Were you impressed by the NFL media's obsessive coverage of the marginally relevant fifth-year option decisions for 2011 first-round draft picks? Well, then, I've got a subset fixation that is sure to get you through the next few days. (I can't believe I actually typed that sentence, much less think it's true, but bear with me here in the final interminable hours before the 2014 draft.)
The issue surfaced during last week's #KiperMcShay live mock draft, which did not incorporate trades and left raw a philosophical question teams will face Thursday night. Namely: Does the fifth-year option create more value overall in drafting a player at the bottom of the first round, even via a trade up, than in the second round?
Let's take a moment to review the basics. The 2011 collective bargaining agreement created a new salary structure that, among other things, called for all draft picks to receive four-year contracts. Players selected in the first round, however, would get team options for a fifth year, with a salary set via a pre-agreed formula. Those options must be exercised or declined between the third and fourth seasons, which is why you've heard so much about them this spring.
The idea was to allow teams to protect their top players for an additional year, a tool that could be especially valuable for quarterbacks approaching major second contracts. A player who could be two years removed from free agency and/or the franchise tag has less leverage, of course, than if he were one year away.
Now, back to the #KiperMcShay mock. After the Arizona Cardinals drafted Fresno State's Derek Carr at No. 20, there wasn't another team with a remote quarterback need in the first round. (That's not surprising, considering the best teams draft at the bottom of the round.) So Mel Kiper and Todd McShay didn't select another quarterback until Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater went to the Houston Texans with the first pick of the second round (No. 33 overall).
So the question to consider is whether the Texans, or another quarterback-needy team, would have been justified in trading back into the bottom of the first round to draft Bridgewater. (This could apply to Carr as well, assuming he gets past No. 20 in real life Thursday night.)
The first set of data to consider is the difference in the two contracts. The NFL contract structure changes slightly each season, so the chart compares the deals received by two players who could have been involved in a similar debate in 2013.
Rather than trade up into the first round for quarterback Geno Smith, the New York Jets waited and took him at No. 39. Smith signed a deal with less than half the guarantees of the player drafted in a place the Jets might have traded into, the Texans' spot at No. 27.
On the plus side, the Jets committed $3.068 million to Smith when he would have been guaranteed about $6.181 million had they traded places with the Texans. They also held on to the draft pick, possibly a third-rounder, they would have otherwise surrendered in order to exchange positions from No. 39 and No. 27.
On the other hand, the Jets will be in a less advantageous position if Smith develops into their long-term quarterback. The franchise tag ($16.192 million in 2013) would loom as their only alternative to signing him to a lucrative extension after the 2016 season. With a fifth-year option, the Jets would be able to lock him in for a fraction of that figure. (The fifth-year option for the No. 27 pick of the 2011 draft, Baltimore Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith, is worth $6.898 million. The fifth-year option value of a quarterback taken at No. 27 would have been about $9 million.)
Conceivably, the Jets could more than make up for the extra guaranteed money in the rookie deal, and possibly the value of the extra draft pick as well, during that fifth season. But would a team really pay a franchise quarterback so far below market value and expect a peaceful existence?
That seems unlikely. What it would do, based on discussion I've heard around the league, is impact the timing and leverage of negotiations on a multiyear deal. Leverage would swing toward the team for a longer period of time, potentially producing a more favorable long-term outcome. The team would face less urgency, and the player a less lucrative alternative, with that threat of the fifth-year salary.
If a player really wants a new deal three years into a five-year contract, leverage dictates he'll have to sign at a discount. Don't you think the San Francisco 49ers would like this option in negotiations with quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who was a 2011 second-round pick and thus eligible for free agency/franchise tag after this season?
It has been pointed out in several places that none of the 2011 first-round draft picks have received contract extensions yet. If the trend continues, and teams keep players in their rookie contracts for four years, then the fifth-year option becomes even more valuable. For now, however, it's a projection game. And you can bet there will be a number of teams conducting similar cost-benefit analysis in the bottom of the first round Thursday night.