A View From the Stands

By Aaron Stanley

The flip side of the months and months of mocks and pundit speculation before the annual NFL draft is looking back a few years later to see how well the most-hyped selections actually panned out.

In some ways, rating these picks post facto is just as subjective as trying to predict where players will go ahead of time. Talented players may flounder because they end up in the wrong system, while mediocre ones thrive because of better surroundings. Others have their development delayed because of injuries.

But under the current collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and its players’ association, we now have a handy metric for objectively rating whether a player was a bust or not.

It’s called the fifth-year option. Under the CBA, players drafted in the first round receive a guaranteed four year contract — the monetary value of which is pre-determined based on the actual slot of his selection.

Before the player’s fourth season, the team has the option to exercise an option for the fifth-year. If the team picks up the option, they effectively retain the player for two more years. If they do not, the player becomes a free agent at the conclusion of the fourth season.

This arrangement minimizes the financial risk teams incur from their first-round selections. The underlying logic is that a team will pick up a player’s option if he is good and will jettison him into free agency if he is a bust.

For example, the Vikings this week opted to retain DT Shariff Floyd and CB Xavier Rhodes for their fifth years, but declined for WR Cordarrelle Patterson. For Patterson, who is an extraordinary kick returner but can’t do anything else, this season will be an audition for a job in 2017.

Interestingly, after this week’s deadline, only 17 of the 32 first round selections in 2013 draft had their options exercised. While this doesn’t necessarily mean that the other 15 were busts, it does tell us that their drafting teams didn’t think highly enough of them to make keeping them around a priority.

This structure is generally unfavorable to players as it does not guarantee them the fifth and most lucrative year of their deal. However, there is a silver lining in that it can allow players that get drafted by bad teams or who don’t fit a certain scheme an opportunity to exit before they hit the prime of their career.

Declining the fifth-year option can also be a way for teams to light a fire under a player who has been resting on his laurels for too long. For a player such as Patterson, who has the talent but hasn’t been able to put it together otherwise, this scenario could be the best thing that ever happened to him

Teams may also opt not to exercise the fifth-year option because they feel the player will be cheaper to resign after the fourth year than the fifth. Examples of this include Tampa Bay RB Doug Martin last season and Denver DT Sylvester Williams this year.

Nobody is writing these players off as busts, but Tampa was able to save money by resigning Martin to a new contract a year early, and Denver ostensibly plans on doing the same thing with Williams — who was a key part of their Super Bowl-winning defensive line.

While the players’ union may gripe about this as another way of the oligarchic team owners taking advantage of young draftees, on the whole it is a positive development because it lines up the incentives for players to be compensated based on their actual performance and value to the team.

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