Due to the uncertainty of the cap that was caused by the pandemic, as well as the clause that now fully guarantees fifth-year options upon execution, teams had to be particularly careful with how they approached the 2018 first-round draft class this offseason. The deadline to exercise the fifth-year option was May 3. There were 22 first-rounders from the class of 2018 who saw their options picked up, including the likes of Baker Mayfield and Lamar Jackson.
We sat down with former Eagles president Joe Banner and Mike Giddings, president of Pro Scouts Inc., a company that provides high level analysis to various teams around the league, to get their thoughts on the 2018 draft class.
Were there any surprises in terms of guys that did not receive their fifth-year option for 2022?
Banner: I thought the Cowboys would exercise Leighton Vander Esch, but I think they were smart not to. There were concerns about his neck coming out of college, and he has missed significant time in the past two seasons with neck and clavicle injuries. You throw in the addition of Micah Parsons in the draft, along with Jaylon Smith, who is under contract through 2025, and I think Dallas was wise to decline Vander Esch’s guaranteed salary of $9.15 million for 2022. If you are the Cowboys, you are hoping you can still do a deal with him in the future that protects the team if he is not on the field that much. He is a difference-making player, but considering their cap situation and the other talent they have at the position, you cannot invest this guaranteed capital in him when he has not proven he can stay on the field.
Dallas was not the only team that drafted a replacement for a former 2018 first-round pick. Prior to the 2020 season, Atlanta acquired TE Hayden Hurst from Baltimore for a second-round pick. Following the selection of Kyle Pitts in the first round, the Falcons exercised Calvin Ridley’s option for over $11 million but declined Hurst’s $5.4 million option for 2022. The combination of moves, along with Julio Jones, gives Atlanta one of the most expensive receiving corps in the NFL.
Banner: This has been their problem for some time. They ended up giving a second-round pick for a short-term rental on a team that they are trying to build. I would not have traded for Hurst in the first place, so while I do not think this was a poor decision, I think they made their mistake prior to last season.
Another storyline that has followed this draft class has been the quarterbacks, with five selected in the first round — Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, Josh Rosen and Lamar Jackson.
Mayfield, Allen and Jackson are all coming off playoff appearances and saw their options exercised, while Darnold saw his option exercised after being traded to Carolina prior last month. Meanwhile, Rosen is signed with San Francisco on a one-year deal. The first three seemed like easy decisions, but Carolina’s $18.6 million investment in Darnold may provide some context into how they view him playing into their future.
Banner: “I would be surprised if he is the answer, but this move at least allows them to preserve his rights if he over-achieves in 2021. The real question for me from this class is Lamar Jackson. The Ravens did not have a choice but to exercise his option for $23 million, but anything beyond that, especially right now, would make me really nervous. He is such a difference-making player, but I am not sure if he throws the ball well enough to win a Super Bowl. Usually, I am someone that sees the value in signing a player the earlier the better. In his case, unless they can get something done now that is reasonable, I would not be worried about buying years to assure myself he can continue to stay healthy. The problem is his market will not go down. If he tears his ACL next year, he will still be wanting full market value.
Giddings: I would not extend him until he shows me that he can win by making consistent plays with his arm. Kyler Murray is in a very similar spot. You cannot win big in this league if you cannot have a quarterback that can place balls in tight windows. If I was Baltimore, I would keep operating on a one-year basis with franchise tags. His legs are so dependent for his game, I would approach his situation like I would a great running back.
Of the nine players in the first round that did not have their option exercised, Giddings provided some context into why and if any of those guys would interest him in free agency.
Giddings: Vander Esch has injury concerns, obviously with the neck. Him being tall and mechanical is a huge worry. Billy Price was a reach, I think, in the draft, but Cincinnati felt they needed a center. I did not love his college tape, and never felt he had enough in the lower half of his body. I think Hurst has dealt with some things, and he is older. Rashaad Penny has had injuries and has not produced. Terrell Edmunds is not real fluid, so that is my real hangup on him. Taven Bryan is another one that is a real try-hard guy, but not a real instinctive football player. He is probably a guy that needs to be inside in a turn-it-loose scheme, and that is not what he has been in. Mike Hughes has had injuries, including to the neck and head. Sony Michel has also had some injuries and continues to deal with knee issues.
Rashaan Evans would be the one guy I would look at because he is not a bad football player, but he is not an elite three-down linebacker. That is what prevented him from getting his option year; he is not on the field enough on third down. If they knew he was that type of player when they drafted him, I think the first round was too high.