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Fifth-year option tracker: Predicting outcomes for all 32 first-round picks from 2018

Nov 15, 2020; Cleveland, Ohio, USA; Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield (6) signals at the line of scrimmage during the fourth quarter against the Houston Texans at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Scott Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

One of the biggest changes in the new NFL collective bargaining agreement (CBA) centers around how fifth-year options will be handled for first-round picks, starting with the 2018 draft class that saw Baker Mayfield go first overall to the Cleveland Browns. Now in their third season, each 2018 first-rounder will have their options for the 2022 season exercised or declined following the 2020 campaign.

There was a huge change to the option in one respect that could significantly alter team decision-making. Under the prior CBA, the amount was immediately guaranteed for injury only upon exercising the fifth-year option. This meant that a team could exercise the option after the third season, and as long as they released the (healthy) player before the first day of the league year in the player’s fifth season, they were on the hook for nothing.

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The Chicago Bears cut Leonard Floyd before the 2020 season for this very reason. Otherwise, his fifth-year option would have become fully guaranteed on the first day of the 2020 league year. However, for 2021, the amount is now fully guaranteed when teams exercise these options. Teams now have to make potentially $20 million-plus (if the player is a QB) decisions after just three seasons.

This changes the decision considerably. Obviously, the decision is fairly easy for some elite talents, and the same can be said about players who have clearly been “busts” since being selected in the first round in 2018. However, for teams that are on the fence about a player, they can no longer just exercise the option and worry about it later. 

Another new wrinkle that was introduced is how the option amounts are determined for each player. Previously, there were just two set amounts — one for Picks 1-10 and another for Picks 11-32. Now, the first-rounders can increase their option amount by playing a significant percentage of snaps in their first three seasons or, most notably, by getting selected to one or multiple original ballots for the NFL's Pro Bowl.

Voting for the 2020 Pro Bowl began on Nov. 17, and it could be an important vote for a handful of 2018 draft picks, even though the game will not be played (in case you were wondering why the vote is still happening, absent a game, this is one reason why it’s necessary).

A player selected to at least one Pro Bowl original ballot in their first three seasons will earn the full transition tag/tender amount calculated at their position in 2021 as their fifth-year option in 2022. A player selected to multiple Pro Bowl original ballots will have their 2022 fifth-year option amount elevated to the 2021 franchise tag for their respective position. 

Here are Over the Cap’s current projections for the 2021 franchise and transition Tenders under a projected $175 million salary cap.

2021 Projected Franchise and Transition Tenders
Position Franchise Tag Transition Tag
QB $23,511,000 $21,206,000
DE $17,309,000 $14,442,000
WR $16,020,000 $13,922,000
LB $15,266,000 $13,071,000
CB $14,883,000 $12,922,000
OL $14,117,000 $12,794,000
DT $13,825,000 $11,121,000
S $10,916,000 $9,312,000
RB $10,805,000 $8,704,000
TE $9,902,000 $8,357,000
ST $4,647,000 $4,261,000

Note: All grade rankings are 2018-present, min. 300 snaps

Pick No. 1: Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns

PFF grades, 2018-20: 80.9 overall grade (16/53); 77.8 passing grade (17/53)

Mayfield has certainly made this decision more complicated with his lackluster play so far in 2020 compared to his first two seasons. But it does seem like he’s grown a lot off the field and as a leader, which could be the linchpin to stick with him for a little longer while new general manager Andrew Berry continues to overhaul this roster.

PFF Prediction: Exercise

Pick No. 2: Saquon Barkley, New York Giants

PFF grades, 2018-20: 84.3 overall grade (13/96); 85.5 rushing grade (12/96)

Even with Barkley sustaining an ugly knee injury in Week 2 that could keep him sidelined beyond the option deadline in early May, the Giants will probably buy into the sunk-cost fallacy and invest further in an expensive running back. They just made Graham Gano the third-highest paid kicker in the NFL three months after signing him off the street, so they appear to be flush with cash and cap.

PFF Prediction: Exercise

Pick No. 3: Sam Darnold, New York Jets

PFF grades, 2018-20: 63.3 overall grade (41/53); 61.6 passing grade (41/53)

A team other than the New York Jets could be making the exercise or decline decision for Sam Darnold, as this option would travel in a trade. Presumably, if a team was willing to commit to that trade, they’d then exercise the option for the signal-caller. If the Jets are unable to offload Darnold, then our prediction below probably switches to decline.

PFF Prediction: Trade/Exercise

Pick No. 4: Denzel Ward, Cleveland Browns

PFF grades, 2018-20: 80.2 overall grade (14/183); 85.8 coverage grade (7/183)

This is a very easy decision, unlike with the No. 1 overall pick above. Cleveland’s young secondary has struggled this year and probably will continue to fight through growing pains, but Ward is the steady presence they need at CB1 to fit everything around.

PFF Prediction: Exercise

Pick No 5: Bradley Chubb, Denver Broncos

PFF grades, 2018-20: 68.6 overall grade (59/160); 76.6 pass-rush grade (27/160)

Chubb racked up an impressive 12 sacks in his rookie season opposite Von Miller, but he then tore his ACL in Week 4 of 2019. Now fully recovered while Miller is lost for the season to an ankle injury of his own, Chubb has stepped up as the leading edge rusher in Denver. The Broncos will have to make a decision after the season on a $17.5 million option for Von Miller’s 2021 salary, as well, but the Chubb decision should be the easier of the two.

PFF Prediction: Exercise

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