Back in 2011, the NFL and NFLPA introduced the rookie wage scale back as part of a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. Not only did it create a clear outline for how rookie contracts are to be structured — thus creating a more competitive market for higher picks — it also introduced the so-called fifth-year option.
That option gave teams the ability to add another comparatively inexpensive season to the standard four-year rookie deals signed by first-round draft selections.
The option essentially works as follows: a team picks a player in the first round of the draft, and subsequently signs him to a four-year contract. After completion of his third season the club can make a decision to either exercise the fifth-year option and adding one year to the deal on a significantly increased salary (but still below top-market value), or to decline it and make the player an unrestricted free agency following Year 4.
Before heading into last week’s deadline for the 2018 draft class, the New England Patriots had taken advantage of the fifth-year option on four different occasions.
The team picked it up with offensive tackle Nate Solder (drafted in 2011), linebackers Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower (2012), and wide receiver Brandin Cooks (2014). Likewise, they declined exercising it on the contract of Malcom Brown, Danny Shelton and Phillip Dorsett (all 2015), while never getting in a position to do so with Dominique Easley (2014).
When it came to the 2018 first-round class, the Patriots had to make two decisions. While offensive tackle Isaiah Wynn saw his option exercised and remains under contract through 2022, running back Sony Michel is now scheduled to enter free agency next spring.
Wynn is one of 21 first-round selections from the 2018 draft who saw their options get picked up by their respective teams:
1-1 QB Baker Mayfield (Cleveland Browns); 1-2 RB Saquon Barkley (New York Giants); 1-3 QB Sam Darnold (Carolina Panthers via New York Jets); 1-4 CB Denzel Ward (Cleveland Browns); 1-5 DE Bradley Chubb (Denver Broncos); 1-6 G Quenton Nelson (Indianapolis Colts); 1-7 QB Josh Allen (Buffalo Bills); 1-8 LB Roquan Smith (Chicago Bears); 1-9 OT Mike McGlinchey (San Francisco 49ers); 1-11 S Minkah Fitzpatrick (Pittsburgh Steelers via Miami Dolphins); 1-12 DT Vita Vea (Tampa Bay Buccaneers); 1-13 DT Da’Ron Payne (Washington Football Team); 1-14 DE Marcus Davenport (New Orleans Saints); 1-16 LB Tremaine Edmunds (Buffalo Bills); 1-17 S Derwin James (Los Angeles Chargers); 1-18 CB Jaire Alexander (Green Bay Packers); 1-20 C Frank Ragnow (Detroit Lions); 1-23 OT Isaiah Wynn (New England Patriots); 1-24 WR D.J. Moore (Carolina Panthers); 1-26 WR Calvin Ridley (Atlanta Falcons); 1-32 QB Lamar Jackson (Baltimore Ravens)
Considering that 32 players were selected in the first round three years ago, this also means that a significant portion of them did not see their options exercised — Sony Michel among them. Not include the already extended Kolton Miller (Las Vegas Raiders) as well as free agent Josh Rosen, nine are now on their way to hitting unrestricted free agency in 2022:
1-19 LB Leighton Vander Esch (Dallas Cowboys); 1-21 C Billy Price (Cincinnati Bengals); 1-22 LB Rashaan Evans (Tennessee Titans); 1-25 TE Hayden Hurst (Atlanta Falcons via Baltimore Ravens); 1-27 RB Rashaad Penny (Seattle Seahawks); 1-28 S Terrell Edmunds (Pittsburgh Steelers); 1-29 DT Taven Bryan (Jacksonville Jaguars); 1-30 CB Mike Hughes (Minnesota Vikings); 1-31 RB Sony Michel (New England Patriots)
This is where the Patriots re-enter the equation.
The assumption can still be made, after all, that those players listed here are not necessarily in their teams’ long-term plans beyond the upcoming season. With New England always looking for value where others may not necessarily see it, and with Bill Belichick and company never afraid to pull the trigger on a trade, some of these players could find themselves on the organization’s trade radar.
While it seems unlikely the Patriots would go after Billy Price, Hayden Hurst, Rashad Penny, Taven Bryan or Mike Hughes given the circumstances and composition of their positions, the other three (non-Michel) men could pique their interest.
- LB Leighton Vander Esch: Injuries have prevented Vander Esch from returning to the Pro Bowl form he showed as a rookie, but when healthy he can be a productive off-the-ball linebacker with the size to also be used in a Dont’a Hightower-like move role. He would likely be cheap but still offer upside with Hightower on the wrong side of 30 already and no clear succession plan in place.
- LB Rashaan Evans: An Alabama product just like Hightower, Evans has not yet lived up to his first-round status with the Titans and might benefit from a change of scenery. New England would be a logical landing spot if Tennessee decided to make him available: Evans played some impressive football in a similar system with the Crimson Tide, while the Titans and Patriots front offices have plenty of familiarity with one another.
- S Terrell Edmunds: New England just drafted a safety (Joshuah Bledsoe) but with both Devin McCourty and Adrian Phillips headed for unrestricted free agency next year, getting a close look at Edmunds via a one-year rental might be worth a shot. A versatile and durable player, the 24-year-old might be worth an investment if put on the trading block by the Steelers.
Out of the three Evans seems like the most realistic candidate for a trade, if made available. He would address a need not just from a long-term perspective but in 2021 as well, and has experience in a system like the one the Patriots run. The team might therefore keep an eye on him between now, cutdown day and the NFL’s trade deadline in late October.
The odds of actually making a move for Evans or any other player might be slim, but going after former first-rounders now and possibly recoup some value via the compensatory draft picks system if they leave through free agency would be smart business from New England’s perspective.