FLORHAM PARK, NJ — The last time the Jets took a defensive end in the first round of the NFL Draft he left the team without ever recording a sack. But that wasn’t Rex Ryan’s guy. Temple product Muhammed Wilkerson, however, is Ryan’s guy. And with the defense missing a mainstay in defensive end Shaun Ellis, Ryan is counting on Wilkerson to make him look like a smart man. Well, at least smarter than his predecessor.
“He belongs,” Ryan said. “He’s the starting defensive end right now. The day he walked in here. That’s why we drafted him, not to be a back-up. We need him to be a player. He’s starting right now.”
Wait did Rex Ryan just put high expectations on one of his players? No way. I don’t believe it. The fact is that this rather loud attempt at motivation has become standard operating procedure for Ryan. And his players don’t even seem to blink at the notion.
“Coming into games, if I’m truly the starter, then so be it, but I’m definitely going to work hard to be the starter,”
So far he’s showing the mental strength to match his physicals tools that made him a standout at Temple University. That’s a good sign for a man at 6’5″ 305 pounds sporting a wingspan the stretches from coast to coast (OK, it’s 85.25 inch span). There’s no need for him to have a big head about being “the first round pick guy”, Rex will do that for him, leaving Wilkerson to just solely focus on getting ahead of the learning curve.
“[The toughest thing about the transition] is probably the speed a little bit and just getting down the technique,” Wilkerson said. “It’s just pretty much getting the feel for [everything], just trying to live like a professional. I’m working on that. Like I said, I have guys like Sione [Pouha], [Mike] DeVito and Ropati [Pitoitua]. Those guys help me out a lot.”
Defensive linemates aside, Wilkerson has one of the best sparring partners in the league, Pro Bowl offensive tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson, to show him the rough and rugged ropes of life in the NFL trenches. Merely two days into training camp it has already been one of more must-see match-ups in the Jets 11-on-11 drills.
“He and [Ferguson] were going at it yesterday. It’s funny because they were getting after it, but they were four yards a part from each other because both their arms are so long. But they were getting after each other and that’s great. He’s looking good,” Ryan said.
Wilkerson seemed to be equally pleased with his performance against Ferguson. “He actually got me on one play yesterday. [He] just had me stuck on the line, but that’s going to come when you’re playing against a great player like him.” Just one play?! That’s it?
Certainly Wilkerson, Kenrick Ellis and the rest of the in-coming 2011 NFL rookie class have a major learning curve to get around after not being able to be around team facilities until last week, so starting by Week 1 of the regular season would be a huge feat for any rookie. But he made sure to spend time with linemates Pouha and DeVito in the off-season to work on conditioning as well as technique in player-organized defensive lineman camps.
With rookies being behind the eight ball on getting down the NFL routine, it may force the Jets to bring back defensive veteran Ellis — which would help, from a mentoring standpoint, the young studs plucked from this draft. As of now, general manager Mike Tannenbaum remains ambiguous regarding the possible return of the 11-year Jet.
“I talked to Shaun the other day,” Tannenbaum said. “I had a great talk with him. He’s a free-agent, he’s assessing his options. He’s the longest tenured Jet. That means a lot to me. We’ll see what happens.”
One of the keys for the Jets in the off-season was to get younger on the defensive line and the infusion of Wilkerson and Ellis definitely filled that void. But having a savvy veteran like Shaun Ellis can only help, as Ryan stated.
“We don’t need guys to play every snap anymore. We have these young guys. We brought Trevor [Pryce] in, who has had some unbelievable years, and fill a purpose for us. Obviously, if we had Shaun, we’d play him too. But we brought this kid in to play.”
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