The early results on the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft are in, and it’s the latest note in an intriguing trend. With the deadline for teams to exercise the fifth-year option on first-round picks passing, we now have information on which players were deemed worthy for an additional fully guaranteed year.
In all, 19 players had their option exercised, from first overall pick Kyler Murray to Washington DE Montez Sweat. This number itself isn’t that unusual. Since the CBA provided for the 5th year option, there’s been an average of 19.1 options exercised every year. However, there is a growing trend of fewer options being picked up than we saw in the early days of the option.
As shown on the chart above by the red dotted line, the usage of the fifth-year option peaked in 2017 and 2018 but saw a sharp decline in 2019 and 2020. In total, three of the five lowest years ever have occurred since 2019. Although 2021 saw the second-most options ever (likely due to the uncertainty regarding the pandemic), even those 21 players involved some surprising decisions.
Why have we seen this drop-off? The easiest answer is to claim that the players simply aren’t as talented but even a quick analysis doesn’t back that up – the record 2017 outlay saw the options exercised on Blake Bortles, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Deone Bucannon, and Kelvin Benjamin, none of whom are still in the league.
Instead, the new CBA may be to blame. In 2020, the league and player’s association changed the rules regarding how much money a fifth-year option was worth. While originally the fifth-year option was solely calculated based on a player’s draft spot and position, the new rules add qualifying levels, specifically whether the player reaches a certain amount of playtime, makes an original-ballot Pro Bowl, or makes multiple original-ballot Pro Bowls. For example, Kyler Murray made multiple Pro Bowls and is eligible for the highest tier, while Devin White hit the playtime requirements but made no Pro Bowls (on the original ballot).
How does this compare to the previous rules? As set in the 2011 CBA, the fifth-year option rules were split at the 10th pick. For the first ten picks, the option was worth the transition tag (average of the top ten salaries at that position), while the later picks were the average of the 3rd to 25th salary (at that position). This 3rd-to-25th average is nearly the same as the most basic option today (for those failing the playtime requirements), while the transition tag value goes to those making a single Pro Bowl. Therefore, only players picked in the top 10 can actually lose money by these rules – everybody else stays the same or benefits.
Overall, the new CBA makes these fifth-year options more expensive. Players who make a Pro Bowl or two can significantly benefit, while nearly all picks are able to reach the playtime barrier and are rewarded. Josh Jacobs may be the poster child, seeing an increase of $3.8M based on his 2020 Pro Bowl selection and likely pricing himself out of Las Vegas.
The other major change from the CBA is the structure of the guarantee. Previously the fifth-year option was guaranteed for injury only, meaning a player cut for skill or cap reasons wouldn’t see that money. That “out” for the team is gone now, with the option fully guaranteed for injury, skill, and cap. We’ve seen this play out in some of the recent decisions, with Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold two of the cautionary tales. With no team biting on a trade for either, Cleveland and Carolina aren’t able to clear their salaries and have to carry these expenses. Daniel Jones is likely directly affected by this change, as New York likely declined his option to avoid this fully guaranteed fifth year.
Although the drop-off in exercised fifth-year options has been quiet and somewhat offset by the pandemic, this is a trend to follow going forward. Teams will continue to be confronted by the decision on how to manage their “graduating” rookies and an ever-expensive fifth-year option plays a major role. While the star players in any draft will make the headlines, it’s the borderline players who put a team most at-the-crossroads. Tua Tagovailoa, Jordan Love, or Mekhi Becton are three of the biggest names to watch next offseason, but history is hinting that they could find themselves on the market sooner rather than later.