The New York Jets expect to see the 2015 version of Muhammad Wilkerson this season, not the slow-Mo who labored through a pedestrian 2016. Reputations are riding on it, mainly those of Wilkerson and general manager Mike Maccagnan, who signed him to that monster contract last July.
"Hopefully, if he's healthy, I expect him to be back to the Muhammad that he normally is," coach Todd Bowles said last week at the NFL owners meetings in Phoenix.
Wilkerson's health was a matter of debate last season. He played in 15 games and 81 percent of the defensive snaps, yet there was constant speculation on whether he was affected by his surgically repaired fibula. He managed only 4.5 sacks, his fewest since his rookie season (2011). Bowles, who downplayed the injury throughout the season, offered a revised take last week.
"I'm sure he played hurt most of the year," he said. "We had to give him some off-days. Usually, those things take about a year-and-a-half to come back from. He came back early and gutted it out. It shows the kind of warrior he is. Hopefully, he's gotten better and he can go back to being himself."
You might say this is a prove-it season for Wilkerson, whose five-year, $86 million contract currently contains no fully guaranteed money after 2017.
The Jets can cut him next offseason without blowing up their salary cap. In fact, they can clear $17 million of his $20 million cap charge if he's designated as a June 1 cut. The decision must be made by the third day of the 2018 league year (early March). If he's still on the roster, his $16.75 million base salary becomes guaranteed.
Know this: If he struggles through another no-impact season, Wilkerson won't see that money.
This is a huge year for Wilkerson, who must prove 2016 was an injury-related aberration. There are no excuses. He needs to show up on time (an issue in the past) and be a dominant player, as he was in 2015. He's still only 27, so it's not like age is a factor.
Maccagnan has a big stake in this as well because, let's be honest, he's not exactly crushing it when it comes to big deals. The three most noteworthy contracts in his first two years were Darrelle Revis ($39 million guaranteed), Ryan Fitzpatrick ($12 million) and Wilkerson ($37 million).
Revis and Fitzpatrick are gone after bad seasons, and Wilkerson is another bad year away from becoming an ex-Jet. A general manager doesn't get to keep spending his owner's millions unless he starts hitting on some of these deals.
Despite some concern within the organization about Wilkerson's work habits, Maccagnan felt confident enough in the player's upside to hammer out a deadline deal literally only minutes before the negotiating window for franchise tags closed last summer.
Right now, it looks like another bad deal for the Jets, but Wilkerson has the power to change the perception. There should be no shortage of motivation.