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Jets go safe route with Wilkerson

4/29/2011 - NFL New York Jets

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- A couple of months ago, the New York Jets never could have imagined being in this position: On the clock in the NFL draft, sitting at No. 30, with defensive end Da'Quan Bowers there for the taking.

It unfolded that way late Thursday night, and the always-vociferous Jets crowd at Radio City was chanting, "We want Bowers!"

The fans knew Bowers, the former Clemson stud, was once considered a potential No. 1 overall pick. But what they didn't know -- what NFL teams didn't know until recently -- was the extent of damage in his surgically repaired left knee.

So while many of the loudmouths in the gallery were thinking this was God's way of rewarding the team for Warren Sapp, Dan Marino and all the legends that, for one reason or another, never became Jets, it was really just a tease -- artificial drama.

The Jets disappointed the pro-Bowers folks, selecting former Temple defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson, a local kid who grew up 30 minutes away in Linden, N.J. It was the right decision. Bowers would've been too much of a gamble.

Wilkerson (6-4, 315) is a versatile player whose best football is ahead of him. Rex Ryan compared him to a young Trevor Pryce, quite a compliment. He dodged a question on Bowers and the knee factor -- he didn't want to trash the kid -- but there's no doubt the knee was a major issue. An official from another team told ESPNNewYork.com that Bowers, who underwent surgery in January, likely will require the always risky microfracture surgery.

"Some people are very concerned," the official said after Round 1, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "It's a concern in terms of longevity and durability."

Look at it this way: Ten defensive linemen were chosen before the Jets' pick, including nose tackle Phil Taylor -- a player the Jets coveted. With so many teams in the defensive-line market, does it strike you as odd that not one of them took Bowers?

Obviously, the entire league had the same read on Bowers. He sank faster than Roger Goodell's popularity. Given their choices with the 30th pick, the Jets took the safe route. They could've taken a rush linebacker -- Akeem Ayers or Brooks Reed -- but neither of them are sure things.

Considering the age and lack of depth on the defensive line, the Jets addressed a need -- and the value was decent in that spot. Wilkerson was projected in some mock drafts to go as high as 18th. If they had the choice of Wilkerson or Taylor, the Jets probably would've opted for Taylor. But, according to GM Mike Tannenbaum, they didn't make any serious efforts to trade up.

"Muhammad fits what we do defensively," Ryan said. "He's a guy who can line head up on a tackle and kick back inside in pass situations over a guard or the center. He's an outstanding fit. … He was excellent in college, but we think his best is yet to come."

Ordinarily, it isn't a sexy choice, picking a defensive end to be a two-gap player in a 3-4 scheme, but Wilkerson is different because of his versatility. He can play end in a three-man line, tackle in a four-man line. He has 35¼-inch arms -- an 85-inch wingspan -- and that is important when you're talking about an interior pass-rusher. It's a batted pass waiting to happen.

Naturally, there are some questions about Wilkerson. That he played at Temple, a member of the MAC, raises questions about the level of competition he faced. He posted 9½ sacks last season as a junior, facing the likes of Buffalo and Central Michigan.

"He went up against Penn State," Ryan said. "You watch that game and you have no concerns."

Willkerson defended his small-school background, and he insisted on a conference call with reporters, "I can help [the Jets] be more disruptive than they are right now."

Another question is whether the Jets view him as a three-down player. If not, what was the point of investing a first-round pick? Asked that question, Ryan didn't sound ultra confident, saying, "I see him as a possible three-down contributor for us, but we'll see."

Considering the current crop of defensive linemen, he'd have to be pretty bad not to be a three-down player. The Jets still need a speed rusher on the edge, a player like … well, a healthy Bowers, who notched 15½ sacks last season.

Of course, a healthy Bowers never would've made it out of the top five. Maybe he'll go on to a long, productive career, and maybe he'll make the Jets look bad for taking a pass. Barring a medical miracle, it won't turn out that way. He has an old man's knee. The Jets need a contributor -- now.