By Jeff Capellini
I feel a nightmare coming on.
The relative peace and tranquility that was the rare super-successful Jets offseason was tempered a bit last week when news came down that Sheldon Richardson, their incredibly good and often outspoken defensive lineman, would miss the first four games of the 2015 season due to a violation of the league's substance abuse policy.
A punch to the gut? Certainly. A knockout blow? Absolutely not.
At least that was my first reaction to hearing the news.
After all, thanks to a miracle during the first round of the draft, the Jets went from having a very good defensive line to potentially one of the best in the NFL. When USC star Leonard Williams fell to them at No. 6, it all but guaranteed the Jets of having an actual excess of potentially tremendous linemen at their disposal come the opener on Sept. 13 against visiting Cleveland.
Yeah, so much for that theory.
Now with Richardson sidelined until after the game in London against the Dolphins on Oct. 4, the Jets suddenly have to deal with some problematic situations that -- prior to the suspension -- they would have easily put off for a while.
It's no secret that Muhammad Wilkerson wants a lucrative contract extension, one the Jets to this point have for the most part avoided addressing. I realize that they are not against the idea of Wilkerson remaining with the team for a very long time, but it seems like they want to do it on their terms.
Richardson's selfishness should force them to be a bit more flexible and less heavy-handed.
A little over a week ago, the idea of eventually parting ways with Wilkerson was acceptable because of the presence of Richardson, arguably the more talented player, and Williams, whose pedigree suggests potential superstar. However, the problem is now about trust as much as it is the dollars that would have to be doled out down the road to all involved.
As a first-time offender, Richardson got the four-game ban, but if it turns out that his reported marijuana use is more than just a one-time mistake, the penalties double for each subsequent failed test. So, the next time will cost him eight games and a third failed test would put him in Josh Gordon pariah territory, gone for a year.
Of course that's all a worst-case scenario. Richardson could easily see the error of his ways and move ahead with his career without incident. But would that be enough for the Jets to commit to a contract that will likely dwarf what Wilkerson is asking for? Again, it's a very difficult spot for owner Woody Johnson and general manager Mike Maccagnan to be in.
Let's not forget the whispers suggesting Richardson could eventually ask for the type of contract Ndamukong Suh just received from Miami -- six years, $114 million with $60 million guaranteed. He's trending in that direction as a player.
The good news for the Jets is they can put off making that kind of decision until after the 2017 season because they can add a fifth year to Richardson's rookie contract after the 2016 season, sort of like what they did this offseason with Wilkerson, paying him nearly $7 million after shelling out only a combined $6.875 million over the first four years of his deal.
At this point, Wilkerson seems like the safer option for the Jets, even if he is not the better player. The knock on the 30th overall pick in the 2011 draft is he's never made the Pro Bowl, but a big reason for that may be the fact that the Jets haven't made the playoffs since the season before he was drafted. Four straight years of team-wide perception going into the toilet can tarnish the reputation of any player, unless he's too good to overlook.
And it's not like Wilkerson is fast-approaching his sell-by date. He won't turn 26 until Oct. 22 and players at his position often retain their high-end abilities into their early 30s. While Richardson is the better individual talent and has a higher ceiling, the drop-off to Wilkerson is not dramatic. At his best, Wilkerson is a very solid player and should remain so, barring injury, for years.
Plus, there's less risk involved with Wilkerson. He has thus far been a model teammate, in addition to an excellent representation off the field of what the Jets want to be as they attempt to transition from the in-your-face Rex Ryan years to the much more conservative and politically correct Todd Bowles era.
The great wildcard in all of this is Williams. If he performs as advertised during his rookie season it will soften the blow should the Jets decide to either cut ties with Wilkerson or bring him back and face the eventual contract showdown with Richardson.
If Williams turns out to be the perennial Pro Bowler that most experts believe he's destined to become, it would behoove the Jets to have a more salary cap friendly contract on the other side. At this point, it feels like Richardson's potential earning power, coupled with the risk following the drug ban, would be the bigger drain on the Jets, even with all his God-given abilities as a player.
This idea that the Jets can somehow have a prolonged rotation at defensive end is wishful thinking. It will be a luxury when it finally kicks into gear in Week 5, but it's not something that fans can bank on over the long run. The cap, Williams' expected growth and needs elsewhere on the roster (QB, hello!) will make it next to impossible to keep all three guys for the foreseeable future, so the Jets were going to have to address the platoon at some point anyway.
If it was leverage Wilkerson was looking for, as in more proof that he's the better and safer long-term play for the Jets, Richardson handed it to him on a silver platter.
Sheldon Richardson is a tremendous talent, but he has obvious baggage. The Jets are building a team in a manner that stresses more reliance on schemes and concepts than the highlight reels of individual players. It would be better for them to choose the steady, less sexy option here.
Not that Muhammad Wilkerson is going to lose his appeal any time soon.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @GreenLanternJet
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