BALTIMORE -- As Muhammad Wilkerson sat a few miles from Baltimore's Inner Harbor, cracking open crab legs and sipping on water during an early dinner this week, it was clear at times his mind was already somewhere far from the ocean. Soon the former New York Jets star would be driving back to New Jersey from Maryland – where he spent much of the offseason engrossed in an arduous workout program -- for his son's first birthday party, then it was time to pack his bags for Green Bay, and the next phase of his career.
On Sunday Wilkerson, entering his eighth season but still just age 28, will officially trade in one shade of green -- the Jets colors he wore for seven seasons since being selected 30th overall out of Temple in 2011 -- for another, the darker, and dare I say more distinguished, shade of green adorned by the Green Bay Packers. There has been a lot for the once-dominant hybrid defensive tackle/end to get his mind around, going from a first-round choice to the highest-paid player on the Jets just two years ago, to what became an ugly departure from New York, plagued by injuries and tainted by innuendo and rumor mongering at the end.
To say that Wilkerson is motivated, focused and determined to return to the form that drew comparisons to J.J. Watt in 2016, when the former Pro Bowl lineman landed a deal worth $17 million per year with the Jets, would be an understatement. He has heard all the whispers and is aware of the gossip spread about him -- he stopped being the same player once he got paid, he isn't careful enough about what he puts in his body -- and is intent on changing the narrative with the Packers, seeking to turn the clock back to a time when Wilkerson was most synonymous with being one the game's elite pass rushers from the interior who could also set the edge like a beast in the run game when needed.
"I just learned that's how this business is," Wilkerson said of the drama surrounding his exodus from the Jets and first foray into free agency after being released. "I won't be the first player and I won't be the last that some of these things happen to. So, is there a little extra motivation? Yeah a little bit. But at the same time ... everybody is entitled to their own opinion. I'm my own man and I know what I can do and what type of player I am capable of being, and I feel like I'm going to be able to get back to being the dominant player I can be.
"There is a lot more in this tank, and I know that. I'm ready for this change and the doubters, I'm ready to pretty much shut them up. And people will still talk of course, as people will, but it's a motivation for me, definitely."
Some close to Wilkerson have used the term "rebirth" to best describe this transition. Clearly, it was time to move on from New York, where the Jets were no longer going to pay $17 million a year to a player who had fallen out of favor and who had been dogged by injuries the past two seasons. While Wilkerson has been maligned for his production falling off, he was also playing consistently in severe pain.
The right fibula fracture he sustained in the final game of the 2015 season had a lingering impact on his lower body; at 6-feet-4, 315 pounds, the break down near his ankle was significant. Wilkerson at times felt like he was playing with one foot and one ankle during the 2016 season and the healing was slow going. His initial burst -- once driven by speed and force -- was sapped with his right ankle/foot not able to fire like normal. In 2017 he played through a difficult shoulder injury as well as a broken toe, and by December it was clear his time in New York was waning.
"I would do whatever I had to do to numb pain and things like that, whatever the case may be," Wilkerson said. "Take shots to be able to play so I could be out there to help the team -- that's what I would do. ... I definitely was never 100 percent the last two years."
He was in essence, however, a healthy scratch the final three weeks of the season after being late to a team meeting. By then the Jets were prepared to move in a different direction on their defensive line and didn't want to risk being on the hook for $17 million in future injury guarantees, either. It wasn't the way either side foresaw things going when he signed his record contract.
So by the time Wilkerson was officially released, on Feb. 28, he was already well on his way to finding a healthier plane, both mentally and physically. It was time for change, and Wilkerson had already set up shop at the Under Armour Performance Center in Baltimore shortly after the Super Bowl, formulating a plan with trainer Tony Ponton to finish rehabbing his injury while also building strength, power and conditioning.
"He knew he definitely needed to ramp it up this year considering what his body has been through the past two seasons," Ponton said. "He is really in that state of mind where I've got to prove myself again, because people think he's fallen off. He's got a name for sure, and that name still carries some weight, but he knows he wants to show people that he's still Big Mo.
"Everything he's been dealing with physically, no one really knew the extent of that except for him and me, so it was starting from the ground up, and once he felt strong enough we could really ramp it up. We started with a lot of rehab exercises, but once his shoulder and ankle and toes felt good it didn't take long to ramp it up. I know some days he may have wanted to throw in the towel but he told me, 'You might knock me down, but you're not knocking me out.'"
Ponton, who has worked with Wilkerson for a few years, said there was a different approach this winter. Wilkerson was more stuck in. He was always pushing himself and demanding they start working out twice a day about a month ago -- morning and evening.
"I work with lot of Ravens and a lot of these guys are a few years younger than him and they're looking at him like, 'Damn, he's got quick feet and great hands.' And I said, 'He was the highest paid defensive end in the league at one point for good reason.' When he first walked in his belly may have been out a little bit, when it's go time he shows up. These guys, they look at him as an 'old head,' but he gets in there and he gets after it. And when he was like, 'I need to come back in the afternoon, I want the two-a-days, I was excited to do it. In the past sometimes I'd have to pull a little bit out of him, but this year he came in here like he's going to shock the world. That was his attitude."
Wilkerson looked lean and mean and not out of place at all eating dinner in front of a wall adorned with photos of the legion of football players and wrestlers who have also dined at Jimmy's Famous Seafood in East Baltimore when I caught up with him (his biggest vice, if you want to call it that, was a side order of sweet potato fries that went largely untouched). He was brimming with excitement about heading to the historic Packers, counting down the days until his Sunday flight to Wisconsin (despite the seafood disparity he was about to encounter). Green Bay was the first free-agent visit he made, and even during that trip he was already on the phone with his agent, Chad Wiestling from the team facility telling him this is where he wanted to be.
"This is all new to me, but just going to Green Bay and visiting, I just felt like that was the place for me to have a new start," Wilkerson said. "There's a lot of great tradition there and a lot of great players came through that organization and hopefully I can be a part of something great there and good things can definitely happen for me and the rest of the team there.
"Just when I walked in the facility, just looking at everything, the trophies and everything on the wall -- the energy and the vibe -- it was like, 'I've got to be here; this is the place to be.' And going to the field just walking out of the tunnel and just being able to play there for eight home games and the playoffs, I know the atmosphere will be great. I got chills just walking out of the tunnel and the stadium was empty and I'm just picturing my first home game and I know it will be great, man."
For a player with so much intrigue and supposed flaws, I found it interesting that many of the coaches who know him best -- new Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine (Wilkerson's former coordinator in New York), Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton (Wilkerson's former assistant head coach in New York) and Steelers defensive line coach Karl Dunbar (Wilkerson's former position coach with the Jets) were among those recruiting him hardest and most adamant about reuniting with him.
Ultimately, Wilkerson was always going to agree to a one-year, "prove-in" contract somewhere, and, after pocketing $37 million from the Jets in the past two years alone, this decision was going to be about fit and not money. While his time in New York was somewhat star-crossed, and didn't end in ideal fashion, Wilkerson isn't dwelling on the recent past.
"I have nothing but respect for Jets fans and everyone who supported me in New York," Wilkerson said. "It was an honor to play there and I'm thankful to the Jets for giving me my start."
The defensive line market was stagnant overall this offseason, and Wilkerson could earn as much as $8 million in 2018 if he hits all of his incentives. After enduring three general manager changes and a never-ending quarterback pursuit (to say nothing of "The Butt Fumble") during his tenure with the Jets, the relative stability, annual competitiveness and chance to play with arguably the greatest quarterback in the game (Aaron Rodgers) was always going to carry the day.
"I always had some ups and downs from the time I walked in One Jets Drive," said Wilkerson, a New Jersey native. "So to come to Green Bay, it's all about winning, and they're always in the hunt, and that's something that I definitely want to be a part of. It's definitely something different for me ...
"I don't mean to knock any player or anybody, but I just don't want to be one of those guys in Year 10, or even after that, I'm still trying to find a team that's winning and playing in January and February. I want to win now and be a part of a winning culture now and I want to get to the Super Bowl now. That's really why I chose Green Bay."
With stud Mike Daniels and rising star Kenny Clark, a 2016 first-round pick, rounding out Green Bay's 3-4 front, the Packers defense could make major strides (particularly if Clay Mathews were to rebound and stay healthy along with Nick Perry in the linebacker corps. Rodgers is healthy and motivated after injury robbed him of much of 2017, and it just may be that Wilkerson is a perfect fit in this hue of Green come fall Sundays ... and perhaps January Sundays as well.
"I'm definitely excited, I can't wait for Monday [the start of the Packers offseason program] to get here," Wilkerson said. "When we get to OTAs and we put on helmets I'm probably going to walk to the mirror a few times to see what it looks like. This is definitely different. I'm sure I'll be checking myself out. I'm definitely excited."