Now, two days into training camp, it's weird to not see No. 92 out there. Ellis has been replaced -- for now, anyway -- by rookie Muhammad Wilkerson, the Jets' first-round draft pick. Could it be permanent?
"He's our starting defensive end right now," coach Rex Ryan said Tuesday. "That's why we drafted him, not to be a backup."
Ellis, 34, is an unrestricted free agent, and it's quite possible that Ryan's remarks were meant, in part, to send a message to his absent player. Ryan said he'd like Ellis to return, but that doesn't appear to be a slam dunk. The two sides are in talks, according to general manager Mike Tannenbaum, declining to say if he's made an offer.
If they have to go to Wilkerson, the Jets say they'll be fine. At 6-foot-5, 305 pounds, he is the prototypical defensive end for a 3-4 defense. But he played only three seasons at Temple and, like all rookies, he's far behind after missing the offseason program due to the lockout.
In catch-up mode, Wilkerson reports to his position coach's office every day at 6:30 a.m., nearly two hours before the first meeting. He has a lot to learn.
On draft day, Ryan compared Wilkerson to former defensive lineman Trevor Pryce, who played last season with the Jets -- his 15th year in the NFL. He was always considered one of the best big-man pass rushers around (91 career sacks), and the Jets believe Wilkerson has that kind of potential.
So it came as no surprise that, when Wilkerson checked into training camp Sunday, his position coach, Mark Carrier, handed him a DVD to study -- a collection of Pryce plays from last season. Wilkerson said he watches the DVD in between meetings.
"He was a great player," said Wilkerson, who actually grew up a Giants fan in Linden, N.J.
If the Jets re-sign Ellis, they probably will give him back his old starting job out of respect, according to Ryan. But, make no mistake, Ellis will have a reduced role.
"When you're getting up in age, we don't need guys to play every snap," Ryan said. "If Shaun is on the team, would we start him to keep that streak? Absolutely, but we're going to play this young kid. We want to play this kid."
The soft-spoken Wilkerson took it in stride, downplaying his potential starting role.
"Right now, I can't even think about starting," said Wilkerson, who signed a four-year, $7.4 million contract as the 30th overall pick. "I just have to worry about trying to do my best to try and help out the defense. Coming into the games, if I'm truly the starter, then so be it, but I'm definitely going to work hard to be the starter."
Rich Cimini covers the Jets for ESPNNewYork.com.