As part of a new collective bargaining agreement, the NFL introduced the rookie wage scale in 2011. It created a clear outline for how rookie contracts are to be structured — thus creating a more competitive market for higher picks — and also introduced the so-called fifth-year option to give teams the ability to add another comparatively inexpensive season to the standard four-year deals signed by first-round draft selections.
The fifth-year option is pretty-straight forward.
After a team picks a player in the first round of the draft, and subsequently signs him to a four-year contract, it has to make a decision following his third year in the league. It can either exercise the fifth-year option and add one more year to the deal on a significantly increased salary — one that is still below top-market value, though — or decline it and make the player an unrestricted free agency following Year Four.
Entering this next cycle of former first-rounders trying to show their respective teams that they are worthy of the fifth-round option, the New England Patriots have two players to make decisions on: offensive tackle Isaiah Wynn, who was drafted 23rd overall in 2018, and running back Sony Michel, who came off the board with the 31st pick in Round One. Both are still under contract through 2021, but the fifth-year decision needs to be made next spring.
Over their first two years in New England, they have had their ups and downs.
Wynn has looked like a quality left tackle, but has missed considerable playing time in both 2018 and 2019. After suffering an Achilles injury during the 2018 preseason, he had to spend his entire rookie year on injured reserve. He returned in 2019 as the Patriots’ starting left tackle, but again had to miss time on IR after hurting his toe in Week 2. He eventually returned and played some good football, but all in all has been on the field for just nine of a possible 36 games since getting drafted.
Michel has also struggled with injuries, even though not to the same extent as Wynn. Two separate knee issues forced him to sit out a combined three games in 2018, while he also had to miss parts of last year’s offseason preparation after undergoing knee arthroscopy. Nevertheless, he appeared in 33 of 36 games and carved out a role as the Patriots’ top early-down back — one that played a key role in the team’s Super Bowl run in 2018, and showed some positive strides over the second half of his 2019 campaign as well.
As can be seen, both Wynn and Michel were able to display their natural talents over the last two years. Injury (Wynn) and inconsistency (Michel) hurt their impact and availability at numerous times since 2018, however, and in turn makes 2020 a big year for both: they need to convince New England that they are worth being invested in from a longer-term perspective, at least by tagging an additional season onto their current rookie contracts.
How can they do it? Outside of obvious factors such as continuing to develop within the system, they also have to show the team that they can be trusted on. This means being able to play a full season without any major medical setbacks and also performing on a consistent level even when playing a high number of snaps. If Wynn and Michel can do that during in 2020 — a season that will bring a major personnel change at quarterback, putting more pressure on both of them — they should position themselves well.
That said, exercising the option is more complex than just looking at a player’s performance: the financial aspect cannot be ignored.
An argument can be made that Wynn has a lower threshold to clear than Michel when it comes to earning the fifth year, simply because the left tackle position is more valuable within the grand scheme of NFL roster construction than the running back spot. In other words, there is a difference when it comes to investing the money associated with the fifth-year option — in Wynn’s and Michel’s case the average of the third-through-25th highest salaries at their respective positions — in a top-15 tackle than a top-15 running back.
With the Patriots having built their culture based on value before all else, Michel therefore finds himself in a less favorable position. For him to justify the fifth-year option, he would probably need to establish himself as a top-tier back in the NFL as well as a near-indispensable player within New England’s new-look offense. There is a chance this happens, but the odds appear to be against the 25-year-old — something that cannot be said about Wynn simply due to the position he is playing.
Ultimately, the 2020 season will be a big one for both youngsters. It also will be big for the Patriots’ future at both the left tackle and the running back positions.