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How the new Collective Bargaining Agreement could impact the Patriots’ fifth-year contract options

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Related: What the new practice squad rules mean for the Patriots

Cleveland Browns v New England Patriots Photo by: 2019 Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

While the NFL’s short-term future is very much in question due to the continuing spread of the Coronavirus pandemic in the United States, the league’s long-term outlook experienced a major development earlier this year: in March, the NFL and its players association came to an agreement on a new 10-year labor deal. Adding a 17th regular season game and increasing both the playoff field as well as roster and practice squad sizes were the main talking points, but far from the only noteworthy aspects of this new Collective Bargaining Agreement.

For example, the CBA also changed the structure of compensation for former first-round draft picks’ fifth-year contract options.

Fifth-year option basics

As part of 2011’s labor negotiations, the NFL introduced the so-called rookie wage scale. In its essence, 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 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 in itself is pretty-straight forward. After a team picks a player in the first round of the draft, and subsequently signs him to a 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 — but one that is still below top-market value — or decline it and make the player an unrestricted free agency following Year Four.

The New England Patriots decided to exercise the fifth-year option under this set of rules four times in the past. They used it on offensive tackle Nate Solder (drafted in 2011), linebackers Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower (2012), and wide receiver Brandin Cooks (2014). Likewise, they declined it on the contracts of Malcom Brown, Danny Shelton and Phillip Dorsett (all 2015), while never getting in a position to do so with Dominique Easley (2014).

The value of the fifth-year option was not the same for every player, though. The salary, which is guaranteed for injury only, was calculated based on draft position: for the first 10 selections, the average of the 10 highest salaries at a player’s respective position was used as the basis — the same as is the case for the transition tag tender. For players selected between picks 11 and 32, on the other hand, the option value was the average of the third through 25th highest salaries at the position.

Changes under the new CBA

The fifth-year option is still a part of the CBA but it was slightly altered, thus affecting first-round picks from the 2018 draft on. The distinction between top-10 selections and other players drafted on Day One was scrapped and replaced by an escalator system based on various levels of individual accomplishment. The labor deal devotes two-and-a-half pages to this, but it essentially can be broken down into the following four tiers.

Tier 1: No Pro Bowl nomination, no playing time thresholds met

The fifth-year option for players falling under this category is basically the same as it was for players drafted between selections 11 and 32 under the old CBA: the transition tag number calculated based on the third through 25th highest salaries at the player’s position. In order to fall under this tier, the following will have to apply:

1.) Not selected to a Pro Bowl on the original ballot during any of his first three seasons, plus

2.) One of the following:

  • Did not play a minimum of 75 percent of his team’s offensive or defensive snaps in any two of his first three regular seasons, or
  • Did not play a cumulative average of at least 75 percent of his team’s offensive or defensive snaps over his first three regular seasons, or
  • Did not play a minimum of 50 percent of his team’s offensive or defensive snaps in each of his first three regular seasons

Tier 2: No Pro Bowl nomination, playing time thresholds met

This tier is similar to the first one, but the option value is calculated based on a different group of salaries: the third through 20th highest salaries at the player’s position are used as the basis. In order to fall under this tier, the following will have to apply:

1.) Not selected to a Pro Bowl on the original ballot during any of his first three seasons, plus

2.) One of the following:

  • Did play a minimum of 75 percent of his team’s offensive or defensive snaps in any two of his first three regular seasons, or
  • Did play a cumulative average of at least 75 percent of his team’s offensive or defensive snaps over his first three regular seasons, or
  • Did play a minimum of 50 percent of his team’s offensive or defensive snaps in each of his first three regular seasons

Tier 3: One Pro Bowl nomination

If a player on his rookie contract makes exactly one Pro Bowl on original ballot during his first three seasons in the league, he qualifies for the third tier of fifth-year escalators. This means that his option will be worth the same as the transition tag of the player’s fourth year in the league at the position at which he played the most snaps in Year Three.

Tier 4: Multiple Pro Bowl nominations

The fourth and final tier handles players who have made at least two Pro Bowls on original ballot during the first three seasons of their rookie contract. If a player falls under this category, his fifth-year option will be worth the franchise tag that applies for his fourth year in the league at the position at which he played the most snaps in Year Three.

What this means for the Patriots

Since 2018, the first year relevant for the fifth-year option under the new CBA, the Patriots have invested three first-round selections: they brought offensive tackle Isaiah Wynn and running back Sony Michel on board with the 23rd and 31st overall picks in 2018, and added wide receiver N’Keal Harry the following year with the final selection of Round One. This means that New England will have to make decisions whether or not to apply the fifth-year option both next offseason (Wynn, Michel) and one year later (Harry).

One or two years is a lot of time in the NFL, especially considering the uncertain situation surrounding the salary cap in light of the aforementioned Coronavirus pandemic. That said, at the time being, the three men in question are at the following position as it relates to their fifth-year tiers:

  • OT Isaiah Wynn: Tier 1
  • RB Sony Michel: Tier 1
  • WR N’Keal Harry: Tier 1

While Wynn and Harry struggled with injury since arriving in New England, Michel was used predominately as a role player in the team’s running back committee. Unless they are named to a Pro Bowl in either 2020 (Wynn, Michel) or over the next two years (Harry), it therefore seems unlikely that the trio will emerge beyond Tier 1 status. Harry might actually have the best chances considering that he still has two years to at least hit the playing time escalators to reach Tier 2.

Not meeting the requirements as presented above does not necessarily mean that one of the first-round investments was a failure, though. While snap percentages are indicative of role, the Pro Bowl as a benchmark is a somewhat questionable tool to properly judge a player: it has turned into a popularity contest over the last few years and oftentimes overlooks players worthy of recognition. For some, such as the three Patriots named above, this could result in a multi-million difference when it comes to the fifth-year option.