Fifth-Year Options Revisited

by Eric Eager|May 6, 2024

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The NFL’s deadline for teams to pick up the fifth-year option on their 2021 first-round picks has expired, with 18 of the 32 selections that year having their option exercised. As we talked about last year, the fifth-year option was largely an add-on to a cheap rookie contract until the updated CBA of 2020, which applied to first rounders chosen in 2018 and after.  

Now, depending on the player’s performance, the fifth-year option can be pretty expensive. This has led some teams that drafted later in the 2021 first round to decline the option, despite the player being productive during their first three years (e.g., Najee Harris).  

Examining Fifth-Year Option Rates | SumerSports 

Since 2018 we’ve seen the top end of the draft experience more success than pre-2018, but the success rate of the second half of the first round has tailed off considerably: 

Additionally, another variable I’ve tracked is the percentage of first-round picks who were traded before their second contract, and how this rate has evolved over time. Since not all players from the 2020 draft and beyond have had a second-contract decision, we will look at players drafted 2019 and earlier: 

There has certainly been an uptick in players being moved from the second half of the round, as well as the beginning of the draft, with trade rates largely constant through the middle of the round. 15 of the players taken in the 2020 and 2021 drafts have already been traded, along with Kenny Pickett from the 2022 first round.  

The trade data can help us better contextualize option rates by position. We built a Loess curve for option pick up rates, and thus the option pick up over expected is the option rate minus this curve: 

Position  N Picked  Average Pick  Option %  Option % OE  N Traded 
TE  9  17.7  89%  30%  3 
DI  38  17.1  71%  11%  4 
C  6  20.5  67%  8%  1 
S  17  19.8  65%  8%  5 
CB  47  18.1  64%  6%  12 
T  43  15.4  65%  3%  4 
WR  43  16.9  58%  -1%  15 
G  17  18.2  53%  -5%  4 
ED  52  16.2  54%  -6%  8 
LB  26  18.2  46%  -12%  4 
QB  37  9.1  54%  -12%  8 
RB  16  18.8  38%  -15%  2 

Some traditional analytical punching bags show up here, with running back and off-ball linebacker among the least successful positions in terms of option rates. However, after adjusting for pick position, two premium positions, edge defender and quarterback, are not as successful as other positions. Wide receiver and cornerback do not shed the diva label here, having 27 traded picks out of a combined 90 selections since 2011.  

It’s interesting that, considering the discussion of positional value with respect to the tight end position, the pivot has the highest option pick up rate, both in raw form but also after adjusting for pick position. This could be due to the special developmental nature of the position, where salaries are low enough where a player who has shown promise but has not been productive enough to get the highest option cost, could be worth a flier at the (suppressed) rates of the position.  

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From the looks of it, defensive interior appears to be a great bet in the first round, as the position is more of a premium position than ever, and option hit rates are high.  

Interior Run Defenders Matter: Why players like Quinnen Williams and Daron Payne add more value to a defense than previously thought | NFL News, Rankings and Statistics | PFF 

Here are the top teams since 2011 in terms of option pick up rates, adjusted for pick position: 

Team  N Picked  Average Pick  Option %  Option % OE  N Traded 
HOU  8  17.1  100%  39%  0 
CAR  11  15.5  91%  31%  1 
ATL  11  16.0  82%  22%  1 
LA  8  11.50  88%  21%  1 
BAL  11  24.0  64%  17%  2 
IND  8  17.0  75%  15%  1 
LAC  13  16.3  77%  15%  0 
CIN  12  15.4  75%  13%  1 
KC  7  17.3  71%  13%  2 
NO  12  21.0  67%  12%  2 

The Texans have neither declined a fifth-year option nor traded a first rounder since the 2011 CBA. The Panthers have picked up all but one player’s option they’ve taken in the first round, and only traded Kelvin Benjamin after he amassed two 900-yard receiving seasons (Brian Burns was traded while on the franchise tag). Only one team, Seattle, hasn’t exercised a fifth-year option, but to their defense they’ve only selected first rounders six times from 2011-2021.  

Lastly, for the first time since the new 2020 CBA, a team (this time the Carolina Panthers) traded back into the first round. The Panthers traded with the Bills and selected wide receiver Xavier Leggette from South Carolina. This secured the fifth-year option for the player, in exchange for a higher rookie contract cost. With the decline in the hit rate of late first round players, along with the increased cost of the fifth-year option when a hit occurs, there is less of an incentive for teams to make this move. However, the Panthers surrendered relatively little to move up (a late-round pick swap) and chose a position where the upper tier of salaries (and hence the implied value of high-end talent) has grown steadily, making the move a reasonable one, especially since they didn’t have a first-round pick in 2024.  

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