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Sunday NFL Thoughts: Why Sammy Watkins’ fifth-year option is so much more expensive than Brandin Cooks’

The Patriots have the cheaper receiver.

1. Teams have until May 3rd to pick up the option for 2014 first round picks, which are about to enter their fourth season in the league. The New England Patriots released their original first round pick in DT Dominique Easley, but acquired another from the New Orleans Saints in WR Brandin Cooks.

The Patriots traded away a first round pick and some change for Cooks, so the Patriots are going to pick up the option; they wouldn’t have given up a first round pick for just one year of service.

The reason you probably won’t see the Patriots picking up the option until closer to May is that the option becomes fully guaranteed in case of injury. The Patriots start their Offseason Conditioning Program on Monday (April 17th) and there is risk of injury during this program. New England will likely wait until later to exercise the option.

2. How much will the fifth-year option cost the Patriots? Well, it is equal to the same percentage of the salary cap as the average of the “third through twenty-fifth highest Salaries...for players at the position at which the Rookie participated in the most plays during his third League Year,” per the collective bargaining agreement (CBA).

Based on the contracts, the fifth-year option is expected to be between $8-9 million. Cooks is under contract for $1,563,198 in 2017, so he is effectively on a two-year, $10 million deal with the Patriots.

Don’t be surprised if the Patriots and Cooks reach an extension at some point (if Cooks performs well over the offseason and into the regular season) to try and reduce his cap hit in 2018.

3. The Los Angeles Rams started the wave of exercised options with DT Aaron Donald and the Houston Texans quickly followed suit with EDGE Jadeveon Clowney. The Buffalo Bills are deciding whether or not to pick up the fifth-year option of WR Sammy Watkins, the 4th overall selection from the 2014 NFL Draft, and the current reports show that the Bills are hesitant due to his injury history.

Watkins has missed 11 games over the past two seasons from hip surgery, calf injuries, ankle injuries, and foot surgery. With the fifth-year option guaranteed for injury, the Bills are nervous about making that commitment.

When healthy, Watkins is a force on the field. He averaged 100 yards per game over the final 9 games of the 2015 season, when he was finally able to put his hip, calf, and ankles injuries in the past.

Players that earn the top money at the wide receiver position generally average 70 or more yards per game, with the second tier of players gain 60-70. Whether by injury or quarterback limitation, Watkins has spent a good chunk of his career in that second tier- or below, in the 40-50 yards per game range- so why pay so much money for a toy that you won’t even play with?

4. It gets worse, too. Since Watkins was a top ten selection, his fifth-year option is calculated in a different way than Cooks’ option. The CBA says that top ten selections will earn the transition tag value, or the average of the top ten contracts at the position- which is valued at roughly $13 million.

That means that Watkins’ fifth-year option is roughly $4-5 million more expensive than Cooks’ fifth-year option.

The Bills are a team that avoided playing QB Tyrod Taylor late in 2016 to avoid possible injury and having to guarantee him parts of his contract. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Bills decide that it’s not worth guaranteeing the fifth-year to Watkins in case of injury at $13 million- and that they’d be comfortable waiting the year to see if Watkins can emerge, before slapping the franchise tag of roughly $16 million.

That $3 million difference is a small price to pay to protect yourself from an oft-injured player that hasn’t yet realized his potential in a consistent way.

5. Hypothetically, if the Bills don’t retain Watkins for 2018, we all know that he will be playing wide receiver for the New England Patriots, right? Somehow, someway, Watkins will end up on the same field as Brandin Cooks, Julian Edelman, and Rob Gronkowski.

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick compared Watkins’ hands to Larry Fitzgerald, which is the highest praise Belichick can give to a receiver, and called Watkins an “explosive player” that is “big”; “good after the catch”; “good on the deep balls”; “good on catch-and-run plays”; and “a hard guy to tackle.” That’s basically the perfect wide receiver.

Once the Patriots also add Bills restricted free agent RB Mike Gillislee, Belichick will set off into the 2018 season with Watkins, Gillislee, and Chris Hogan in order to achieve the greatest feat of his career: win a Super Bowl with the Buffalo Bills roster.