Many fans of NFL teams expect their general managers to hit on a large fraction of their draft picks. When someone on Twitter praises their team’s first round pick for playing well, you can expect responses to the effect of, “He’s supposed to play well, he’s a first round pick.”
But the reality is nowhere close to this. Tuesday was the deadline for the fifth-year options of Round 1 picks from the 2020 class to be exercised or declined by their teams. And here are the sobering results, courtesy of Over The Cap:
Of the 32 first-rounders, only 12 had their fifth year options exercised or their contracts extended (denoted by a *). That’s a 62.5% failure rate. Fortunately one of the 12 whose option was exercised was Giants’ offensive tackle Andrew Thomas.
The 2020 season may have been an outlier because of the restrictions imposed on NFL teams by the COVID pandemic, which prevented the in-person interactions and extensive medical evaluations that teams rely on to identify the prospects most likely to succeed. In 2019, 19 of 32 first-rounders had their options exercised. In 2018 22 players had their options exercised or their contracts extended.
Even so, that’s a 30-40% failure rate for first-round picks, and the number of declined options tends to increase the farther down one gets in the round: Only two of the 12 players whose option was exercised were drafted below No. 17. So it would be wise to temper expectations about new Giants cornerback Deonte Banks until we see him on the field against NFL competition. The Giants had three Round 1 picks in 2019, and only one (Dexter Lawrence) had his option picked up.
Statistics suggest that there may be a long-term upward trend in declined options, but there is considerable year-to-year variability so it will take a few more years to indicate whether there is something real going on that needs to be explained:
Sometimes there are just unfortunate extenuating circumstances that lead to fifth year options being declined. Playing in the Joe Judge-Jason Garrett offense did Daniel Jones, who had his option declined last year, no favors, though his new four-year contract makes up for that. Chase Young, who looked like one of the best edge defenders in the NFL as a rookie, lost most of the 2021 and 2022 seasons to an ACL tear and was not yet a dominant player when he did return late in the season. There is still hope for him to regain his rookie form in 2023 (except when he plays the Giants).
The Giants actually had good fortune in the case of their 2020 first-rounder, Andrew Thomas, whose option they exercised on Tuesday. The salary of the fifth year option depends on both the player’s position and his accomplishments in his first three seasons. As can be seen in the chart above, at a given position there are four possible salaries:
- A basic amount independent of any criteria other than the team’s willingness to exercise the option.
- A higher amount based on sufficient playing time (75% or more of snaps in 2 of the first 3 seasons, or an average of 75% of more over the first 3 seasons, or 50% or more snaps averaged over all 3 seasons).
- An even higher amount if the player is voted to one Pro Bowl.
- And the highest amount for a player voted to more than one Pro Bowl.
Consider Andrew Thomas vs. 2020 OT classmates Jedrick Wills, Mekhi Becton, and Tristan Wirfs. Becton, whose option was not exercised, is just an unfortunate tale of recurring injuries to his right knee, perhaps compounded by a lack of discipline in managing his weight. He may yet succeed but he will have to prove it this season to return in 2024. It’s widely agreed that Thomas is now a better player than Wills, whose option was exercised, but they reached the same playtime thresholds and will be paid identical salaries ($14.175M).
Meanwhile, Wirfs, who succeeded right off the bat and has made two Pro Bowls, will be paid the highest possible salary ($18.244M). So Thomas, who is arguably now Wirfs’ equal but plays the more highly valued left side of the line, will make $4M less than his Tampa Bay counterpart for three reasons: (1) His poor rookie season (the first half especially) under offensive line coach Marc Colombo and playing with an injury, which set back his progress, (2) the fact that fifth year option rules do not differentiate left from right tackle even though left tackles on second contracts generally make more than right tackles, (3) the rules consider only Pro Bowls and not the more prestigious All-Pro selections (Thomas was a second team All-Pro this year). It all may become a moot point if Thomas signs a contract extension before next season, but if not, the Giants will get a bargain on him in 2024.
Interestingly, Mike Tannenbaum and Peter Engler of The 33rd Team argue that the new collective bargaining agreement is part of the cause of fewer exercised fifth-year options, both because of the performance-based salary increments it introduced and a change in guaranteed money (from guaranteed for injury only to fully guaranteed). They suggest that in the absence of the full guarantee, Joe Schoen may have been more likely to exercise Daniel Jones’ option.
Looking forward to next year, the 2021 draft class seems to be ready to reinforce the “draft is a crapshoot” narrative. Here is the first round from that class, from Pro Football Reference, whose weighted Approximate Value (wAV) metric on the far right is intended to be a combined measure of availability and performance:
A first guess at whose options are most likely to be exercised in 2024 might be: Trevor Lawrence, Ja’Marr Chase, Jaylen Waddle, Penei Sewell, Patrick Surtain II, Devonta Smith, Justin Fields, Micah Parsons, Rashawn Slater, Alijah Vera-Tucker, Jaelan Phillips, Christian Darrisaw, Travis Etienne, Gregory Rousseau. Of those 14, 10 were drafted in the top half of the round.
That still leaves 18 others who for reasons of injury or performance face the 2023 season as a make-it or break-it year. The Giants will not face a fifth-year option question in 2024; it will be Kansas City’s decision whether or not to commit to paying Kadarius Toney north of $13M in 2025.