In the past rookies drafted in the first round were all signed to five and six year contracts, but in general the sunk cost was so high that a relatively low cost fifth year was a given for top picks even if teams were no longer that high on the player. The current CBA added a new wrinkle to that decision making process with a new fifth year option. Teams were given a gift in that they could see a player for three years before opting in to a higher value fifth year. Some teams are still screwing it up.
When we talk about screwing it up we are only talking about top 10 picks because the salary is so high. The fifth year tag is essentially like having an extra transition tag for the season except you opt into it a year earlier and it carries a full injury guarantee. That guarantee can present a problem when used on a question mark talent because the guarantee can get in the way of doing whats in the best interest of the team.
The first really bad use of the option came when the Redskins inexplicably used the tag on Robert Griffin III. Griffin had already fallen out of favor with the organization and was a walking injury waiting to happen. Soon after picking up his option someone woke up and seemed to realize that they now had a potential $16.2 million liability on their hands if RG3 either suffered a really bad injury at any time during the year or anything requiring surgery late in the season. At the time his play was also not worth $16 million (he would sign with the Browns the following year for under $8 million) so even if he remained status quo its not like the team was going to see keeping him at $16 million.
So what did the Redskins do? They benched him. And benching might be a generous term. He more or less wasn’t allowed to do anything football related. At one point I believe they had him playing scout team safety. The Redskins screwed this up so badly they ended up playing the year with a 52 man roster rather than a 53 man roster
This was an extreme event but when you screw up the option decision it is going to impact decision making. If you fall out of contention and the player isn’t worth his option value but is still a contributor what do you do? Some teams would bench him. This isn’t exclusive just to draft picks but most of the time players don’t have injury guarantees deep enough into a contract to cause that to happen.
The most recent examples of that occurring both were with a QB- Colin Kaepernick and Tyrod Taylor. The 49ers stuck Kaepernick on the bench until he agreed to a new contract that freed the 49ers of any future obligations if injured. The Bills went so far as to fire their head coach when he refused to sit Taylor, who the organization wanted benched because of his contract when the team was still in contention for a wildcard spot. These are rarer occurrences with veterans and something that should never happen with rookies since teams have so much control of the situation.
The latest folly with the option looks to be with the Jaguars and Blake Bortles. He’s a fine fantasy QB who puts up a bunch of garbage time stats that are meaningless for a real team. Bortles has simply not been good at the professional level. If you asked me right now what would Bortles get if he was released in March Id say a max of a two year deal for $8 million a year. The Jaguars option for him in 2018 is worth $19 million.
As Bortles continues to struggle in the preseason the Jaguars decision making process is further compromised by their contract decision. If he isn’t showing the upside to necessarily be very competitive is it worth putting him in a position to get hurt? They can simply go to the no risk Chad Henne even if it may not give them the best chance to win. At least if no contract option existed they could go with the higher upside player for a few weeks in real action before making the move to Henne.
These mistakes should never happen. What’s the worst that happens if you don’t pick up the option? Bortles is great? Ok then you franchise tag him for about $22 or $23 million. Is the loss of $3 or $4 million that big of a deal. Absolutely not. Maybe he’s upset without getting the option? Well if that’s the case you don’t want him anyway. Players need to be strong enough to deal with that. Look at how Kirk Cousins responded to the franchise tag when the team said they didn’t see him worth the money. That is what you want. Challenge the player to be great.
This is why a team like the Bills got it right with Sammy Watkins. The guy had talent but not enough to justify the risk. At worst they could have just tagged him for a few bucks more. The Rams, who now have Watkins, did the same thing with Mark Barron eventually re-signing him to a market value contract. Had they picked up the option they would have been locked into $8+ million for a guy they weren’t sure of at the time. He ended up earning $10 million instead after the Rams got a full look plus they had him for the long haul. It was a win/win for them because they took the risk out of the equation by declining the option.
Teams need to take a much harder look at some of these decisions. One of my biggest pet peeves with NFL front offices is how much stock they sometimes put into draft status. Granted some of that is understandable since a player drafted in the top round generally has some type of skill that only a small percentage of players have, but that also leads to a bias in decision making. If you think about a player drafted in the 2nd or 3rd round who is a so-so player for the first few years of his career and then he has a great year as free agency approaches what usually happens? Teams still process cautiously more often than not and offer a very good but not great contract. Think Andy Dalton and Kaepernick and compare their situations to a Tavon Austin, Lane Johnson, or Eric Fisher.
Teams should think about the whole career just like they would do with those later draft picks. Don’t get blinded by the draft status or position. All you are doing is hurting yourself. The Jaguars have nobody to blame but themselves if they don’t feel that they can even consider dressing Bortles from this point forward. Sure it would be nice if he turned into Aaron Rodgers but there was no need for them to simply forget about the other side of the equation that he’s more likely to be Blaine Gabbert.
Jason is the founder of OTC and has been studying NFL contracts and the salary cap for over 15 years. Jason has co-authored two books about the NFL, Crunching Numbers and the Drafting Stage, which are widely circulated in the industry and hosts the OTC Podcast. Jason’s work has been featured in various publications including the Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, NFL Network and more. OTC is widely considered the leading authority on contract matters in the NFL.