FLORHAM PARK, N.J. – The New York Jets have made some flashy moves in the short time general manager Mike Maccagnan and coach Todd Bowles have been together on the job, like signing Darrelle Revis to a mega-deal and trading for Brandon Marshall .

But the pivotal, foundational transaction of their regime came this past July.

Just hours before the deadline to extend an NFL franchise player, they inked stud defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson to a five-year deal that binds the organization’s top player to the club through his prime, and maintains that the strength of the Jets is still along the defensive line.

It took plenty of time — years in fact — for the sides to ultimately agree on a long-term pact, but now the Jets have the anchor locked up into his early 30s, with his presence so vital to the continued development of fellow linemen Sheldon Richardson and Leonard Williams . Having to go through 2016 with everyone wondering if this was it for Wilkerson in New York — the team that took him in the first round in 2011 — would have been less than ideal, and having to franchise Wilkerson two years in a row would have put the clamps on making any other significant acquisitions.

Many scouts and evaluators I speak to believe that Wilkerson is second to only J.J. Watt among all 3-4 defensive ends and tackles in the entire NFL, and had he hit the open market in 2017 he would have been the top overall free agent, regardless of position.

And while many of the sage recent signings are for players nearing the end of their career — Revis, Marshall, quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick , linebacker Davis Harris — the Wilkerson deal was paramount given that the dynamic and versatile difference-maker is still just 26 years old. And, with the Jets losing nose tackle Snacks Harrison to a free agency — courtesy of a huge offer from the crosstown-rival New York Giants — the specter of possibly losing Wilkerson a year later would have haunted the franchise.

“We didn’t want to lose snacks and Mo,” coach Todd Bowles told me, “and it was very important to get Mohammad back in the fold. And to get (free agent nose tackle Steve) McLendon to go with Sheldon and Leonard, basically we’ve still got a core intact down there … Mo was on the franchise tag, so we knew we had him for another year, and we could still franchise him the following year, too, but you always try to get something done with your veteran players so they can go ahead and play stress-free.”

There were definitely times when Wilkerson had to question whether his future may be elsewhere, and with teams approaching the Jets periodically about trades last year, many in the NFL figured 2016 might be it for him in New Jersey. Things certainly got murky, but the sides made a late surge — after no progress for weeks — in order to beat the deadline and keep him a Jet well into the future. Wilkerson has been all smiles around camp this summer, his energy is high and he is motivated to reward New York’s investment in him.

Many scouts and evaluators I speak to believe that Wilkerson is second to only J.J. Watt among all 3-4 defensive ends and tackles in the entire NFL, and had he hit the open market in 2017 he would have been the top overall free agent, regardless of position.

So don’t minimize the importance of the Jets getting this done.

“I’m definitely excited,” said Wilkerson, who broke his leg in the final game of the regular season but is well on track for a Week 1 return. “Everything worked out in the end, and now it’s just time to go out there and play ball and be dominant and get back to doing what I do on the field. The leg is coming along and doing good. I just have to keep doing rehab and going about my business.”

Bowles is a fierce defensive coach, and he knows as well as anyone that the ultimate power of this team comes from the defensive line. His group of young veterans are impactful against the run and the pass, and make everything else with this defense fall into place. Wilkerson is the primary chess piece, asked to handling myriad positions and responsibilities, and if he and his cohorts continue to produce as they did a year ago then the Jets will be in the thick of the playoff race again.

“With the guys we brought in, and the guys we still have here, we still can be dominant,” said Wilkerson, who told me he intends to play in Saturday’s preseason game against the Giants. “And everything we learn from coach Pepper Johnson — he is teaching us a lot — we know how to continue to be dominant like we’ve been doing.

“It hurt a lot going down and being injured in the last game and us not pulling off the win to get to the playoffs, but that’s something I’m pretty sure myself and lot of my teammates thought about all offseason. For us, 10-6 wasn’t good enough, so we’ve got to find a way to be better than 10-6 to know that wasn’t good enough and we have to better.”

usatsi9035705.jpgMuhammad Wilkerson is helped off the field after he broke his leg. USATSI

Despite his youth, Wilkerson is still one of the old heads around here. On defense, Harris has been tenured longer, but his starting spot could be in jeopardy at some point this season (Revis spent two seasons elsewhere before re-signing with the Jets). He already has six years experience and is embracing that leadership role and all that comes with it, reminding his teammates that despite their rapid turnaround in the standings in 2015, they haven’t really accomplished anything yet.

“We talk about it all the time,” Wilkerson said. “Everybody is itching for the regular season to start so we can get this thing rolling, because we know how good we can be. We just have to make sure we put it together, collectively, all 11 guys on the same page and playing fast and doing everything we can do.

“I know for me, there is always room for improvement. I feel like that for any player, and I’m going to continue to keep pushing myself and I’ve got great teammates and I know they’ll push me as well. We just have to keep doing that, and each day trying to get better.”

More news and notes from Jets camp

  • Right tackle Breno Giacomini remains the biggest injury concern in camp. He produced at a high level last year but has missed the entire preseason with a back problem and there is still no timetable for a return. “I don’t know, I couldn’t answer that,” the veteran said when asked if he had idea when he could practice. Bowles conceded the team has held internal discussions about possibly looking to sign or trade for a veteran right tackle but the team is also very intrigued by a couple on in-house candidates. Ben Ijalan, in particular, seems to be finally coming into his own, and if he plays as well as he has Saturday night against a beefed up Giants pass rush, that could go a ways to easing any push to add depth. Giacomini is adamant he is getting better and will be back at some point in the regular season — though one wonders if the PUP list comes into play — but so far so good with his back-ups.
  • The backup quarterback situation is still being sorted out, but above all else this franchise will prize the long-term prospects of second-round pick Christian Hackenberg . This is about cultivating him for a few years down the road and I’d be very surprised if the organization did anything to compromise that in the near term. This will be a red-shirt year for him, even it meant having to sign a veteran off the street due to injuries at some point. He’s flashed plenty of why at one point he was being looked at as a potential first-overall pick — and, well, plenty of why he may have been a mid-round pick — but no one is getting bogged down by whatever he does or doesn’t show in his first preseason. He’ll be groomed in a manner that puts him in position to be the quarterback of the future; we’ll see in the next 36 months if he takes that opportunity and runs with it.
  • Geno Smith and Bryce Petty battle for the No. 2 quarterback spot. Smith has looked better and more mature, veterans on the team tell me, but in the end he could be trade bait, as keeping four QBs is impossible. Perhaps someone gets hurt and an IR situation occurs. These are big games for both, as Ryan Fitzpatrick is very likely in his final year here after a bitter contract situation this offseason and while some outside this building are writing off Smith as a bust, he’s done enough to keep those in the building intrigued. Some feel he gets more abuse than he deserves, though obviously the early part of his career has not gone according to plan.
  • Bowles knows nothing is a given in the NFL. The Jets coach isn’t fooling himself that just because the Jets shocked everyone and stormed to 10 wins a year ago, that means they’ll exceed that this season. The schedule is much tougher and they are more of a target now and he’s taking the advice of Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians (who he was a coordinator under before landing this job). “Coach Arians always told me, ‘The elevator is slow going up, but it’s fast coming down,'” Bowles told me. “It’s very fast coming down, so you don’t put any stock into that. You have to rebuild every year, and we know what last year was, but last year was last year. We gained nothing from it. Now, it’s a new year and we start out fresh and we’ve got to find a way to win more games than last year.” Bowles likes the mentality of this group and, from a chemistry standpoint, says they are far ahead from this time last year (during his first camp as a head coach). “This year we aren’t standing behind the 8-ball like we were last year,” he said, “so we’re able to do more and scheme more than we could before.”
  • The Jets are looking for a third significant option at receiver to compliment Marshall and Eric Decker . Don’t rule out that being Matt Forte , as the running back excels catching balls out of the backfield, is a pristine route runner and is nice and healthy now after battling issues early in camp. He’s likely to get a run Saturday night and is building a rapport with Fitzpatrick. “We have to have a third option there,” Bowels said, “so you just can’t double those two guys. And we’ve got some players — young receivers and two running backs that can catch the ball and some tight ends that are coming along. So hopefully out of all of them someone will emerge and really be that third guy.”
  • Keep a close eye on rookie receiver Robby Anderson in the final two preseason games. The Temple Owls product (which happens to be where Bowles played) has elite speed and is already showing big-play potential on offense and special teams. Other teams are watching him closely and eager to see if he ends up on the practice squad — a phenomenon the Jets are well aware of — and he stands in very good position to make this football club. “He’s definitely in the mix,” Bowels said. “He has a lot of speed, obviously, and he’s from my alma mater, so that gets him some favorable reviews right there … No, but he is flashing and showing up, man, and how he matures mentally will have a lot to do with how he does going forward.”
  • It was hilarious listening to Marshall — ever candid — compare Fitzpatrick this summer to last summer. A year ago, he was having brutal practices and when Smith was punched in the face early in camp, the receiver figured all was lost. “He was terrible,” Marshall said of Fitzpatrick. “I was sacred … The season was over. We were done.” Of course, Fitzpatrick went on to throw 30 touchdowns and Marshall had a monster year to the point where the receivers were actively campaigning all offseason to bring Fitzpatrick back. Now the chemistry is deep to the point where they are just trying to hone “non-verbal details,” given all the trust between them.
  • Bottom line for the Jets — they could be a better team, better positioned to win a Lombardi at some point, and still finish with as many or fewer wins than a year ago. They have a lot of recent draft picks pushing for playing time, as a primarily veteran team, that’s what you hope for.

Source: CBS Sports / Here’s why securing Muhammad Wilkerson is biggest key to Jets’ playoff aspirations