While it's true that New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan is a character who lives at a quote-per-minute clip, it would be a mistake to underestimate the man's coaching acumen. Not only has he motivated his Jets into reaching two AFC championship games in his first two seasons, but also Ryan is one of the most creative defensive minds in the game today. He's apt to run anything from hybrid fronts, to cluster blitzes from the secondary, to "46" looks resembling what his dad, Buddy, put on the field for the Chicago Bears in the 1980s. Wherever Rex Ryan goes, great defense is sure to follow.
But if there's one thing Ryan's Jets have struggled to find, it's consistent edge pressure from a pass-rushing end/outside linebacker. End Bryan Thomas(notes) led the team with six sacks last season, which is a far cry from the high production Ryan was used to from guys like Peter Boulware, Trevor Pryce(notes), Adalius Thomas(notes) and Terrell Suggs(notes) when he ran the Baltimore Ravens' defensive line, and then its whole defense, from 1999 through 2008. The Jets tried to extract those types of numbers out of veteran Jason Taylor(notes), but it didn't happen.
In that regard, taking Temple defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson with the 30th overall pick in this year's NFL draft was an unconventional move for the Jets, but a good look at Wilkerson's tape illustrates why so many teams were interested in the 6-foot-4, 315-pound player with tackle size and end agility. Wilkerson fits Ryan's defensive schemes in several different ways – not only does he provide a lot of punch in the run defense from a three-tech or five-tech alignment, but also he can crash off the edge with the surprising speed that allowed him to amass eight sacks in 2010.
Wilkerson's college tape shows a player with extremely impressive consistency when playing the run by mirroring slide protection, slipping off blockers and stunting inside to crash into the backfield. As a pass rusher, he's more about agility than hand movement – he'll have to add a few moves to his arsenal to beat tackles outside at the NFL level, but the potential is easy to see.
He did benefit from scheme diversity, and a great example was the sack he picked up against Central Michigan late in the first half of a 13-10 win. The Owls ran a dual end-tackle stunt, and Wilkerson was lined up between the left guard and tackle. At the snap, Wilkerson split the initial double team before the guard peeled off to deal with the end stunting inside. He then blew past the tackle to take down the quarterback with one of his two sacks in the game. On that day, Wilkerson also forced a fumble and deflected a pass – even more indicators of his versatility.
Hybrid players like Wilkerson can get lost in the shuffle on bad teams with unimaginative coaches, but the rookie is in a very good position when he can actually hit the playbook live and benefit from the acumen of Ryan and his coaching staff. The Jets took a shot on Wilkerson as a bit of a wildcard, and he should repay their faith with an impressive rookie campaign and even better performances down the road when he has developed his technique at an NFL level.
- Rex Ryan