Muhammad Wilkerson, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and the New York Jets

The New York Jets offseason has primarily revolved around two issues: what to do with Muhammad Wilkerson and Ryan Fitzpatrick’s future with the team. Unfortunately for many of my fellow Jets fans, they may not like what I have to say next.

The Ballad of Muhammad Wilkerson

Many Jets fans would like to believe that Muhammad Wilkerson is one of the best defensive players in the league, and should command a contract that pays him in the ballpark of $15-$16 million annually with $50M+ guaranteed. On the other hand, two different Jets regimes, and what appears to be a barren trade market, seem to say otherwise. The Jets “have never been close” to an extension as both John Idzik and Mike Maccagnan have shown they were never really interested in dedicating big money to a non-premium position.

In his fifth season, Wilkerson put together perhaps his best performance statistically for the Jets with the below stat line (ignore the completely subjective “stops” figure).

80 total pressures is a remarkable statistic. Some possibly more telling stats are that he recorded 11 Tackles for Loss, good enough to be tied for 36th best in the NFL in 2015. He also recorded five “Stuffs“, or tackles at the line of scrimmage, fewer than rookie teammate Leonard Williams, despite Wilkerson playing 130 more snaps. It’s difficult to approximate exactly how many stuffs he had last season (ESPN says 5, but it could be as high as 7), but these are not great numbers when  compared to the rest of the league. It’s a bit more distressing when considering the primary job of a 3-4 defensive end is to stop the run.

Snaps

He still recorded 12 sacks though, tying him with Whitney Mercilus for 6th most in the league as well as topping Super Bowl MVP Von Miller (though would anyone go so far as to say Wilkerson is more impactful than Miller?). So, what happens if we take a closer look at these sacks? Between the Patriots, Eagles, Dolphins, Browns, Bills, and Titans, Wilkerson had 10.5 of his 12 sacks, including three against the Titans. What do these teams have in common? The answer is they all had offensive lines that were ranked in the bottom half of the league in terms of pass protection according to Football Outsiders. Those same teams are highlighted below:

Three sacks against the mighty Titans
Three sacks against the mighty mighty Titans

So what’s the point I’m trying to convey here? Well to a lesser extent, that Wilkerson’s sack numbers are not as impressive as they appear (the greater point being that Wilkerson is not as impactful as Jets fans perceive him to be). The gifs below are four examples of Wilkerson’s sacks from this previous season that might better illustrate my point.

This is Wilkerson’s second of three sacks against the worst pass-protecting offensive line in the league. You will notice he is lined up in the 3-Technique above the right guard. He pulls a quick hesitation move like he is going to drop back into coverage, and it works as the right side of the offensive line doubles on Mauldin, freeing Wilkerson to get around the edge untouched.

 

In this next gif you see the Bills attempt to run a naked bootleg with Tyrod Taylor rolling right. Wilkerson notices it right away, and is once more untouched as he chases down Taylor for a loss of 12 yards.

 

In this gif Wilkerson is lined up at the 5-Technique above the Giants right tackle. Eli has well over four seconds of a clean pocket, but before he can make his third (fourth?) read, Wilkerson breaks free from the jumbled mess and Manning falls to the ground. Once again, Wilkerson was essentially untouched by the Giants offensive line.

 

Once more Wilkerson finds himself in the 5-Tech above the RT in this next gif. He is somehow left completely unblocked as the tackle and tight end split, leaving Wilkerson free to shoot up the C-gap. The play-action doesn’t work, and Tannehill runs straight into the awaiting arms of the Jets’ defensive end.

 

I’m not attempting to discredit Wilkerson for making these plays nor pushing the notion that all of his sacks are “easy.”  He is an extremely versatile defensive lineman that can impact plays from multiple positions, but he can also be maddeningly inconsistent and fail to show up for big games (including the final three games of 2015 before he suffered a broken leg during Week 17).

In a sense, what I’m hoping to do is find an underlying trend amongst the noise (in this case, sacks). Not to say 12 sacks isn’t a noteworthy feat, but if 1/4 of the sacks last season occurred like those shown above (where lesser players in those same positions could have obtained the same result), then one can make the inference that this extends to his hits and pressures as well. I would also go so far as to say this season is likely an outlier in terms of quantity, and a regression to the mean is more than likely to occur in the near future (similar to the drop-off in production Wilkerson experienced in 2014 after a successful 2013 campaign).

Wilkerson is a great player, perhaps the best on the team, but he also plays the one position where the Jets have an excess of talent. His only irredeemable quality is that he doesn’t have the macro-level impact that you break the bank to keep, and likely why he will be elsewhere in a few weeks.

The Good, The Bad, and The Fitzpatrick

NFL journeyman and noted beard enthusiast Ryan Fitzpatrick is coming off the best season of his career for the New York Jets with the following stat line:

31 Touchdowns, 15 Interceptions, 3,905 yards, 6.9 YPA, 88.0 Quarterback Rating, and a QBR of 63.63.

Those are numbers that would seemingly justify a rather generous contract in a pass-happy league, especially when he broke many Jets records in the process. So why won’t the Jets pony up? Partially because the combination of Chan Gailey, Brandon Marshall, Eric Decker and Ryan Fitzpatrick that produced one of the top offenses in 2015 likely won’t be sustainable for another season. It could also  have something to do with Brandon Marshall having a career season at the age of 32. It also might have to do with the fact that Fitzpatrick has played for six teams in 11 years, including four in the last four seasons. There is also the fact that he has been benched by multiple NFL teams, or that he is one of the worst deep passing quarterbacks in the entire NFL.

This chart below comes from Jonathan Kinsley’s site, Brick Wall Blitz, where he does an accuracy analysis of all quarterback throws 16 or more yards in the air (minimum 8 games played).

Shamelessly ripped this from Jonathan Kinsley's site, which is linked above
Lovingly ripped this from Jonathan Kinsley’s site, please click the link above

I also put this data into a Google spreadsheet here (I color-coded for better visual effects too!) if you want to mess with it yourself. If you take a look at the chart, you will see that Fitz had the second most interceptions on deep passes for 2015 (only behind Ben Roethlisberger), and also had the third worst Accuracy % among the quarterbacks that played 16 games. He did still manage to accumulate 31 touchdowns. This could not be done without the help of Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker, who combined for 26 of said 31 TDs. While a good deal of those touchdown passes were a combination of good ball placement along with precision route running, there were numerous examples of great plays by these two receivers. I call these plays “The Brandon Marshall Effect.”

Below are two examples of said effect:

 

In the above gif Fitzpatrick underthrows what is a well-covered Brandon Marshall, who at the very last second makes an adjustment to undercut the defensive back and add another touchdown to the Jets lead. However, if you notice at the end of the gif, Marshall had the entire outside of the field to his advantage. Not a bad throw by any means, but most receivers don’t make that adjustment with the ball mid-flight.

 

In this gif, Fitzpatrick woefully underthrows Marshall, who has to prematurely stop his route to come back to the ball, but is fortunately bailed out by the safety who takes out his own teammate, leading to another Marshall touchdown.

With those in mind, Marshall won’t always be there to bail his quarterback out. Then the results sometimes end up looking something like this:

 

…And this:

 

In both of the above gifs Fitzpatrick has time in the pocket, but never takes his eyes off of his first reads, and forces the pass into a swarm of defenders for the inevitable interception. Fitzpatrick is also consistently in the upper echelons of “interceptable passes” among quarterbacks, leading Cian Fahey to dedicate an entire blog to Fitzpatrick for being one of the worst decision makers in the NFL.

So who’s the best option as the 2016 Jets quarterback? The answer is…Ryan Fitzpatrick. “B-But Tim, you just spent the last 400 words slandering him!” I know. But reality is, the Jets offense was actually really good last season. They had the third best red zone scoring % in the NFL, the sixth most offensive touchdowns per game, and were the only team to score at least two offensive touchdowns in every game in 2015.

Though Fitzpatrick certainly played a significant part, Chan Gailey’s offensive game plan involved a lot of quick releases and zone blocking to help mitigate what was actually a subpar offensive line. Incorporate that with perhaps the best receiving tandem in the NFL and an underrated running back duo with Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell, and Fitzpatrick really isn’t that bad of an option. Now with that said, I’m all for the Jets bringing back Ryan Fitzpatrick, but not at the cost of “whatever it takes.” Jimmy Sexton, Fitz’s agent, severely overestimated Fitzpatrick’s market while seeking a contract similar to that of Brock Osweiler. The Jets’ current standing offer would pay Fitz around $7 million a season for 2-3 years (little to no guarantees after year one I would guess). The Jets have absolutely handled this situation the right away, and with the QB market almost all but dried up, Fitz may have no better option than to return. Just because the rest of the league vastly overpays for mediocre quarterback play does not mean the Jets should sacrifice financial flexibility for an 11-year veteran, especially one who has been benched by four different teams.

Reality is that the team has very limited options. Every quarterback in the upcoming draft is forecasted to be a project in some way. The front office has shown little to no confidence in Geno Smith. Bryce Petty has a nominal chance at being anything more than a backup quarterback.

Let’s delve into Petty’s situation a bit further. Taking a look at Scott Kacsmar’s round by round analysis of quarterbacks drafted between 1994-2013 does not bode well for Petty. Of the 28 QBs taken in the fourth round during that time span, there was only one Pro Bowl appearance between them (belonging to David Garrard) and they had a combined win % of 41.2%. Under this (admittedly imperfect) analysis, that gives Petty less than a 5% chance of becoming a one-time pro bowler, which is a pretty low bar when searching for your franchise quarterback. This isn’t even factoring in that Petty played in a college spread offense without a playbook, didn’t require him to make reads, and he struggled when under pressure. Talk about an uphill climb. Fitz is far and away the best option of the available free agents, and it appears the Jets are willing to play the waiting game to see who caves first.

Fourth Round might be the worst of all
Yeesh

I didn’t write 2,000 words with the intentions of slandering two of my favorite teams’ key players and suggest the team could do without them. However, I wanted to make light of their efficacy because many armchair GMs act as if the NFL operates in a vacuum. It’s a capped league and devoting 10-20% of your salary cap to two players that have legitimate limitations in their game might not be the best course of action (especially when a casual fan with a modest blog can expose said flaws).

Notable departures:

Damon Harrison, Chris Ivory, D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Demario Davis, Jeremy Kerley, Antonio Cromartie, Darrin Walls, Jeff Cumberland, Antonio Allen, and Ryan Quigley.

Of the above players, the only one I believe will negatively impact the team is the loss of Damon Harrison. However, he only played 50% of the snaps on a defensive line loaded with talent. His loss should be mitigated by the signing of Steve McLendon from the Steelers.

Ivory was a force to reckon with for a time, racking up 501 yards over the Jets’ first 5 games. However, he only managed 570 in the subsequent 10 games (he dressed for) due to various ailing injuries. He is a dynamic rusher, but his reckless play and draw towards contact has limited his longevity.

D’Brickashaw Ferguson’s retirement left a gaping hole at left tackle, but the team was able to replace him by trading for former Broncos left tackle Ryan Clady (more details below). Ferguson was a premier left tackle for about an eight year span, but his play has fallen off considerably the last two seasons. With that said, he had a fantastic career and deserves to be inducted into the Ring of Honor.

Everyone else on the above list is easily replaceable.

Key Re-signings:

Erin Henderson: 2 years, $4 million, $750K guaranteed. He steps into the starting ILB role alongside David Harris, something he did well toward the end of the season (where he had essentially replaced the rapidly declining Demario Davis).

Bilal Powell: 3 years, $11.25 million, $6 million guaranteed. One not-so-hot take: Powell was the Jets most effective running back over the last 10 games of 2015.

Welcomed Additions:

Ryan Clady: 1 year, $6 million, $3 million guaranteed, though contract escalators could kick that figure up to $7.5 million. The 29 year old was considered as one of the best left tackles in the league, amassing four Pro Bowl appearances and three All-Pro honors. However, he has missed 30 games over the last three seasons after tearing his ACL in 2015 and suffering a lisfranc fracture in 2013. As long as he can stay healthy, he projects to be an instant upgrade over Ferguson. The Jets only surrendered a fifth round pick and also received a seventh back in return. If you think that seems familiar, it’s because it’s the same exact trade the Jets made for Brandon Marshall a year ago (and that worked out pretty well). Another great low-risk, high-reward move by Maccagnan to fill a glaring hole in the short term. One would have to imagine this move has no effect on their draft plans as well.

Matt Forte: 3 years, $12 million, $9 million guaranteed. A dynamic three down back who is incredibly dangerous as a receiving option. Worth noting he also has a ton of mileage and is 30 years old.

Steve McLendon: 3 years, $10.5 million, $4 million guaranteed. An underutilized player in Pittsburgh, should fill in nicely as Harrison’s replacement at Nose Tackle.

Jarvis Jenkins: 2 years, $6 million, $3 million guaranteed. A solid defensive end that figures to be a rotational piece/spot starter if Wilkerson is traded or Sheldon Richardson is suspended.

Khiry Robinson: 1 year, $1.175 million. He’s a Chris Ivory-lite type bruising back.

Bruce Carter: 1 year, $760K. Carter is a coverage linebacker and special teams guy.

Notes:

As of April 15, the Jets currently have $3.1 million in cap space, which means more moves are are soon to come.

This year’s draft picks: 1st (#20), 2nd (#51), 3rd (#83), 4th (#118), 7th (#244), 7th (#256).

The team isn’t a contender yet and will likely be unable to match their win total from last season. With that said, it’s foolish to write them off in April. The team finally has a competent and stable front office and coaching staff combination. Just be patient and hope for the best, our time will come.

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