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The Fifth-Year Option Is NFL’s Best Form of Self-Evaluation

We can tell how teams felt about their 2016 first-rounders by whether they picked up the extra year on their contracts

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NFL-media-fan industrial complex (The Ringer included) has graded every inch of the 2019 draft, but draft grades are a knee-jerk exercise. It takes at least three years before a draft can truly be evaluated, but nobody wants to wait that long. Luckily we can have it both ways. A week after pundits handed out their grades on the 2019 draft, we can use fifth-year options to determine how teams evaluated their 2016 drafts.

Under the NFL and NFL Players Association’s collective bargaining agreement, every first-round draft pick signs a four-year contract that includes a team option for a fifth season. The compensation in the contract is predetermined. The first four years of the deal pay the player significantly below market value while the fifth-year option gives the player a substantial raise. (For those interested in the specifics, every team’s decision can be found here, with an explanation of how the fifth-year option is calculated at the bottom.)

The price of these fifth-year options is non-negotiable and must be exercised or declined before the player’s fourth season, which creates an organic pass/fail self-evaluation that NFL teams must submit. The teams who exercise the fifth-year option on their first-rounders are happy with their pick, and the teams that don’t are publicly taking the L. Looking at a handful of the first-rounders whose options were exercised or declined by Thursday’s deadline, we can determine how these teams evaluated their picks.

The Purged

No. 14 overall: Karl Joseph, safety, Oakland Raiders
Fifth-year option: Reportedly declined

This move has less to do with Joseph’s play and more to do with Jon Gruden’s purge of the roster he inherited. Just one year after Gruden became captain of Oakland’s ship, he has thrown many of the top draft picks by former GM Reggie McKenzie overboard. He already traded Oakland’s first-round picks from 2014 (Khalil Mack) and 2015 (Amari Cooper), cut Oakland’s second-rounder from 2015 (Mario Edwards), traded away their second-rounder from 2016 (Jihad Ward), and cut their second-rounder from 2017 (Obi Melifonwu). Joseph shouldn’t take this move personally. He was the 40th-graded safety by Pro Football Focus in 2018. Lamarcus Joyner, whom the Raiders signed to a contract with $21.3 million guaranteed this offseason, was ranked 37th. Joseph is unlikely to be re-signed by Oakland at any price, and he’s a good candidate to be cut before the season or traded before the deadline since the Raiders drafted safety Johnathan Abram out of Mississippi State 27th overall.

Self-evaluation: C+

The Back-to-Back-to-Back Receiver Trio

No. 21 overall: Will Fuller, wide receiver, Houston Texans
Fifth-year option: Exercised

Fuller has gotten significantly better in each of his three seasons for Houston: He developed from a raw deep threat as a rookie to a speedy, big-play touchdown machine in 2017 and then added excellent underneath route-running in 2018. Injuries have cut each of his last two seasons short, but he’s one of the league’s best no. 2 options when healthy, and he’s worth every penny of the $10.2 million option for 2020.

Self-evaluation: B+

No. 22 overall: Josh Doctson, wide receiver, Washington
Fifth-year option: Declined

Doctson has had trouble staying on the field for his entire Washington stint. He injured his Achilles and his foot less than a month after he was drafted, and those nagging injuries cost him all but two games of his rookie year. When he was on the field, he wasn’t impactful. In 2017 he caught 35-of-78 targets for 502 yards and six touchdowns, and he followed it up by catching 44-of-78 targets for 532 yards and two touchdowns as he was bothered by a nagging heel injury in 2018. While he showed flashes of downfield brilliance, he never strung together consistent performances in Washington.

Self-evaluation: C-

No. 23 overall: Laquon Treadwell, wide receiver, Minnesota Vikings
Fifth-year option: Declined

Treadwell has been significantly more disappointing than Doctson, but the Vikings don’t get much heat for failing to develop Treadwell because fifth-rounder Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, who went undrafted, have emerged as stars. Still, Treadwell hasn’t given Minnesota much. In 40 games since coming into the league, Treadwell has 91 targets, 56 catches, 517 receiving yards, and just one touchdown.

”Laquon needs to get out of his own way,” Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer told reporters at last year’s NFL combine. “He’s a guy that works extremely hard, probably doesn’t do things the right way all of the time. We’ll be in training camp and he’ll run the stadium steps at night, which is not helping him for practice the next day. He thinks he’s trying to get better, trying to get better, he’s just going about it the wrong way.”

Self-Evaluation: D

The Bustiest of the Busts

No. 15 overall: Corey Coleman, wide receiver, Cleveland Browns
Fifth-year option: N/A

Corey Coleman came into Cleveland just in time for the worst stretch in NFL history. The Browns went 1-31 combined in 2016 and 2017 and were tapped for Hard Knocks in 2018 because apparently Roger Goodell has a dark sense of humor. Coleman stormed into then–head coach Hue Jackson’s office a week into training camp, demanded to know why he was on the second team, and, on the verge of tears, asked Jackson, “If you don’t want me to play why won’t y’all just trade me?”

Trade him they did. The Browns sent Coleman, the first receiver selected in the 2016 draft, to the Buffalo Bills for a future seventh-round pick. Teams cut players all the time, but trading someone to Buffalo for a future seventh-rounder is the NFL version of exile. Coleman didn’t even make Buffalo’s roster, was added then waived by the Patriots, and eventually signed with the Giants midseason. So while the Browns whiffed on Coleman, he is now a Giant and Odell Beckham Jr. is a Brown. Life is strange.

Self-evaluation: F
Extra-credit assignment: A+

No. 10 overall: Eli Apple, cornerback, New York Giants
Fifth-year option: Declined (by New Orleans)

Speaking of the Giants, last season the team cut bait on Eli Apple, New York’s second-most famous Eli (after Manning) and second-most famous Apple (after “the Big”). Apple was a mess in New York and got benched for four weeks in 2017, during which time safety Landon Collins called him a locker room “cancer.” Apple’s struggles as a pro were reportedly linked to a falling out between him and his stepfather, who was also his manager, and an ensuing rift in his family. He played significantly better after being traded to New Orleans for a fourth- and seventh-rounder in October. The Saints declined his option and are happy to let him be a one-and-a-half season rental.

Self-Evaluation: D+ (Giants)
Self-Evaluation: B+ (Saints)

No. 26 overall: Paxton Lynch, quarterback, Denver Broncos
Fifth-year option: N/A

This was a yikes pick at the time, and it doesn’t look better in retrospect. Broncos president of football operations John Elway, desperate to replace Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler, drafted Lynch mostly due to the Warren Harding Error. Everything about Lynch looked like a quarterback, but unfortunately he did not possess accuracy or the ability to read defenses. He started just four games for the Broncos in which he threw four touchdowns and four interceptions before the team cut him ahead of the 2018 season. Lynch was a reach at no. 26, but Elway also accepted blame for failing to develop Lynch properly.

”When you have a young quarterback—you’ve got to be in the same system,” Elway told Mike Klis of 9 News at the NFL combine in February. “You’ve got to be able to have him develop within a system. I’m not sure we were fair to Paxton. He was in three systems in three years.”

Self-evaluation: F

No. 20 overall: Darron Lee, linebacker, New York Jets
Fifth-year option: Declined

The Jets have put themselves in an awkward situation. In March, New York signed Baltimore linebacker C.J. Mosley to a deal with $51 million guaranteed over three years. The signing clearly signaled Lee was on his way out the door and that the team could be looking to trade him before the season. Unfortunately, the best time to do that would have been during the draft. Jets GM Mike Maccagnan did everything short of switch the Jets logo to a “for sale” sign to make some deals in April and couldn’t. Now the Jets head into the season with an awkward dynamic between Lee and Mosley that could become toxic if not handled appropriately by [switches tabs] new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. What could go wrong?

Self-evaluation: C+

The Top Five

Each of the teams that drafted in the top five nailed their picks in 2016, so choosing to extend their players for a fifth season is a no-brainer. This group has panned out so well that these teams have already moved on to a more challenging assignment: re-signing these players to a second contract. Since they all passed the draft-pick test, let’s take a quick peak at these contract negotiations.

No. 1 overall: Jared Goff, Quarterback, Los Angeles Rams

Sean McVay has said the Rams will be patient with Goff’s extension:

Letting Goff go sounds ludicrous. The Rams were the second-most efficient offense in football per Football Outsiders’ DVOA and reached the Super Bowl. Yet Goff was a disaster against the Patriots with a performance emblematic of his limited ability to anticipate receivers breaking open that plagued him for all of December and January. McVay has turned Goff into one of the most productive quarterbacks in football since the coach took over in 2017, but that turnaround was so quick it’s hard not to wonder whether another quarterback could executive a similar offense for a cheaper price. Considering the Rams are on the hook for Aaron Donald’s deal (the second-biggest for a defender after Khalil Mack) and Todd Gurley’s extension that hasn’t even kicked in yet despite a reportedly arthritic knee, perhaps the Rams want to make sure Goff continues to progress before re-investing in him.

No. 2 overall: Carson Wentz, Quarterback, Philadelphia Eagles

The only issue for Carson Wentz is staying on the field. During his final year of college, he broke a bone in his throwing wrist that cost him two months. He suffered a hairline rib fracture that cost him the preseason of his rookie year, and in his second season, he tore his ACL and LCL, possibly costing him an MVP. Most concerning of all, Wentz was shut down in December with back spasms. Still, the Eagles have been so successful and popular during Wentz’s tenure that the team doesn’t have a choice but to sign him, and he could end up as one of the highest-paid quarterbacks in football.

No. 3 overall: Joey Bosa, Defensive End, Los Angeles Chargers

Bosa has played in 35 games and already has 28.5 sacks. Here are the players with the most sacks in their first 35 career games since 1982 (when sacks were first recorded)..

  1. Reggie White (41.0)
  2. Aldon Smith (38.0)
  3. Shawne Merriman (32.5)
  4. Von Miller (32.0)
  5. Derrick Thomas (31.5)
  6. Anthony Smith (30.5)
  7. J.J. Watt (29.0)
  8. Joey Bosa (28.5)
  9. Jevon Kearse (28.0)
  10. Leslie O’Neal (27.0)
  11. Dwight Freeney (26.0)
  12. Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila (26.0)
  13. Charles Haley (25.5)
  14. Bruce Smith (25.0)

Bosa is already one of the NFL’s best pass rushers and has a chance to become the premier sack artist in football, but it’s a double-edged sword for the Chargers. Bosa’s success could also make him a candidate to become the highest-paid defender ever when his contract is up after 2020. Rookie contracts are usually standard negotiations, but Bosa had the longest holdout of any player since the rookie wage scale was introduced in 2011. He missed a month of training camp in a disagreement over guaranteed money (an increasingly common disagreement), and if his rookie negotiation was that contentious, his next contract negotiation could become a fiasco.

No. 4 overall: Ezekiel Elliott, running back, Dallas Cowboys

Many owners hide their feelings toward their players. Jerry Jones does not.

”Do we want Zeke in the foreseeable future on the Dallas Cowboys? The answer is yes,” Jones told a Dallas radio station in January. “That’d be madness to think any differently.”

But Jones was quick to differentiate between what he wants and what is possible.

“Hell, I want a bigger boat,” the man with a 357-foot yacht said. “The question is: Do you have the resources or do you have a plan to get there?”

Dallas may not have Elliott in their plans. The team just shelled out $65 million guaranteed for defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence and still needs to sign quarterback Dak Prescott, wide receiver Amari Cooper, and cornerback Byron Jones to long-term contracts. Even if the team lets Jones go, Dallas’s precarious cap situation will make it difficult to give Elliott the contract that he’ll likely command..

No. 5: Jalen Ramsey, Cornerback, Jacksonville Jaguars

Ramsey was rumored to be a trade candidate at the October deadline last season, and Ramsey elaborated further in December by saying that unless the Jaguars engaged him with a contract extension, he thinks he could be traded.

“I’m going to let my agent and the front office handle that, but after what came out here, what was it, five weeks ago or however many weeks ago it was, yeah, I’m feeling like, yeah, if y’all serious about that [a trade] not being real, then y’all need to make [a contract extension] happen,” Ramsey told ESPN’s Michael DiRocco. “If not, then maybe what came out five weeks ago will happen. We’ll see.”

Ramsey and Jacksonville Head Decider Tom Coughlin still do not see eye-to-eye. Coughlin was irked that Ramsey did not show for voluntary OTA’s last year, and Ramsey was a no-show again this offseason. That Coughlin voiced this concern is technically a no-no (the NFLPA fought hard to ensure players can’t be punished for skipping voluntary workouts), but if Coughlin doesn’t want to extend Ramsey, there’s little the NFLPA can do. Ramsey fell off a bit last year from his dominant 2017, but he would still likely command the largest cornerback deal in football with his next contract. The question is which team would be the one to pry him away from the Jaguars’ claws.