With the rookie wage scale effectively eliminating bargaining ability for draftees, players seeking their second NFL contract often come to the negotiating table with big demands after feeling undervalued for their first four (or five) years in the league. This year there are plenty of veteran camp holdouts that want to boost their current contracts such as Julio Jones and Earl Thomas, but this article takes a closer look at the guys that have yet to sign a truly negotiated contract in their young careers.
Being selected in the first round of the NFL Draft can become a double-edged sword with the fifth-year option, which provides teams with an incredibly valuable tool to retain top talent at a discounted price. For first rounders, the initial rookie deals are far superior to those of their counterparts taken later in the draft. However, these later round players can then get a seat at the negotiating table for their second contract a whole season earlier. Teams exercising the fifth-year option is very similar to tagging a player; the player receives a fully guaranteed, one-year contract that is based off the market at their respective position.
As we’ll see with the first holdout below, although Le’Veon Bell was a second-round pick and thus not subject to the fifth-year option, he has now been franchise tagged in consecutive seasons. Monday, July 16th was the deadline for franchise tagged players to reach an agreement with their team on a new contract. A deal didn’t come to fruition for any of the remaining players that had received a franchise tag for the 2018 season (Bell, Detroit Lion Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah, Dallas Cowboy Demarcus Lawrence, and LA Ram Lamarcus Joyner).
Here is where the top holdouts currently stand:
RB Top 10 APY – $14,544,000 – $5,083,333 (Bell only one over $8.25 million)
Le’Veon Bell (Steelers): Franchise Tag – 2018 Salary Cap Charge: $14,544,000
% of 2018 Team Cap: 8.04%
Fully Guaranteed Money: $14,544,000
Steelers Cap Space: $5,483,820
For the second offseason in a row Le’Veon Bell has chosen to holdout from attending the Pittsburgh Steelers OTA’s after the club placed another franchise tag on him for the 2018-2019 season. Bell is set to make $14,544,000 this season on the tag, which by rule must be 120% of the previous year’s salary. The money becomes fully guaranteed whenever Bell signs the tag.
Le’Veon believes he should not be paid as a pure running back, and that any reference to the running back market is a mischaracterization of his contributions on the field. He may have a point: on top of leading the NFL in rushing attempts in 2017 with 321, Bell was also 10th in the league in receptions with 85, just 3 fewer than Julio Jones. Bell had 60 more offensive touches than the second highest player, LeSean Mccoy, who had 346 to Bell’s 406.
Bell had reportedly been seeking somewhere in the $17 million APY range on a five-year deal with a signing bonus in the $15-$20 million range to maximize his upfront cash flow. Last season’s biggest sticking point for Bell was guaranteed money, which the Steelers historically are not willing to shell out (Antonio Brown’s 2017 extension converted P5 base salary to signing bonus and includes multiple roster bonuses, but not a dollar of P5 base salary is guaranteed).
Bell had shifted his focus accordingly, but ultimately the two sides were unable to reach a long-term deal before the deadline on Monday, which prompted Le’Veon’s agent to say that this is likely his last season in Pittsburgh. At 26 years old for a running back there is probably one good payday left, and Bell clearly knows this. He aims to maximize his next deal which apparently will come next offseason from a team other than the Steelers.
43DE Top 10 APY – $17,143,000 – $9,125,000
Khalil Mack (Raiders): 2018 Salary Cap Charge: $13,846,000
% of 2018 Team Cap: 7.61%
10/71 at 43DE
Fully Guaranteed Money: $13,846,000 – Fifth Year Option
Raiders Cap Space: $2,342,599
In 2015, Mack became the first player in NFL history to be named an AP All-Pro at two positions in a single season; defensive end and outside linebacker. Following this historic achievement and consistently elite production, the Raiders obviously chose to execute Mack’s fifth-year option, and that brings us to present day. For top ten draft picks, the fifth-year option salary amount is equal to the transition tag at the player’s position during his fourth season (so 2017 defensive end in this case, full list here).
As Khalil Mack watched the Raiders organization shell out a 10-year, $100 million deal to new head coach Jon Gruden, there is no question he wondered why some of that money wasn’t coming his way. Six months later, as Gruden & Co. have made so many head scratching moves it could lead to hair loss, Mack and the Raiders are no closer on reaching a deal. Mack is set to play this season on his fifth-year option of $13,846,000 and become a free agent heading into 2019. The two sides allegedly are not close because of what Joel Corry of CBS Sports describes as “sticker shock” in a recent article. As the quarterback market has continued to grow exponentially over the past year, the non-QB market has not kept up the pace. Mack and fellow 2014 draft-pick-turned-superstar Aaron Donald are not interested in topping the current market, they’re interested in blowing the roof off it. Additionally, although they don’t play the same position, they may be engaged in a game of chicken, as whoever signs a new deal first provides the other with the ability to use that contract as a benchmark.
As we saw with the quarterbacks, particularly Kirk Cousins, guaranteed money is a major focus in contract negotiations this offseason. Olivier Vernon and Von Miller have the premier defensive end/outside linebacker contracts, with Vernon receiving $40.5 million fully guaranteed and Miller $42 million fully guaranteed at signing. Cousins and recently-extended Matt Ryan both have double that amount fully guaranteed, with $84 million and $94.5 million respectively. Khalil Mack’s camp is likely doing all they can to anchor guaranteed money negotiations closer to the recent quarterback numbers than to the top defensive player numbers.
34DE Top 10 APY – $16,666,667 – $7,000,000
Aaron Donald (Rams): 2018 Salary Cap Charge: $6,892,000
% of 2018 Team Cap: 3.85%
7/49 at 34DE
Fully Guaranteed Money: $6,892,000 – Fifth Year Option
Age – 27
Rams Cap Space: $2,206,614
It is not an exaggeration to say that if Aaron Donald ends up playing for his fifth-year option amount of $6,892,000 in 2018 it may be one of the more underpaid seasons for a premier player in NFL history following the standard four-year rookie deal (more on this later). The fifth-year option for a first-rounder outside of the top ten is calculated by taking the average of the 3rd through 25th highest salaries at the player’s position, in this case defensive tackle. Coming off Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2017, it still does not appear that Donald is going to receive the payday he deserves.
The Rams front office have shown with several offseason moves that they are certainly aware of how good they have it with Donald right now, and that they must capitalize before he gets a likely record-setting deal. With only 3.85% of the 2018 Team Cap allocated to Donald, and with Jared Goff, Todd Gurley and Marcus Peters still playing on their rookie deals, the Rams have gone all-in for 2018. The trade for cornerback Aqib Talib, who is set to make $8 million this season, bolsters a secondary that was exposed at times last year. The acquisition of Ndamukong Suh on a one year, $14 million deal creates one of the scariest defensive tackle combos of all time. The franchise tagging of Lamarcus Joyner to avoid negotiating a big, long-term payday for now… I could keep going. All of this is possible because of Donald’s fifth-year option.
Donald deserves a monster contract, a fact he is keenly aware of, but he may have to forego getting it now for a very legitimate chance at a Super Bowl ring instead. There is not much money left to dish out in LA at this point.
WR Top 10 APY – $17,000,000 – $14,000,000
Odell Beckham Jr. (Giants): 2018 Salary Cap Charge: $8,459,000
% of 2018 Team Cap: 4.77%
Fully Guaranteed Money: $8,459,000
Age – 25
Giants Cap Space: $7,288, 664
Honorable Mention goes to Odell Beckham Jr., although it now appears he is going to participate fully in team activities. Coming off a season-ending injury in 2017 likely hurt Beckham Jr.’s bargaining power, but he has made it known he expects to be paid big money soon.
Let’s get back to this pesky fifth-year option, often a common thread seen every year with camp holdouts. What can first round draft picks do to avoid it?
Khalil Mack, Aaron Donald, and Odell Beckham Jr. were all taken in the 2014 NFL Draft, and after remarkable starts to their careers they have all fallen prey to the exploitation of the fifth-year option. Beckham Jr. went 12th overall, Aaron Donald 13th, and then went a guy who did not have the same issue this offseason: Kyle Fuller at 14th overall to the Chicago Bears.
This is admittedly somewhat of a conspiracy theory, and although there can be huge upside, it is likely too risky a move to pull in the NFL… but bear with me here (no pun intended). Kyle Fuller looked like a rising star in his first two seasons with Chicago, then in year three the injury bug reared its ugly head (or did it?). Fuller didn’t play a snap in 2016 following a routine knee scope operation and there were rumblings, some coming from inside the organization, that he was healthy enough to have played at some point. Chicago has never won more than six games in the four years Fuller has been on the team, so his presence in year three of a rebuild (“rebuild” may be putting it nicely) would not have made a difference in the team’s overall success. After the 2016 season the Bears chose to decline Fuller’s fifth-year option for 2018 as concern arose about his desire to play in Chicago, injury concerns, or perhaps his toughness. After an outstanding 2017 season, and with zero returning starters at corner, the Bears were set on retaining Fuller… and now they had to pay top dollar. Did Fuller hold out of 2016 on purpose to avoid the fifth-year option and get a head start on his second contract? It is easy to say “of course not, because if he got hurt in 2017 than this huge gamble would have turned into a disaster.” Perhaps.
Chicago Bears GM Ryan Pace decided to place the rarely-used transition tag on Fuller for 2018, guaranteeing $12.971 million for 2018 and providing Chicago with the “right of first refusal” to match any offer sheet the player may agree to with another team. A few weeks later, after Fuller signed an offer sheet with the rival Green Bay Packers, the Bears matched. Fuller received $18 million fully guaranteed in his four-year, $56 million deal. Mack, Donald, and Beckham Jr. will certainly surpass that amount barring something catastrophic happening this season, but for now it is Kyle Fuller that is in the best financial position. I’m not suggesting this is a route that rookies take to avoid the fifth-year option, nor am I suggesting that this is what happened, but it did work out pretty darn well for Fuller.