Agents in 2018
Kony Ealy, Mike Pennel. Restricted: Xavier Cooper. Exclusive Rights: Deon Simon.

Last Season in Review
Nine days before the start of the 2017 regular season, GM Mike Maccagnan sent defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson to Seattle in exchange for wide receiver Jermaine Kearse and a second-round selection in the 2018 Draft while clubs agreed to swap seventh-round picks. Richardson's departure came a little bit more than a year after nose tackle Damon "Snacks" Harrison signed a lucrative free-agent deal with the crosstown Giants. With those two out of the picture in addition to DL Muhammad Wilkerson battling injuries and then being a healthy scratch the final three games in 2017, the Jets' defensive line looked vastly different last season.

"It's interesting how fast things change," said defensive lineman Leonard Williams.

Just 23, Williams continued his solid plan in his third professional campaign. Despite seeing a lot more attention, Williams paced the defensive linemen with 67 tackles Although he finished with just two sacks, he was frequently around the quarterback and finished with a team-high 28 quarterback hits.

"Like Coach Bowles says, we don't like to make excuses even though I was getting double-teamed and triple-teamed at times," Williams said. "It's a good thing as well, I'm probably freeing up other teammates if I'm getting double-teamed and triple-teamed. At the same time, I'm going work more this offseason on defeating the double-team."

Veteran Steve McLendon was a fixture in the middle, providing a steady presence against the run while contributing 55 tackles and six tackles for loss. Long-limbed DE Kony Ealy, acquired off waivers from the Patriots in August, amassed nine pass defenses and added one of the three interceptions from the D-line. In his first season with the Green & White, 6'4", 332-pound Mike Pennel appeared in 16 games and became a starter later in the year with Wilkerson on the sideline. Xavier Cooper, a third-round pick of the Browns in 2015, suited up in eight contests and chipped in with 16 stops and a sack.

"We had more continuity on the defensive line schematically," Bowles said at his season-ending news conference. "I think that was better from that standpoint."

Looking Ahead
While Ealy, Pennel and DT Ed Stinson all have expiring contracts, the Jets have to make a decision regarding Wilkerson's future. In 13 games last season, he racked up 3.5 sacks and 59 tackles. It's been a difficult go for Wilkerson the past two seasons as he was slowed in 2016 following offseason surgery and then foot/toe and shoulder ailments limited him early this past fall. He had a midseason surge but then finished the year as a spectator.

After collecting 12 sacks and helping the Jets yield a franchise-low 83.4 yards per game on the ground in 2015, Wilkerson signed an extension with the club in 2016.

"When you sign a large contract, you are obviously expecting a player to perform at a high level," said general manager Mike Maccagnan. "Now for whatever reason, players may not perform at that level. I'm not going to sit here and weigh in on one particular player. This will play itself out here over time. But again, you have to make business decisions. Business decisions in terms of an evaluation of really the allocation of your resources. The way the contract was situated for example with Mo, we kind of had a two-year window and an ability to make an evaluation after those two years."

Bowles, who said it was a coach's decision to keep Wilkerson inactive Weeks 15-17, has continued to keep things close to the vest.

"We'll meet upstairs and see what the best options are available going forward and go from there," he said. "I don't know if he's going to be released or not released, but we haven't had those discussions yet. There's a lot that can happen in the spring."


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