Leonard Williams faces uncertain future as Jets mull defensive-line pick

The 2019 season will be a big one for Jets defensive end Leonard Williams, who is entering a contract year and could be grooming a rookie to take his place if he doesn’t produce. 

A look at what’s happening around the New York Jets:

1. Year of the (Big) Cat? The last time the Jets had a high-profile defensive lineman entering the final year of his contract (Sheldon Richardson, 2017), they traded him. The time before that (Muhammad Wilkerson, 2015), they drafted another defensive lineman in the first round (Leonard Williams), sending a message to Wilkerson.

Now, four years later, Williams finds himself in the Wilkerson position, preparing for the last year of his contract and wondering about his long-term future. The questions will intensify if the Jets select a defensive lineman with the No. 3 overall pick in the NFL draft, perhaps Nick Bosa, Quinnen Williams or Ed Oliver.

Round and round, we go. The Jets have a way of repeating history.

Unlike 2015, when Wilkerson, 24, was the subject of pre-draft trade speculation, it’s all eerily quiet on the Williams front. The Jets are intent to ride it out with him, waiting to see if he can deliver a blockbuster season that would warrant a massive, long-term extension (or, failing that, a franchise tag). It could backfire, of course, if he doesn’t rise to that level. In that case, they could lose him next year for nothing.

Unlike Wilkerson, who skipped voluntary workouts because he was unhappy with his contract, Williams is participating in the offseason program. What does that mean? Not a whole lot. In the end, it’s all about production. Wilkerson moped for months, but he enjoyed a career year and landed a five-year, $86 million deal (a bad investment, as it turned out). If Williams plays lights out, he’ll get paid, too.

Everything is aligned for Williams to have that kind of season. He’s all-in, which is what you’d expect from a player in a contract year. (By the way, he’s making a handsome wage in 2019 at $14.2 million.) Before team workouts in New Jersey, he trained at the Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks, California. Instead of a normal routine, he changed up his workouts, sprinting up beach dunes and taking jujitsu classes to improve his body control and balance. He also believes he will thrive under fiery new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.

“One of my favorite coaches of all-time was Coach [Ed] Orgeron, and he was an intense coach,” Williams said of the current LSU head coach, his position coach at Southern California. “I feel like that type of energy brings the best out of people.”

Still, Williams is only human. If the Jets invest a $30 million-plus guarantee in a hot-shot rookie, he’ll have to be thinking about what it means for his future.

2. An Oliver twist: In his latest mock draft, NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah has the Jets picking defensive tackle Ed Oliver at No. 3. That’s a name we hadn’t heard in the conversation. Oliver has been compared to Aaron Donald, whom Gregg Williams coached with the Los Angeles Rams, so it’s easy to connect some dots. Still, it doesn’t sound like a great fit for the Jets.

Oliver was a dominant nose tackle at the University of Houston, but he would be undersized (6-foot-2, 287) at that position at the NFL level. Can his rare explosiveness compensate for his size? That’s a question you shouldn’t have to ponder when you’re talking about the third pick in the draft, especially if Quinnen Williams — a better overall prospect as an interior lineman — still is on the board.

Jeremiah acknowledged that he, too, would take Williams over Oliver. But, in projecting the Jets’ choice, he believes Oliver could “kind of be more of the Robin type of a player to Batman there with Leonard Williams, just a different skill set to give you a little something different. So that’s what his strength would be.”

An interesting thought, but give me Williams, Nick Bosa or Josh Allen over Oliver.

3. Big-name visitors: Teams have completed their top-30, pre-draft visits. The notables who visited the Jets were Williams, Allen, Oliver, defensive end Rashan Gary, tackle Jonah Williams, tight end Noah Fant, tackle Andre Dillard, center Erik McCoy and linebacker Jachai Polite, who could be an intriguing third-round option.

4. High praise for Gase: Not many people in football know Adam Gase better than former Jets and Miami Dolphins executive Mike Tannenbaum, who worked closely with him in Miami. Tannenbaum’s take on Gase is fascinating. He compared the Jets’ new coach to one of their old coaches.

“I think there are a lot of similarities between him and Rex Ryan,” Tannenbaum said on “Flight Plan,” a new Jets podcast on ESPN. “Both those guys are just inherently very confident people. When you sat with Rex in a meeting, he would tell the special-teams coach, ‘Hey, this week we’re not going to practice kickoff returns because they’re not going to score.’ He wouldn’t just say it to say it. He said it because in his soul he felt that way.

“I can’t tell you how many times Adam would walk up in the hallway and say, ‘Hey, just so you know, when we’re ahead by 25, I’m going to onside-kick it in the fourth quarter because I want people to know how high our standards are.’ He would truly feel that way. … I think one of his super powers, one of his true gifts is he’s very confident and very relatable, especially on the offensive side of the ball.”

Tannenbaum said Gase will bring a “fresh energy and approach and moxie on that side of the ball that hasn’t been there in a long time.” He said Gase, like Ryan, has the “ability to instill confidence and be extremely relatable to the players. Those are two skills — regardless of how you’re portrayed by the media — without those two skills, you have no chance.”

5. Inside the Jets’ schedule: Once the NFL schedule is released, we spend hours (days?) dissecting it, looking for quirky trends. To me, one of the most important factors — a hidden factor — is the amount of rest in between games. When a team has an edge over its opponent, it can be a big advantage.

In the Jets’ case, they have six games in which there’s an uneven number of rest days — only two in their favor. But in one of those cases, their edge is minimized. In Week 5, the Jets will play the Philadelphia Eagles on 14 days’ rest (after a bye), but the Eagles will have 10 days after a Thursday night game in Week 4. So much for a big edge there.

The Jets have shorter rest in both games against the Patriots, which certainly doesn’t help their chances of pulling an upset. The most lopsided situation is Week 11 against the Washington Redskins, who will have 14 days to a normal seven for the Jets.

After that game, the Jets should be in good shape for the rest of the way. The only uneven game is Week 16, but it works in their favor — 10 days for the Jets (after a Thursday night game), seven for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Those extra three days late in the season will be huge for a certain running back, who will be amped to face his former team.

6. Are you ready for some football? This will be a hectic week at One Jets Drive. While draft preparation continues, Gase will conduct a voluntary minicamp on Tuesday and Wednesday. New coaches are permitted to have an extra minicamp, and this is it. It will be a watered-down version, with no offense-versus-defense drills. Still, it will mark the first opportunity for the players to run plays in the new offensive and defensive systems.

On Tuesday, general manager Mike Maccagnan will conduct his pre-draft session with reporters. Prediction: He will declare he’s happy at the No. 3 spot, prepared to pick one of the top three players on his board instead of trading down (unless he does).

7. The last word: “We’re going for that one team that’s been winning every year in that division. [Gase] said that’s one of the main reasons he came here, and we all believe that. The guys that are new additions to the team, we’re pretty much here for the same reason. We know there’s one team that’s been on top for a long time. We feel we have the [attitude] and the players and the game plan is to get that done.” — linebacker C.J. Mosley.

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