New York Jets defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson has emerged as a potential “All-Pro” lineman entering his third season. Wilkerson was picked in the first round (30) of the 2011 NFL draft and has become the unofficial leader of the Jets young talented defensive line.
The new NFL collective bargaining agreement (CBA) took effect in 2011 along with the improved rookie wage system. Under the CBA all drafted players receive a four year contract but teams hold an option to add a fifth year to those taken in round one. Any team wanting to exercise this option has from the end of the player’s third regular season (December 30th) till May 2nd to add this extra year.
The Jets will have to decide whether to add this year to Wilkerson’s contract, which currently runs through 2014, at the end of this season. The NFL uses a formula to determine the salary amount of tenders (unconditional contract offers) like the franchise or transition tags. These tags allow teams to restrict one player who is set to become an unrestricted free agent by allowing teams to offer the player a one year guaranteed contract with the salary being set by the NFL’s formula. Players can be acquired by another team once tagged but the original team had certain rights and may be entitled to draft pick compensation, so the team usually retains the player.
Last season the franchise tag was $11.175 million and transition tag was $9.6 million for defensive ends. Under the CBA the salary will be determined for the fifth year option using the same formula the NFL uses to determine the franchise/transition tags but for any first rounder picked 11-32 the formula is changed in a manner which will produce a lower salary. Players picked 1-10 receive the transition tag salary for the year which the option was exercised.
If the Jets choose to add a fifth year to Wilkerson’s contract the salary will be approximately $7 million for the 2015 season. This salary is guaranteed for injury up until the start of the 2015 league year (March) when the salary becomes fully-guaranteed.
This option on the surface is not fair since if Wilkerson was taken in round two this fifth-year would not be available and the team would likely have to franchise him, giving a higher salary, to prevent him from becoming an unrestricted free agent after 2014. Now they can restrict him with a lower number which gives the team leverage.
There is a positive side for Wilkerson if the Jets do decide to add the year on as it will give both sides some time to work out a long term deal. Usually teams include a signing bonus with any long term contract and the bonus can be spread out up to five years for salary cap purposes. This allows the player to receive a big payday while not costing much on the salary cap for the first contacted season. The Jets could lower Wilkerson’s salary/cap charge for 2015 then what he’d receive under the option year salary but still pay him similar or even more money while locking him up by negotiating a new contract.
Terms of the 2011 CBA and the salary rules regarding rookies is about to be challenged for the first time as players can get out from under their rookie contract and the rookie salary cap after their third year but teams will be able to add another year onto first round picks starting this offseason. It will be interesting to see how teams and players handle this currently untested portion of the rookie wage system.
The Jets will likely add on the option year to Wilkerson’s contract and look to lock him up long term but with 2012 first round pick defensive lineman Quinton Coples waiting in the wings with the same scenario during the 2015 offseason it will be up to general manager John Idzik to implement the procedure which will handle this major decision.