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Can the Jets replace Muhammad Wilkerson in-house?

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - OCTOBER 29: Defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson #96 of the New York Jets celebrates a tackle against running back Tevin Coleman #26 (not pictured) of the Atlanta Falcons during the third quarter of the game at MetLife Stadium on October 29, 2017 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - OCTOBER 29: Defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson #96 of the New York Jets celebrates a tackle against running back Tevin Coleman #26 (not pictured) of the Atlanta Falcons during the third quarter of the game at MetLife Stadium on October 29, 2017 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images) /
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Muhammad Wilkerson’s days with the New York Jets are numbered. Who will be the guy(s) to fill his void?

The relationship between the New York Jets and Muhammad Wilkerson went from a beautiful marriage to what has now become an ugly divorce. ‘Big Mo’ played his tail off from 2011-15, racking up 300 tackles, 36 sacks, nine forced fumbles and a fumble recovery for a touchdown. He additionally batted down 21 passes and recorded an interception. His play under his rookie contract and fifth-year option made it seem like a no-brainer to retain him.

It’s now easy to imagine general manager Mike Maccagnan wanting that $86 million back along with what would’ve been a third-round compensatory draft pick. Wilkerson’s dip in production stemmed from a lack in merely one department: effort.

The Temple product simply mailed it in at the end of the last two seasons. Showing up late to multiple team meetings and taking himself out of plays led to his three-game benching to conclude the 2017 campaign.

Gang Green can save a whopping $10.52 million in cap room if they part ways with the All-Pro, per Over The Cap. Several writers and analysts have already predicted that outcome to occur, so the question that lies is how will the Jets replace him? Let’s take a look at the options.

If Maccagnan chooses to look in-house, he has a fair share of candidates with the potential for the job. Kony Ealy earned his stripes in Todd Bowles‘ defense this past year as he batted down nine passes, the second-highest total amongst defensive linemen league-wide, per ESPN Stats & Info.

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His 14 tackles and one sack in 15 games may come across as underwhelming, but he did see only 451 snaps. Pro Football Focus gave him an overall grade of 74.6 with a 76.4 in pass rushing. The ex-New England Patriot hits the market this spring and will likely return to the Jets barring a hefty price tag. He would have to put on more weight to take the role of a 3-4 defensive end.

Xavier Cooper and Mike Pennel are the two who can take over in the form of a committee. They also have the size to immediately fit the spot. Cooper finished 2017 with 10 tackles, one sack and a pass deflection in eight games while Pennel had 35 tackles in a full 16 games. Both are free agents with Cooper being restricted and Pennel of the unrestricted variety. Should they stick around, they’d see a major uptick in playing time from last season’s 503 combined snaps.

If Maccagnan goes in the other direction, he’ll have just as many impact players to choose from. Maurice Hurst of Michigan and Taven Bryan of Florida are prospects who have the potential to step right in and start on Bowles’ defensive line. New York will hover around $100 million in cap space by the start of the free agency period, so they’ll have more than enough ammunition to buy one of the better 3-4 defensive ends in the pool if they don’t draft one.

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Given the performance of Ealy, Pennel, and Cooper in the final three weeks, the Jets could realistically roll with the trio if they value other positional needs higher. In those final three weeks, the front-seven held opponents to 367 yards on 96 attempts. If you exclude the 50-yard run by Mark Ingram in Week 15, New York would have surrendered 3.3 yards per clip. Surviving with that group is doable as long as everyone stays healthy.

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