The decision to exercise fifth-year options for first-round picks doesn't garner the attention it would if the timing were different. The focus is on the NFL Draft, which is taking place this week in Philadelphia.
Although the period of exercising fifth-year options with first-round picks begins after a player's third NFL regular season ends (Jan. 2, 2017, for the 2014 first-round picks), the decision usually isn't made until the deadline is approaching. These options must be picked up before May 3.
The fifth year is guaranteed for injury when the option is exercised. The option year becomes fully guaranteed on the first day of the league year in the fifth contract year (approximately March 9, 2018, for the 2014 draft class). Teams that pick up the option year rarely release a player before the full guarantee takes effect. Most notably, the Redskins released quarterback Robert Griffin III in early March 2016 before his $16.155 million option year became fully guaranteed.
These contracts for draft choices can't be renegotiated until the conclusion of a player's third regular season. This means players selected in the 2014 draft are eligible to sign new deals. An emerging trend is for first-round picks with options exercised to receive contract extensions before playing their fourth NFL season.
A record five first-round picks (Tavon Austin, Travis Frederick, Eric Fisher, Lane Johnson and Kyle Long) received extremely early extensions last year since the 2011 collective bargaining agreement put this option system with first-round picks in place despite the 2013 draft class being considered one of the weakest in recent history.
There's a difference in option-year salary depending where in the first round a player is drafted. The fifth-year salary for the top 10 picks is the transition tender (average of the 10 highest salaries) for a player's position in the fourth year of his contract. With players selected outside of the top 10 (picks 11-32), the fifth-year salary is the average of the third through 25th-highest salaries at a player's position.
2014 first-round draft class
The chart below contains the fifth year or option year salaries for 2014 first-round picks.
Thirty of the 32 first-round picks in 2014 were eligible for the fifth-year option when the 2016 regular season ended. Here's the option year prognosis for each 2014 first-round pick.
First pick: Jadeveon Clowney (DE) Houston Texans
The Texans have already picked up Clowney's option year. Healthy for the first time last season, Clowney started living up to the potential that made him the first overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. He was named to the Pro Bowl in 2016 and earned some first team All-Pro/All-NFL honors.
Clowney played a pivotal role in the Texans giving up the fewest yards in the NFL last year despite losing three-time Defensive Player of Year J.J. Watt to a back injury three games into the season. The Texans will be facing a financial quandary with the extension Clowney will likely receive before the start of the 2018 regular season. The six-year, $100 million extension Watt signed in 2014, which made him the NFL's highest paid non-quarterback, is becoming obsolete.
Paying Clowney more than Watt will likely be problematic if the two-time NFL sack leader continues to be a dominant force. The Texans would need to adjust or renegotiate Watt's contract with multiple years remaining as well to avoid having a disgruntled cornerstone of the franchise.
Second pick: Greg Robinson (OT) Los Angeles Rams
The Rams aren't expected to pick up Robinson's option year. The signing of 35-year-old Andrew Whitworth to replace Robinson, who was drafted so high to anchor the Rams offensive line, at left tackle, is an indictment of his performance. The Rams are going to give Robinson a try at right tackle this season.
Third pick: Blake Bortles (QB) Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jaguars won't make a final decision about a fifth year for Bortles until after the draft. The $19.053 million is a pretty steep price for a quarterback that regressed badly in 2016. If the Jaguars use an early pick on a quarterback, Bortles should treat the 2017 season as an audition for quarterback needy teams since the option would surely be declined.
Fourth pick: Sammy Watkins (WR) Buffalo Bills
The Bills reportedly are hesitant about picking up Watkins' option year because of his injury history, which makes the injury guarantee more of a consideration than with other first-round picks. A serious enough injury in 2017 could put the Bills on the hook for $13.258 million next year.
Watkins won't get a chance to impress new head coach Sean McDermott before the option deadline because he is recovering from his second surgery to repair the broken left foot that limited him to eight games last season.
Fifth pick: Khalil Mack (DE) Oakland Raiders
Mack has been everything the Raiders could have hoped for and more. He became the first player in NFL history to earn first team All-Pro honors at two different positions during the same season (defensive end and outside linebacker) in 2015. Mack followed up this outstanding campaign by being named the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year last season.
An offseason contract extension is on Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie's radar screen. A new deal will likely make Mack the NFL's first $20 million per year non-quarterback. That is if Aaron Donald doesn't beat him to it. If Donald gets a new deal first, his contract will serve as salary floor for Mack.
Sixth pick: Jake Matthews (OT) Atlanta Falcons
Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said at a press conference last week that Matthews' option year will be picked up. Matthews has developed into a solid protector of 2016 MVP Matt Ryan's blindside. That's going to put Matthews in position for an extension in 2018 exceeding the five-year, $55.5 million deal with $25 million of guarantees Matt Kalil recently received from the Panthers even if he doesn't elevate his level of play.
Seventh pick: Mike Evans (WR) Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers have already exercised the option with Evans. The 96 passes he caught for 1,321 yards and 12 touchdowns, all career highs, in 2016 as quarterback Jameis Winston's favorite target earned Evans his first trip to the Pro Bowl.
General manager Jason Licht recently expressed Tampa Bay's interest in signing Evans to an extension but didn't give a timetable. An extension this offseason will likely put Evans in the same salary stratosphere as Dez Bryant, Demaryius Thomas, Julio Jones and A.J. Green. These deals, which were signed in 2015, average between $14 million and $15 million per year. With the exception of Green, the players received between $43.5 million and $47 million of guarantees in their contracts.
Tampa Bay waiting until 2018 will put an Evans deal a lot closer to the $17 million per year extension the Steelers gave Antonio Brown in late February to re-set the wide receiver market provided Evans duplicates or improves upon his 2016 performance.
Eighth pick: Justin Gilbert (CB)
The Browns traded Gilbert to the Steelers last preseason after two disappointing seasons in Cleveland. The Steelers cut Gilbert in February. Gilbert's desire to play football was questioned by former Browns teammate Joe Thomas, a 10-time Pro Bowler, after his release. Gilbert remains unsigned.
Ninth pick: Anthony Barr (OLB) Minnesota Vikings
Barr was one of the NFL's most complete and versatile linebackers in 2015. He wasn't quite the same player in 2016. Nonetheless, it will be a surprise if the Vikings don't pick up his option.
10th pick: Eric Ebron (TE) Detroit Lions
Ebron had a career-best of 61 receptions and 711 receiving yards last season in 13 games. Whether the Lions find Ebron's eventual replacement in a pretty deep tight end draft class could be the deciding factor on his fifth year. It would be much easier decision if Lions had picked one spot lower in 2014 so Ebron's option would be at $5.194 million instead of $8.25 million.
11th pick: Taylor Lewan (OT) Tennessee Titans
There's no chance the Titans won't exercise Lewan's option since he is one of the NFL's better young left tackles. With just under $50 million in salary cap space, an extension can easily be done this offseason. The four-year, $48 million extension with $40 million in guarantees 2013 first overall pick Eric Fisher received from the Chiefs last summer could be an important data for Lewan.
12th pick: Odell Beckham Jr. (WR) New York Giants
The Giants are going to pick up Beckham's option. It's hard to find a wide receiver that's ever had a better first three NFL seasons than Beckham. He has 228 receptions (tied for first), 4,112 receiving yards (second) and 35 touchdown catches (tied of fifth) in 43 games. Jerry Rice and Randy Moss are the only wide receivers with comparable production.
Beckham's extension won't come until next offseason when he is entering his contract year. That's been timing on two-time Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning's extensions. Beckham's new deal will probably make him the NFL's highest paid wide receiver, which is currently Antonio Brown at $17 million per year.
13th pick: Aaron Donald (DT) Los Angeles Rams
Donald's option year was one of the first picked up by an NFL team. He should get a new deal in 2017 no later than the middle of September if the Rams adhere to the same timetable they did for first-round picks Tavon Austin and Robert Quinn.
The 2014 Defensive Rookie of the Year has quickly become the NFL's most disruptive force from the interior of a defensive line. According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), Donald's 82 quarterback pressures (combined sacks, quarterback hurries and quarterback hits) were the third most in the league last season and led NFL interior defensive lineman. Donald took the top spot in PFF's top 101 players for the 2015 season. He was second in PFF's 2016 rankings.
Donald, a consensus first team All-Pro the last two seasons, has an excellent chance of replacing Von Miller as the NFL's highest paid non-quarterback. The six-year deal Miller signed last summer as the Broncos' franchise player averages $19,083,333 per year and has $70 million in guarantees.
14th pick: Kyle Fuller (CB) Chicago Bears
The option year should be the least of Fuller's worries after preseason surgery on his right knee kept him out of action last year. There's been some speculation that Fuller will be fighting for a roster spot with the Bears signing cornerbacks Prince Amukamara and Marcus Cooper in free agency.
15th pick: Ryan Shazier (ILB) Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers picking up Shazier's option was expected. Shazier must take on a bigger role with Lawrence Timmons, who has led the Steelers in tackles for fifth consecutive years, joining the Dolphins in free agency.
16th pick: Zack Martin (OG) Dallas Cowboys
Picking up the option year for the three-time Pro Bowler was a no-brainer. If the timing of fellow linemates center Travis Frederick and left tackle Tyron Smith's extensions, who were also first round picks, are any indication, Martin's new deal will be in place before the 2017 season starts.
The Cowboys made Frederick and Smith the highest paid players (by average yearly salary) at their respective positions when they signed their deals. It's hard to imagine that Dallas won't do the same for Martin considering he is arguably the game's best guard. Kevin Zeitler's five-year deal with the Browns averaging $12 million per year, which has $31.5 million in guarantees is the current salary standard for guards.
It remains to be seen whether the Cowboys stick with the league convention of left tackle sitting atop of the offensive line salary hierarchy where Smith's $12.2 million per year average from his 2014 extension serves as a ceiling for Martin. His overall guarantees should easily exceed Frederick's, which are slightly over $28 million, but may fall short of Smith's $40 million.
17th pick: C.J. Mosley (ILB) Baltimore Ravens
The decision on Mosley's option is easy because he has been named to two Pro Bowls in his three NFL seasons. Dont'a Hightower didn't do Mosley any favors by taking less than money to return to the Patriots on a four-year, $35.5 million deal (worth up to $45.55 million with incentives) when his free agent market didn't develop as expected.
18th pick: Calvin Pryor (S) New York Jets
Jets general manager Mike Maccagnan has been non-committal about Pryor's option. The Jets making a serious run at strong safety Tony Jefferson before he took less money from the Ravens in free agency is a strong indication that Pryor isn't on solid ground. Fortunately for Pryor, his $5.957 million option year salary is lowest for the defensive positions. Selecting LSU's Jamal Adams with the sixth overall pick or later in the first round after trading down would likely make 2017 Pryor's last year with the Jets.
19th pick: Ja'Wuan James (OT) Miami Dolphins
The $9.341 million is a bit pricey for a right tackle. However, the lack of ready-made offensive linemen in this year's draft should cut in James' favor with his option year.
20th pick: Brandin Cooks (WR) New England Patriots
Dealing this year's first-round pick (32nd overall) and a 2017 third-round pick for Cooks and a 2017 fourth-round pick in return gives New England its best deep threat since Randy Moss. The Patriots probably didn't part with a first round pick for Cooks to just be a one -year rental. It's going to take a change in New England's payment philosophy with wide receivers for Cooks to ever get a big money deal from the Patriots.
21st pick: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (S) Green Bay Packers
Packers general manager Ted Thompson really can't afford to let Clinton-Dix hit the open market next year given his aversion to building the roster through free agency. Clinton-Dix would easily sign a long-term deal with more in the first year than his $5.957 million option salary should Packers pass on a fifth year.
22nd pick: Johnny Manziel (QB)
It only took Manziel two seasons to wear out his welcome in Cleveland. He's been out of football since the Browns released him in March 2016. The 2012 Heisman Trophy winner may never throw another pass in the NFL.
23rd pick: Dee Ford (OLB) Kansas City Chiefs
Dee Ford's breakout season of 10 sacks could not have come at a better time for the Chiefs. All-Pro linebacker Justin Houston missed the first half of last season recovering from knee surgery and was limited to five regular season games. Although Ford's production tailed off down the stretch last season, $8.718 million in 2018 is a good value for a player than can put pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
24th pick: Darqueze Dennard (CB) Cincinnati Bengals
It's hard to justify an $8.526 million 2018 option year salary for a player that only has four starts in three seasons and isn't expected to crack the starting lineup this year. Dennard's saving grace could be that 2016 first-round pick William Jackson is an unknown quantity after missing his rookie season with a torn pectoral muscle and Adam Jones will be 35 in 2018, which is his option year ($6 million salary).
25th pick: Jason Verrett (CB) San Diego Chargers
Missing 24 of 48 games in three seasons due to injury isn't preventing the Chargers from exercising Verrett's option. That's because he has the potential to be a shutdown cornerback despite lacking prototypical size (5-foot-10, 190 pounds) provided he doesn't show any ill effects from the torn ACL in his left knee that limited him to four games last season.
26th pick: Marcus Smith (DE) Philadelphia Eagles
It's a surprise the Eagles haven't cut Smith since he's been a big disappointment (four sacks in 37 career games). $1,483,515 of salary cap room will be gained by releasing Smith before his $594,000 second day of training camp roster bonus is due in late July.
27th pick: Deone Bucannon (LB) Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals aren't in a position to potentially lose any more defensive players next offseason after a mass exodus of defensive talent in free agency this year.
28th pick: Kelvin Benjamin (WR) Carolina Panthers
The Panthers have already announced that Benjamin's $8.459 million option will be picked up. Benjamin is going to have to become more consistent to command second tier wide receiver money from the Panthers. The bottom of which is in the $11 million per year range.
29th pick: Dominique Easley (DT) Los Angeles Rams
Easley signed a one-year deal with the Rams after the Patriots surprisingly released him last April. He was given a $1.797 million restricted free agent tender this offseason by the Rams that he hasn't signed yet.
30th pick: Jimmie Ward (CB) San Francisco 49ers
A decision hasn't been made on Ward's option year. The new regime of general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan aren't vested in Ward, who can play either cornerback or safety, since they didn't draft him. The decision could come down to where the new regime plans to use him.
Ward's option year salary would be the $8.526 million cornerback amount since that's what he played last season.
31st pick: Bradley Roby (CB) Denver Broncos
The Broncos are exercising Roby's option although he is their third cornerback. Roby would be starting for a majority of the other NFL teams.
32nd pick: Teddy Bridgewater (QB) Minnesota Vikings
The uncertainty of Bridgewater's recovery from the gruesome knee injury he suffered at the end of last preseason probably makes picking up his $12.198 million option too much of a financial risk.