Now that all decisions on fifth year options for the 2020 first round picks have been made, this would be a good time to observe how the contract mechanism, first introduced in the 2011 CBA, has fared over the course of a decade.
Fifth year options over time
Note that the five players that were extended before a decision even needed to be made on their fifth year option (Whitney Mercilus, Lane Johnson, Christian McCaffrey, Kolton Miller, Jordan Love) are classified in the green Exercised line. Also note that Justin Blackmon is classified as Terminated even though there is a chance he is still on the Jaguars’ Reserve/Suspended list. I have also classified Jeff Okudah’s contract as terminated, even though it was instead renegotiated so the Lions would pick up some of Okudah’s salary. According to Ian Rapoport, this made Okudah ineligible for the fifth year option. My guess is that the NFL ruled the renegotiation to be an entirely new contract, and one that did not include the fifth year option within it.
The average number of options picked up per draft is 19.1, and the median is 19.5. The most recent draft where the fifth year options have been decided, 2020, is notable for being the first one ever where more options were declined (14) than exercised (officially 12–if counting Love’s extension, 13). This could be aggravated by five players whose contracts were terminated. But it could also signal a change in attitude for the fifth year option due to a change in the 2020 CBA that fully guarantees the fifth year option, whereas in the 2011 CBA it was guaranteed only for injury. This change first applied to the 2018 NFL Draft, so the sample size is small–and indeed, 2018 had the second highest fifth year options picked up, but it’s a trend to watch in the future of drafts subject to the 2020 CBA in this regard.
Fifth year options by position
It is surprising to see tight end as the position with the most fifth year option pickups (Hayden Hurst the one exception) given the low value of the position, but only eight tight ends have been drafted in this period, so a small sample size may be at play. Conversely, it is also surprising to see edge rusher with a low exercise rate, and given the high volume of edge rushers drafted, it may suggest that the hit rate for the position in the first round is lower, even if drafting one high makes sense due to the value of the position.
Quarterback featured the most share of rookie contracts terminated before the fifth year option could be exercised, possibly another example of a highly desired position being reached for due to its sheer importance. And running back is quite notable for the poor exercise rate–yet another indication that drafting one in the first round is a poor process of draft capital management.
Fifth year options by drafting team
The average exercise rate per team is 59.8%, and the median is 60.8%.
The Texans are the only team to have had all of their players they drafted have their fifth year options exercised, or extended beforehand (Mercilus), and with no 1st round picks in 2020 or 2021, that streak will hold for at least two more years. The Panthers and Chargers lead the league in most fifth year options picked up with 9. The Rams have been infamous for not having a 1st round pick from 2017 to the present, but before then they often had multiple first round picks, and did well in picking players they deemed worthy of the fifth year option.
On the other end, the Seahawks are the only team that has failed to have a single one of its drafted players get his fifth year option exercised (although Seattle themselves did exercise Noah Fant’s fifth year option after acquiring his rookie contract via trade). However, the Seahawks under John Schneider and Pete Carroll also have had fame for not making many first round picks to begin with–usually moving down from the first round–so a smaller sample size may aggravate their numbers to look worse than it might be.
Instead, the teams that really show up as being bad at drafting first rounders are the Browns, Raiders, Jaguars, and Bears. Cleveland has the lowlight of being far and away the team that’s drafted the most players whose rookie contracts were terminated before even reaching the fifth year option decision, at 5 (Trent Richardson, Brandon Weeden, Justin Gilbert, Johnny Manziel, Corey Coleman). The Raiders are the only other team that’s even had more than one such terminated contract, and they both happened in the 2020 NFL Draft with Henry Ruggs and Damon Arnette. The Raiders and Jaguars are tied for most fifth year options failed to be exercised with 8.
Fifth year options by draft pick location
Finally, here was a request after I initially published this article that was easy enough to crunch:
Somewhat not surprising, the 1st overall pick is the only pick that has had all 10 fifth year options picked up–although the rates for the 2nd and 3rd overall picks are not nearly as rosy. The 28th overall pick has only one fifth year option picked up–for Kelvin Benjamin, who failed to cash in on that fifth year as he was traded and then cut from his rookie contract.
With a sample size of only 10 players per pick (except for the 32nd overall pick, due to the Patriots being stripped of a first rounder in 2016 as punishment for Deflategate), there is much back and forth in the chart, but the trendline shows a reasonable decline from 80% at the top to 40% at the bottom.