The deadline to exercise the 5th-year option for 2012 first round picks is May 3rd, and New England has two key players on defense to manage.
The Patriots opted to pick up the option of 2011 first round tackle Nate Solder. This is an important decision because it means that the team still wants him around, but they're unsure of whether or not he's a part of their long term plans. The option year gives the franchise another season to deliberate whether or not to offer a long term extension to Solder.
For first round player selected outside of the top 10, the option is valued at the average salary of the 3rd-25th highest paid players at their position.
New England double-dipped in the first round of the 2012 Draft, trading up to pick both edge defender Chandler Jones and linebacker Dont'a Hightower. Both can be considered cornerstones of the defense. The Patriots will have to make one of three choices with these players.
1) Don't pick up the option. This will allow the player to potentially depart after the 2015 NFL season. This could mean that the team believes the player will be a reasonable player for their cost, but they might not be worth investing in the long term.
2) Pick up the option. The player will be under contract for the 2015 and 2016 seasons and New England will have an additional season before deciding whether or not to extend the player.
3) Extend the player. Teams have the ability to bypass the option and just offer the player a long term extension to keep them around. This is for players the Patriots know they want to keep around.
When it comes to Jones and Hightower, it will be interesting to see how their futures are viewed. Robert Kraft alluded to these contract extensions as reasons for letting cornerback Darrelle Revis walk. Kraft considered Jones and Hightower (and Jamie Collins) as part of the Patriots long-term decisions.
Hightower has developed into one of the top linebackers in the entire league, so it would seem likely that the Patriots would try and extend him instead of picking up his option. He's currently recovering from injury and might not be available until the start of the season, but with Jerod Mayo ending up on the Injured Reserve for the past two seasons, keeping Hightower around should be considered a priority.
Jones is more interesting because he's clearly a supreme talent when he's on the field. He can single handedly win games, like this year's match against the Vikings in Week 2. He can rush the passer, he can defend the run, and he's progressed and improved his skill set each year. It seems likely that the team wants to keep him around.
But with Chandler, it seems like there's a question about limitation within the scheme. Bill Belichick loves a flexible defense and Jones is a quality defensive end; he doesn't allow the team to flex into the 3-4 with much consistency since he's still not comfortable dropping back into space. Instead, the team likes to kick him inside to 3-4 defensive end, which could either be a disaster (Week 1 against the Dolphins), or an unheralded success (the rest of the season).
That said, the addition of defensive end Jabaal Sheard seems to imply that the team is more than comfortable operating with primarily 4-3 players in order to attack the backfield. Sheard, like Jones, thrived in the 4-3 in Cleveland, but his production fell off once the defense converted to the 3-4. If Sheard's ability is any projection for the Patriots schemes on defense, then it would seem keeping Chandler around would make plenty of sense.
So while Hightower is a seeming lock for an extension, and Jones is a likely candidate to have his option exercised, the direction that the Patriots front offense follows to address these two players will shape the face of the New England defense for years to follow.