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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:

Pick Tm Pos AP1 PB St CarAV G College/Univ
1 CAR Cam Newton QB 0 2 3 49 48 Auburn
2 DEN Von Miller LB 1 2 3 33 40 Texas A&M
3 BUF Marcell Dareus DT 0 1 3 22 48 Alabama
4 CIN A.J. Green WR 0 3 3 34 47 Georgia
5 ARI Patrick Peterson DB 2 3 3 47 48 LSU
6 ATL Julio Jones WR 0 1 3 27 34 Alabama
7 SFO Aldon Smith DE 1 1 2 22 43 Missouri
8 TEN Jake Locker QB 0 0 2 13 23 Washington
9 DAL Tyron Smith OL 0 1 3 31 47 USC
10 JAX Blaine Gabbert QB 0 0 3 8 28 Missouri
11 HOU J.J. Watt DE 2 2 3 44 48 Wisconsin
12 MIN Christian Ponder QB 0 0 3 21 36 Florida St.
13 DET Nick Fairley DT 0 0 1 14 38 Auburn
14 STL Robert Quinn DE 1 1 2 24 47 North Carolina
15 MIA Mike Pouncey OL 0 1 3 22 46 Florida
16 WAS Ryan Kerrigan DE 0 1 3 22 48 Purdue
17 NWE Nate Solder OL 0 0 3 28 47 Colorado
18 SDG Corey Liuget DT 0 0 4 19 47 Illinois
19 NYG Prince Amukamara DB 0 0 2 11 36 Nebraska
20 TAM Adrian Clayborn DL 0 0 3 13 35 Iowa
21 CLE Phil Taylor DL 0 0 2 17 39 Baylor
22 IND Anthony Castonzo OL 0 0 3 19 44 Boston Col.
23 PHI Danny Watkins OL 0 0 1 9 26 Baylor
24 NOR Cameron Jordan DE 0 1 4 26 48 California
25 SEA James Carpenter OL 0 0 1 12 32 Alabama
26 KAN Jonathan Baldwin WR 0 0 0 4 33 Pittsburgh
27 BAL Jimmy Smith DB 0 0 1 10 39 Colorado
28 NOR Mark Ingram RB 0 0 1 10 37 Alabama
29 CHI Gabe Carimi OL 0 0 2 9 32 Wisconsin
30 NYJ Muhammad Wilkerson DT 0 0 3 33 48 Temple
31 PIT Cameron Heyward DT 0 0 1 11 48 Ohio St.
32 GNB Derek Sherrod OL 0 0 0 2 12 Mississippi St.

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.

Watt has few problems, but his contract is one

Watt has few problems, but his contract is one.

Obvious Stars (10)

Cam Newton, A.J. Green, Patrick PetersonTyron 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.

  • James

    So when the owners and the NFLPA set up the 3rd through 25th benchmarks, did they realize that the 25th highest paid quarterback means something completely different from the 25th highest paid linebacker or offensive lineman?

    The NFL determines positions for the fifth year option the same way they do for the franchise and transition tags, which means all linebackers and offensive lineman are grouped together, which means the pool of LBs and OL is HUGE compared to everyone else. Here’s a rough idea of what the 25th player at each position looks like:

    QB – Ryan Fitzpatrick/Matt Hasselbeck
    RB – Ben Tate/Knowshon Moreno
    WR – Jeremy Maclin/Michael Crabtree
    TE – Brandon Myers/Tyler Eifert
    OL – Jared Veldheer/Gosder Cherilus
    DT – Alan Branch/Jonathan Babineaux
    DE – Dion Jordan/Justin Tuck
    LB – Karlos Dansby/Mathias Kiwanuka
    CB – Patrick Peterson/DeAngelo Hall
    S – Mark Barron/Bernard Pollard

    The 25th QB is a veteran backup on his last legs, while the 25th OL just signed a big free agent deal in the prime of his career! The 25th TE is barely an impact player, while the 25th WRs are stars. I think you have to take this into consideration when drafting players – you’ll be happy to exercise the 5th year on a QB or TE, but using it on a center, guard, or 4-3 OLB makes them the #3 highest paid player at their position because the top 25 is dominated by LTs and 3-4 OLB/ILB.

    • That’s a really good point. That’s one reason I prefer PFF’s way of categorizing defense. Wouldn’t do too much for the C/G problem though, unless the NFL actually separated all the o-line positions. Then you’d have guys guy Andrew Whitworth whose teams would try to argue to give him guard money.

  • One quick thought: Nick Fairley seems like the highest bust here. I remember him being a potential pick for the very top of the draft. Then DaQuan Bowers also fit that description. I wonder if the big droppers on draft day (maybe even at certain positions) are more generally flops. I’ve tended to guess the other way, that those guys (a la Aaron Rodgers) are the opportunities, and it would be interesting to know what was generally true over time.

    • I thought PFF was pretty high on Fairley. They aren’t the be all end all, but they have pretty good insight, I think. I never thought there would be a day when I cited PFF twice in one day on Chase’s site. Weird.

  • Richie

    Travaris Cadet.


  • Richie

    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.

    Contracts can be so confusing when you start talking about base salary, cap value, guaranteed value, etc.

    Admittedly, I don’t know much about how good Castonzo and Amukamura are. But why would ~$7M next year be cost-controlled? Do you only say that from the standpoint, that if they play well in 2014, that their 2015 salaries are locked in? As of right now, Amukamura is now listed with the 8th-highest base salary for CB in 2015. If his 2014 is about the same as his recent play, would he get paid that much in the open market?

    (Sometimes it can be frustrating looking up salaries on Spotrac, because they don’t track historical contracts. Maybe some day PFR will add “actual salary” to the players history. Or is it already there someplace? I’d love to see some analysis regarding salary/performance comparisons.)

    • Bob

      I think the cost-control is used as a relative term, compared to the previous CBA. Brian McIntyre made a good point the other day with respect to first-round payouts for rookies under the old CBA versus the current CBA:

      “2010 1st rd picks made $600M over first 4 seasons. 2011 1st rd picks slated to make $347M in first 4 seasons”

      Source: https://twitter.com/brian_mcintyre/status/463322152154836993

      The fifth year of those rookie contracts (and sixth for picks 1-16) were similarly large. Compared to that, the fifth-year options for 2011 rookies probably don’t look so bad.

      Two good salary resources:

      Current – Over The Cap ( http://overthecap.com/ ) is the most complete *100% free* resource online.

      In addition to information for each player and team in the current season, data is available for future years. There are also some cool features such as a salary cap calculator to evaluate how various moves (e.g., cuts, trades, free agent re-signings) affect 2014 and beyond ( http://overthecap.com/calculator/ ).

      Past – Ian Whetstone maintained an impressive *100% free* listing of salary cap data for all 32 teams for several years. Some of his data spans back to the early 2000s. The rookie signing numbers are available from 2006-2012. What was nice about Whetstone’s data was that it was all available as downloadable Excel spreadsheets and Word documents.