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The fifth-year option as a barometer of draft success

How likely are first-round picks to succeed?

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NFL: Washington Football Team at New York Giants
Dexter Lawrence pressures Kyle Allen to secure the Giants’ first win of the 2020 season.
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Even with the 2022 NFL Draft here, NFL front offices have another question to consider: What to do with their 2019 first-round draftees?

Drafted NFL players are under team control for the first four years of their careers. As explained by Over The Cap, the 2020 Collective Bargaining Agreement changed the way players drafted in the first round are treated at the end of their rookie contracts. Beginning with the 2018 draft class, whose four years are now ended, a team may exercise a fifth-year option to retain the services of a player for an additional year.

The basic salary level of a player on a fifth-year option depends on the player’s position, with performance thresholds (snap counts, Pro Bowl appearances) that increase the fifth- year salary for some players. If the option is picked up, the fifth-year salary is guaranteed, as is any fourth-year base salary that was not previously guaranteed. The deadline for picking up the option is this Monday, May 2.

The Giants have two fifth-year option decisions to make for the 2023 season: Daniel Jones and Dexter Lawrence. (The Giants’ other first-round pick, Deandre Baker, lost any chance of a fifth-year option when the Giants released him, and Kansas City faces no similar decision about him.) Should the Giants exercise or decline these options?

Daniel Jones

Jones, who has exceeded the playing time threshold but has not yet made a Pro Bowl, will receive a $22.4M salary (and have an equal cap hit) in 2023 if the option is exercised, a big jump from his $8.4M 2022 cap hit. The pros and cons of picking up Jones’ option are:

  • If the Giants pick up the option, and Jones does not show significant improvement in 2022 under a very capable offensive coaching staff, and presumably with a better offensive line in front of him, the Giants will have a new starting QB in 2023 yet will be paying Jones $22.4M anyway. Carolina is in a position something like this with Sam Darnold, whose option they did pick up last year ($18.9M) but who is likely not to be their starting QB in 2022.
  • If Jones does becomes what Brian Daboll and Co. consider a franchise quarterback this year, and the Giants have picked up his option, then he will be a bargain in 2023: $22.4M would put him 14th among NFL QBs in 2023 cap hit.
  • If the Giants do not pick up the option and he is replaced in 2023, he costs nothing. But if he has a great 2022 and the Giants want to keep him, then they will either have to place the franchise tag, which Over The Cap projects to be $31.5M, or the transition tag, projected to be $28.3M, on him. In either case the Giants would have the right of first refusal to match any external offer, but if Jones signed elsewhere the Giants would get two first-round picks as compensation if he is franchised while with the transition tag they would get none. (There is also an exclusive franchise tag that would allow only the Giants to negotiate with Jones.)

So the decision to decline comes down to a gamble that Joe Schoen will have to pay Jones about $9M more in 2023 (which would still make him only the 11th-highest paid QB) than if he exercised the option. The only other team facing a quarterback fifth-year option decision this year is Arizona, which will have to pay Kyler Murray $29.7M in 2023 if they exercise the option because Murray has been selected to more than one Pro Bowl.

Dexter Lawrence

Lawrence’s situation is somewhat different, because the IDL position is not nearly as highly valued as QB. Lawrence, like Jones, qualifies for the playing time increase in salary and has not yet made a Pro Bowl. But as an IDL his fifth-year option would cost only $10.8M, making him the 17th-highest paid at that position.

Lawrence has been successful as a Giant, but some view him as not having been worth the No. 17 draft pick used on him. It so happens that 6 interior defensive linemen were taken in the first round in 2019, so there are quite a few comparisons to use in judging his case. Overall, Lawrence falls in the middle of pack among his peers, having had less impact on the passing game than several of them but with reasonably comparable statistics overall. The Giants’ front office will likely compare him to his former teammate Dalvin Tomlinson, who only got $7.5M per year from Minnesota. Two of the 2019 IDLs have already had their options picked up (Quinnen Williams and Ed Oliver).

A simple way to evaluate draft success

Fans expect first-round picks to become great players. The 2020 Collective Bargaining Agreement inadvertently provided an objective way to evaluate whether that is more often the case than not: 32 case studies each year in which teams have to make a decision about whether or not to keep the drafted player for another year. That is a low bar for greatness, but it at least indicates that the player was good enough that his team had decided not to replace him when they had the chance to walk away.

The 2018 draft class was the first whose fifth-year option fell under the rules of the new CBA. According to Spotrac, about two-thirds of the 2018 class (21 of 32) had their fifth-year option exercised, and another one negotiated a contract extension. More promising for Giants fans is that nine of the top 10 2018 picks had their options picked up, the only exception being quarterback Josh Rosen.

The 2019 class looks as if it might not be as successful. As of this writing, only five first-rounders have had their option exercised (Nick Bosa, Quinnen Williams, Ed Oliver, Brian Burns, and Noah Fant). In January, Marc Ross of NFL.com had a dim view of this class, predicting that only half of the first-round picks would have their options exercised. Since then, two of the players he predicted not to get the fifth-year option have gotten it, but there were certainly many fewer stars to come out of that first round than in 2018. Last month, Brad Spielberger of PFF was a bit more optimistic, predicting that 20 of 32 would have their options exercised. Ross said no about both Giants, while Spielberger said yes.

The 2020 first-round class still has another year to make its case before the fifth-year option decision is made. Surely Giants fans hope that Andrew Thomas’ option is exercised, if he is not already signed to a contract extension by next year. But even at this stage, it seems unlikely that Jeff Okudah, Tua Tagovailoa, C.J. Henderson, Damon Arnette, Jalen Reagor, Jordan Love, Noah Igbinoghene, and Jeff Gladney (not to mention Henry Ruggs III and Isaiah Wilson, who are already out of the NFL) will see their options exercised. That’s already one-third of the 2020 class, with another half-dozen or so players probably on the edge.

Giants fans anticipate the No. 5 and No. 7 picks becoming cornerstones of the next winning Giants team. History, though, says that is more of a coin flip than most imagine. We’ll know in four years, when their option decisions are made. Of course, if neither one has his option picked up, Joe Schoen may not be the one making that decision.