The Option Not Taken: NFL Rookie Contract Decisions


The 2014 offseason marked the first season in which the NFL’s fifth-year option was available for eligible players. Though the league’s 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement brought a drastic decrease in rookie salaries, it altered the rookie contract to a four-year commitment, allowing players to enter negotiations with teams sooner than they had been able to in previous years.  With that predetermined four-year deal came a new fifth-year option, which allows teams to delay negotiations with first-round picks by placing a one-year extension (with a significant pay increase in that year) to a rookie’s contract. It essentially keeps a player from entering the open market or pushing contract negotiations after their fourth year, while guaranteeing an increased salary for that player’s fifth year in the league.

This offseason, 21 of the 32 first-round picks of the 2011 draft had their fifth-year option exercised. Here, we take a look at four players whose fifth-year options were not picked up, and we compare them to players whose options were exercised in similar situations.

Jake Locker, QB, Tennessee Titans

Who got the tag: Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers

Both Jake Locker and Cam Newton were selected in the first ten picks of the 2011 draft, and both carried expectations of a franchise quarterback. When playing, Locker actually has comparable passing stats to the number one selection. His interception percentage and passer rating are very close to Newton’s.1 The problem, however, is that Newton has played in more than twice the games that Locker has. Due to injuries, Locker has yet to play in more than 11 games in a season.

The fifth-year option made perfect sense for Newton’s situation. Following the 2014 offseason purge of Carolina’s receiving corps, as well as the mass exodus of the offensive line, rumors began to appear suggesting that Newton might prefer to test the open market rather than exclusively negotiate with a Panthers team that failed to put a supporting offensive cast around him. In Tennessee, the situation was similarly straightforward. Since Locker was a top-ten pick, the Titans would have to pay him the average salary of the ten highest-paid quarterbacks in the league in order to keep him for a fifth year (with no guarantee that he would last the entire year). Also, by keeping things open for the 2015 offseason, the Tennessee front office will have a chance to evaluate Locker under Ken Whisenhunt before deciding just how badly they want to pursue him.

Nick Fairley, DT, Detroit Lions

Who got the tag: Marcell Dareus, DT, Buffalo Bills

Nick Fairley was drafted in the first-round to accompany Ndamukong Suh, the second overall selection of the preceding year’s draft, in Jim Schwartz’s attempt to build the league’s scariest defensive line. Fairley’s athleticism out of Auburn was the selling point for Detroit, and after an insignificant rookie season, he showed flashes of dominance in his second season until an injury sidelined him for the rest of the year. In addition to injuries, he has frequently had issues with weight, as well as discipline problems and an alleged lack of maturity. Fairley’s inconsistency is a stark contrast from Buffalo’s Marcell Dareus, who has yet to miss a game while averaging more than six sacks per season.

While Dareus’ first Pro Bowl season certainly made the decision to exercise his fifth-year option an easy one, the Lions simply had no reason to gamble on Fairley, a decision that was further justified by Fairley’s recent relegation to third-string defensive tackle behind C.J. Mosely. And with Detroit’s cap-heavy trio of Ndamukong Suh, Calvin Johnson, and Matt Stafford, the oft-maligned Fairley is unlikely to see any sort of lucrative contract from the Lions.

Mark Ingram, RB, New Orleans Saints

Who got the tag: Cam Jordan, DE, New Orleans Saints

New Orleans entered the 2014 offseason in a unique position. With two first-round selections in the 2011 draft, the Saints had the power to exercise the fifth-year option on two of their young playmakers. Mark Ingram was the second player drafted by the Saints in the first round of 2011, and he joined a stable of running backs under Sean Payton. His first two seasons were characterized by frustration. Unaccustomed to the blocking scheme, Ingram often showed impatience and poor lane choice at the line of scrimmage, and he broke few tackles on the rare occasions that he did reach the second level. Cam Jordan, meanwhile, showed excellent potential on the defensive side of the ball, and flourished in 2013 under new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan with a 12.5 sack season and a Pro Bowl nomination.

Even though Ingram showed marked improvement in his third year as the Saints transitioned mid-season to a zone blocking scheme, the Saints elected to tag Jordan only. Ingram has an excellent opportunity to prove his worth in what is now a contract year. With the departure of running back Darren Sproles, as well as the full implementation of the zone blocking scheme, Ingram is sitting at the top of the depth chart, poised to make his case. With rapidly shrinking cap space, a closer negotiation date may actually put the Saints in a better position to sign Ingram to a long-term deal than if they had waited until after a fifth year.

 Adrian Clayborn, DE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Who got the tag: Robert Quinn, DE, St. Louis Rams

Similar to Nick Fairley, Adrian Clayborn was selected in the first round in an attempt to bolster the defensive line by complementing a top-three 2010 draft pick. Clayborn initially seemed to live up to the lofty expectations on the defensive line alongside Gerald McCoy, recording 7.5 sacks and three forced fumbles in his rookie year. That progress was halted, though, when an injury ended his season in just the third game of 2012. His 2013 campaign the next year was nothing more than average, especially in comparison to St. Louis defensive end Robert Quinn, who compiled 19 sacks and earned All-Pro honors in his third season.

The decision to pick up Robert Quinn’s fifth-year option was an easy one for the Rams. The emerging defensive end, who was just 0.5 sacks behind NFL sack-leader Robert Mathis last season, is an early Defensive Player of the Year candidate, and St. Louis is eager to keep the duo of Quinn and Chris Long alive. Tampa Bay, on the other hand, invested heavily in a free agent acquisition that would replace Clayborn. With the arrival of Michael Johnson, Clayborn was forced to switch to left end, where he will now start. A new defensive scheme under Lovie Smith could signal a new beginning for Clayborn, however, as he competes for a future spot on the team in 2014.

  1. Locker: 2.7 interception percentage, 81.1 rating.
    Newton: 2.8 interception percentage, 86.4 rating.
    Stats via Pro-Football-Reference 

About the author: Cale Finta