Actions speak louder than words in the NFL. While teams are going to spend the rest of the offseason saying they love the players they selected in the 2018 draft, the same front offices just showed us how they truly feel about their players from the 2015 draft.
Under the collective bargaining agreement, rookies drafted in the first round sign (mostly) guaranteed four-year contracts. After three seasons, their team has the right to add a fifth year for a cost-controlled raise. The exact dollar figures for the fifth-year option are determined by the rookie-wage scale. Players drafted in the top 10 receive the average salary of the 10 highest-paid players at their position, while players drafted from the 11th to 32nd pick receive the average salary of the third- to the 25th-highest paid players at their position. The deadline for teams to decide on the options from the 2015 draft was last week, and by looking at which teams exercised fifth-year options on their former first-rounders, we get something better than draft grades—self-evaluations.
First, an example of a fifth-year option might be helpful. Here’s a breakdown of the four-year, $10.14 million deal Aaron Donald signed after being drafted 13th overall in 2014.
Signing Bonus: $5.69 million
2014 Salary: $420,000
2015 Salary: $880,750
2016 Salary: $1.34 million
2017 Salary: $1.8 million
2018 Salary (fifth-year team option): $6.89 million
Last year, the Rams exercised Donald’s fifth-year option for the 2018 season. The option is worth more than triple his 2017 salary, but he’s still earning far below his worth as the reigning Defensive Player of the Year. The fifth-year option is a way for teams to squeeze an extra year of productivity out of young players.
If first-rounders perform anywhere close to what teams expected on draft day, it usually makes sense for teams to pick up that extra year. So without further ado, let’s look at how teams evaluated their own performance in the 2015 draft.
Los Angeles Rams
Todd Gurley, no. 10 overall ($9.63 million option exercised)
The Rams drafted Todd Gurley 10th overall in 2015, and since then he’s third in the league in yards from scrimmage and is tied for the league lead in touchdowns as he’s blossomed into one of the few genuinely game-breaking players in football. So, decent pick. Signing him to a long-term contract might be complicated by the looming megadeal for Aaron Donald and the eventual extension for Jared Goff, so the Rams may play a game of cat and mouse with him not unlike the Steelers’ perpetual game of franchise tag with Le’Veon Bell. Those are the kind of problems teams have when they pick the best player in the draft.
Danny Shelton, no. 12 overall (traded to New England, $7.2 million option declined)
Cam Erving, no. 19 overall (traded to Kansas City, $9.6 million option declined)
Cleveland traded Erving for a fifth-round pick in August, and then sent that fifth-rounder and Shelton to New England for a 2019 third-rounder. Yikes. Neither the Chiefs nor the Pats picked up the options for either player, which is unsurprising considering the Browns gave up on them.
The modern NFL draft mind-set has been to acquire as many picks as possible because the draft is a crapshoot. Sometimes, that strategy still doesn’t work. The Browns had two dice rolls in the 2015 first round and came up with nothing. (Well, other than that future third-round pick.)
Phillip Dorsett, no. 29 overall (traded to New England, $9.4 million option declined)
Dorsett barely made an impact in Indy, where he caught just 51 balls for 753 yards (14.8 yards per reception) and three touchdowns in his first two seasons. The Colts traded him to New England a week before the 2017 season for Jacoby Brissett, who had a shockingly competent season considering the circumstances. Dorsett caught just 12 passes in 15 games in New England, but it’s hard to knock him for not gaining Tom Brady’s trust after he showed up in early September. Dorsett never developed into the role the Colts or Patriots envisioned for him.
New England Patriots
Malcom Brown, no. 32 overall, ($7.2 million option declined)
The then-defending-champion Patriots drafted defensive tackle Malcom Brown out of Texas with the 32nd overall pick, but declined to pick up his option (along with Dorsett’s and Shelton’s). It might have to do more with the deflated defensive tackle market than Brown’s impact. He solidified New England’s defensive interior post–Vince Wilfork with 37 starts in the past three seasons, including more snaps (50.7 percent) than any other New England defensive tackle last year, but Sheldon Richardson and Ndamukong Suh just signed one-year deals for $8 million and $14 million, respectively. New England has a good chance to retain Brown and Shelton for less than the $7.2 million figure they would each be owed in 2019, especially since they have limited pass-rushing ability.
Kansas City Chiefs
Marcus Peters, no. 18 overall (traded to Los Angeles Rams, $9.07 million option exercised)
Since 2015, Marcus Peters leads the league in passes defensed (55) and interceptions (19). Only one other player, Reggie Nelson, has more than a dozen picks in that span. Peters has made two Pro Bowls in his three seasons, was named Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2015, and first-team All Pro in 2016. In February, the Chiefs traded him to L.A. for a 2018 fourth-rounder and a 2019 second-rounder, a surprisingly light haul for a player so good, young, and cheap. It’s hard for a cornerback to make a bigger impact than Peters did in his first three years, and the Chiefs deserve a pat on the back for this pick, but in trading Peters they revealed that they don’t think his selection was a slam dunk for the franchise.
Kevin White, no. 7 overall ($13.9 million option declined)
When the Bears drafted wide receiver Kevin White no. 7 overall out of West Virginia, a 6-foot-3 receiver with 4.35-second 40-yard-dash speed, it seemed like Chicago was adding an elite playmaker alongside Alshon Jeffery. Three years later, the Bears still have no idea what kind of pro White will be.
In the 48 games Chicago has played since 2015, injuries have kept White out of all but five of them. Shin splints in his left leg turned into a stress fracture that cost him his entire rookie season. The next year, he sprained his left ankle in Week 4, which led to a fractured fibula that ended his season. Entering 2017 having played just four games in two seasons, White fractured his right shoulder blade in Week 1 and landed on injured reserve. All told, White was on the field for 238 of Chicago’s 3,079 snaps the past three seasons. Obviously, the Bears were going to turn down White’s $14 million option for 2019. At this point it would be encouraging just to see White play the majority of a season.
New York Giants
Ereck Flowers, no. 9 overall ($12.5 million option declined)
When the Giants drafted Ereck Flowers ninth overall, then-head coach Tom Coughlin called him “a battleship.” The problem with battleships is that they turn very slowly. Among the 55 offensive tackles who played 50 percent of snaps last season, Flowers was the 43rd-best pass blocker, according to Pro Football Focus. That’s an improvement from 2016, when he was 56th-best pass blocker out of 62 qualified tackles. Making things worse, some teammates questioned Flowers’s effort as last New York’s nightmare season dragged on last year. The team reportedly tried to trade Flowers in the week leading up to the draft, but couldn’t find any team willing to part with a mid-round pick.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Tennessee Titans
Jameis Winston, no. 1 overall ($20.9 million option exercised)
Marcus Mariota, no. 2 overall ($20.9 million option exercised)
Tennessee Self-Evaluation: B
Tampa Bay Self-Evaluation: B-
Selecting Winston and Mariota with the top two picks was a no-brainer for the Bucs and Titans, so these grades have to be treated differently than the others. Instead, these grades also reflect how those teams used three years of the most valuable asset in modern teambuilding—a quarterback on a cheap rookie deal that lets teams spend money elsewhere on the roster—and parlayed it into on-field success.
The Titans went 9-7 each of the past two seasons, and limped to a playoff berth last year, winning in a ridiculous comeback in the wild-card round and then getting annihilated by the Patriots in the divisional round. The Bucs have been worse, failing to snap their decade-long playoff drought and finishing last in the NFC South two of the past three seasons. Mariota and Winston have shown flashes that they can be franchise quarterbacks, but both have developed slower than expected. That might be more of an indictment on their teams’ failure to build around them, especially considering what the Rams and Eagles have done with Jared Goff and Carson Wentz.
Each team made big splashes in free agency this offseason. The Bucs signed defensive end Vinny Curry, traded for defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, and drafted defensive tackle Vita Vea to give their defensive line some teeth behind Gerald McCoy, while the Titans replaced head coach Mike Mularkey with Mike Vrabel and signed Malcolm Butler and Dion Lewis in an attempt to bring the Patriot Way to Nashville. If the Titans don’t return to the postseason or the Bucs don’t break their playoff drought, then each will have wasted a prime team-building opportunity.