As part of the new collective bargaining agreement, most rookies sign four-year contracts. But as further evidence of the owners’ success during negotiations in connection with the 2011 lockout, teams were granted a club option for a fifth year for all players selected in the first round. The option is only guaranteed for injury, however, so a team can exercise the option for 2011 first round picks and still release the player after the 2014 season.
For players in the top ten, that fifth year salary is equal to an average of the top ten highest-paid players at their position from the prior year. For players selected with picks 11 through 32 — and boy, that number 11 pick never looked as valuable as it did in 2011 — the fifth-year deal is worth an average of the salaries of the players with the 3rd through 25th highest salaries at their position.
The deadline for exercising the fifth-year option on 2011 first rounders is tomorrow, May 3rd. As a reminder, here is a review of the first round of the 2011 Draft:
Both NFL.com and Over The Cap have done a nice job tracking which teams have used the fifth year options and what the expected 2015 salaries will be. While the decision to exercise the option is a binary question, there are a several shades of gray involved in analyzing each team’s decision. In general, the players fall into five categories:
No Longer With The Team (4)
Danny Watkins and Gabe Carimi were both already released by the teams that traded them. Both Blaine Gabbert and Jonathan Baldwin were equally massive failures: both have since been traded to San Francisco, which technically preserves the right of the 49ers to use the fifth year option on them, but … yeah that’s not going to happen.Obvious Stars (10)
Cam Newton, A.J. Green, Patrick Peterson, Tyron Smith, J.J. Watt, Robert Quinn, and Muhammad Wilkerson are among the very best players in the league at their positions. Cameron Jordan is not too far behind them, either. Those eight teams probably spent a collective eight seconds deciding to exercise the fifth year options. In addition, Watt, Quinn, Jordan, and Wilkerson, by not being top ten picks, were given the lower-valued option.
Denver and Atlanta took their time in officially exercising the options on Von Miller and Julio Jones, respectively. With off-the-field issues and injury concerns, some delay was understandable, but there was never any doubt that both players would have their options exercised.
Once you get past the “no longer with the team” and the “All-Pro candidate” players, you get to the more interesting cases.
Had Option Exercised Tag (9)
The Patriots exercised the option on Nate Solder, which is hardly a surprise. Ditto the Chargers and Corey Liuget. Neither player is a superstar, but above-average linemen are always going to be in demand.
It took a little while, but on April 25th, Buffalo announced the option was being used Marcell Dareus. The former Alabama star hasn’t lived up to expectations as the number three pick, but $8M is not too much to commit to a potential All-Pro tackle. Similarly, the Dolphins took their time announcing that Mike Pouncey — one of the many men whose reputation was sullied in the Ted Wells report on the Jonathan Martin/Richie Incognito bullying scandal — would also be retained for a fifth year.
In the AFC North, cornerback Jimmy Smith and defensive end Cameron Heyward have shown steady improvement throughout their careers. Neither player has been a star, but promising 2013 seasons made the decision pretty easy for Baltimore and Pittsburgh, respectively.
In the last few days, the Colts and Giants finally gave in and announced that Anthony Castonzo and Prince Amukamara would be brought back on cost-controlled, fifth year contracts. Neither player has quite lived up to first round expectations, but — and this is evidence of how poorly the CBA treated college players — one need not meet expectations to convince a team to exercise the option.
Finally, in Washington, Ryan Kerrigan… has not yet had his option exercised. This seems like a formality, however: with 24.5 sacks in three years, there’s no chance he won’t be in D.C. for at least the next two seasons. Washington will surely exercise the option on RG3 next year, but then they won’t have to worry about this pesky problem for awhile.
To Be Determined (3)
As of press time (12:01 AM on May 2nd), three players were still in limbo: Cleveland defensive tackle Phil Taylor (No. 21) had not yet heard, while the Seahawks were similarly taking the decision on offensive tackle James Carpenter to the wire. The guess here is that Taylor receives the option, while Carpenter does not.
But by far the most interesting case here is that of Aldon Smith. With 42 sacks in 43 games, this should be one of the easiest decisions. But over the last year, Smith has been in the news more for his off-the-field troubles than his quarterback takedowns. The option for Smith would cost the 49ers about ten million dollars in 2015, which could be seen as the friendliest way to punish a player for legal issues in recent memory.
As a result, some think the 49ers might choose to take a stand and decline to use the option on Smith. But if they do, a banner year from Smith would put the team in a tricky situation. Smith would be a free agent unless the 49ers used the franchise tag on him, but doing so would prevent the club from using the franchise tag on Colin Kaepernick.
In the end, I think San Francisco has to exercise the option. A young pass rusher of Smith’s talents is a steal at $10M. If Smith can’t stay out of the police blotter over the next seven months, the 49ers could still choose to release him. But I think the Kaepernick contract forces San Francisco to budge here, even if it will provide some bad PR for a team that is above reproach in everything it does.
[Update: Cleveland has exercised the option on Taylor, as expected.]
[Update#2: San Francisco has exercised the option on Smith, as expected.]
Did Not Have Option Exercised (6)
Putting aside the four outright busts who are no longer with the teams that drafted them, and our three undecideds, there are just six players who won’t have their options exercised. All but one seems guaranteed to make less money in 2015 on the open market than the option would provide, which is the exact reason their contracts won’t be extended. However, the situations were pretty unique for these six players: in fact, I think they fall into five categories:
- Christian Ponder and Jake Locker are not Ryan Leaf or JaMarcus Russell-level busts, but they do not deserve to be paid like star quarterbacks, either. For Locker in particular, it was an obvious decision: as a top-ten pick, he would be due over $14M in 2015. The concept is only slightly less laughable with Ponder, who would be owed nine or ten million if the Vikings exercised his option.
- Technically, the Saints haven’t announced that they won’t pick up the option on Mark Ingram, but it’s hard to justify the $5M salary he would command. Ingram had the best season of his career from an efficiency standpoint in 2013, but he still gained just 454 yards from scrimmage and scored only one time. I wouldn’t be surprised if, like Reggie Bush, he finds success outside of New Orleans, but it makes little sense for the Saints to spend five million dollars on Ingram in 2015. The Saints will obviously be paying Drew Brees and Jimmy Graham significant salaries by then, and the Saints are not desperate at running back thanks to Pierre Thomas, Khiry Robinson, and Travaris Cadet.
- For Green Bay, Derek Sherrod has been a big disappointment. He’s played in just 12 games with no starts, so he’s not getting $7M in 2015 even if the Packers haven’t announced that fact just yet.
- In Tampa Bay, Adrian Clayborn has been better than someone like Sherrod, but not good enough to be given seven million dollars to play in 2015. For the Saints, Ingram is a solid player but (1) running back isn’t a position of need and (2) cap space is tight. Those factors don’t apply as much to Clayborn, so this reflects how poorly the Bucs view Clayborn as a pass rusher. Tampa Bay signed ex-Bengal Michael Johnson to an enormous contract on the opening day of free agency, and Lovie Smith and company are probably hoping that Da’Quan Bowers can steal the other starting end spot.
- That leaves the Nick Fairley call as the most surprising one in this process. Detroit’s decision not to exercise the option on Fairley is baffling. Sure, Ndamukong Suh also plays defensive tackle and takes up roughly $80M on the Lions cap, but Detroit knew that when they selected Fairley. The proferred reason to decline the option was to “motivate” Fairley, but that doesn’t hold water. If Detroit thinks this will motivate him, it only means he’ll make significantly more money in 2015, which is bad news for the Lions (because they have to pay him more money or because he’s gone). If Martin Mayhew thought that exercising the option would lead to a lazy Fairley, well, he could still be released after the 2014 season. This seems like the type of decision that is very likely to backfire on Detroit. New head coach Jim Caldwell appeared surprised by the news.
If Taylor doesn’t get the option exercised, that would be a curious decision on the level of what Detroit did with Fairley. Carpenter is similar to Clayborn: he has performed far enough below expectations that a team simply can’t justify giving him millions. And if Smith isn’t given the option? Then it means mocking Jim Harbaugh will be just a little less fun in 2014.