The NFL did not just announce on Wednesday that its 2021 salary cap has been set at $182.5 million, it also informed teams about the value of fifth-year contract options for players selected in Round One back in 2018. Clubs will have to make a call whether or not to exercise the option by May 3, and this piece of information is crucial in making that call.
For the New England Patriots, this means making a decision on two players: offensive tackle Isaiah Wynn and running back Sony Michel, who were drafted 23rd and 31st overall three years ago.
Under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement that was signed into effect last spring, the value of the fifth-year contract option for Wynn and Michel is determined by an escalator system based on various levels of individual accomplishment:
- Tier 1: No Pro Bowl nomination, no playing time thresholds met
- Tier 2: No Pro Bowl nomination, playing time thresholds met
- Tier 3: One Pro Bowl nomination
- Tier 4: Multiple Pro Bowl nominations
While snap percentages are a proper way to judge a player’s role, the Pro Bowl as a benchmark is a somewhat questionable tool to do that: it has turned into a popularity contest over the last few years and oftentimes overlooks players worthy of recognition.
Nevertheless, this is the system that has been agreed upon by the NFL and the NFLPA. So, what does it mean for the Patriots and their two first round selections from 2018? They both fall in the first tier given that neither Wynn nor Michel were voted to a Pro Bowl, or have met the playing time thresholds necessary to qualify for Tier 2.
Accordingly, their fifth-year options will be cheaper than those of other players meeting those marks:
- OT Isaiah Wynn: $10.413 million
- RB Sony Michel: $4.523 million
For comparison, an offensive tackle or running back qualifying for Tier 4 — making more than one Pro Bowl on first ballot between 2018 and 2020 — would cost $13.754 million and $8.655 million respectively.
The question now becomes what the Patriots will do in regards to Wynn and Michel. Both have seen prominent playing time over the course of their rookie contracts so far, but have also struggled with injury (Wynn) and up-and-down play (Michel). Accordingly, it would not be a surprise to see New England decline both options ahead of the deadline in May: neither Wynn nor Michel have developed into consistently reliable players.
Of course, New England will not decide solely based on past performance but future projection as well. Wynn in particular is an interesting case, therefore. While he has played in only 19 of 52 games since 2018 and has spent time on injured reserve in each of his first three seasons as a pro, he also looked like a quality left tackle when on the field.
If the Patriots feel confident that his durability can improve, it is not unreasonable to see them pick up his fifth-year option after all. As for Michel, the decreased value of his position and the emergence of Damien Harris in 2020 make it unlikely that there is any scenario in which he will be under contract beyond the 2021 campaign.
In case a team decides against exercising the option once the May 3 deadline comes around, said player will become an unrestricted free agent after the 2021 season.