CORTLAND, N.Y. - Karl Dunbar, who coaches the New York Jets' defensive linemen, described himself one day here last week as a "man of faith," and he said he draws on that faith when considering the future of his best player.
That player is Muhammad Wilkerson, and Muhammad Wilkerson believes himself to be underpaid. He said as much to the New York Daily News last month ("Do I think I'm underpaid? Yeah."), and it is difficult to argue with him. Since the Jets drafted him out of Temple in 2011, making him the Owls' only first-round pick over the last 28 years, Wilkerson has started 47 of a possible 48 regular-season games, made 114 tackles, collected 181/2 quarterback sacks - including 101/2 last season - forced six fumbles, defended nine passes, and become the most important and versatile player not merely on the Jets' defensive line, but on their entire defense.
But Wilkerson still is playing under his rookie contract, which, according to NFL Players Association records, will pay him $1.2 million in base salary this season and $7 million next season - figures below market value for a player of his caliber. Now that he's three years into his career, the Jets can renegotiate his deal . . . except they haven't. Moreover, if the Jets chose to, they could place the franchise tag on him for the 2016 season, keeping him as a cost-effective asset but running the risk that Wilkerson will tire of waiting for a big payday.
"I'm praying that he's going to be here," Dunbar said last week from the Jets' training-camp headquarters at the State University of New York-Cortland. "He understands he's under contract, and I think he just knows he's going to play it out. That's the great thing: When you perform, you don't have to worry about a contract.
"The only bad thing about it as a coach is we know if we don't pay him, someone else will. I don't think he's worried about it. He's just trying to be the best player he can be today, and that's great for a coach."
Jets coach Rex Ryan told reporters that the team wants to retain Wilkerson - "Mo is a huge part of who we are," he said - and Wilkerson did not hold out of camp, saying last week that he is focused on the same things he's been focused on since he entered the NFL: "Improve technique each and every year, just try to get better from the previous season." It was a typically humdrum statement from one of the league's most exciting defensive players.
Dunbar had first scouted Wilkerson ahead of the 2011 draft, when Dunbar was the Minnesota Vikings' defensive-line coach. The Vikings had the 12th overall pick that year - too high, Dunbar knew, to take Wilkerson, who went 30th to the Jets - but the team had Wilkerson fly up to Minnesota anyway to meet him. He and Dunbar ended up having dinner together at a local country club. They laugh about that dinner now.
"I was mad that we didn't draft him in Minnesota, and two years later, I was coaching him in New York. So it worked out," Dunbar said. "On film, you saw that big sucker run down smaller guys. He played hard all the time. You saw a big, explosive young man who, as a coach, you'd love to have playing for you."
And Wilkerson plays for Dunbar all the time. He doesn't come off the field. He played 1,067 snaps last season, according to the scouting and statistical firm Pro Football Focus, 69 more than any other 3-4 defensive end in the NFL - even though his position is officially listed as "defensive tackle" and even though that term limits the scope of what he does within the Jets' system.
Depending on the scheme that Ryan and defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman are using on a particular play, Wilkerson might line up on the right side. Or the left side. Or over the center. Or he might drop into coverage - which is quite the sight for an opposing quarterback, when a 6-foot-4, 315-pound lineman with arms like an ocean liner's docking ropes goes stride for stride with a receiver.
"I won't put a ceiling on Mo because his ceiling is unlimited," Dunbar said. "He can be as good as he wants to be."
Only then, apparently, will he get paid the way he wants to be.