Watt’s Contract Status Highlights Controversial Fifth-Year Option Issue

Texans defensive end J.J. Watt has established himself as one of the premier defensive players in the game. By any measure, Watt is a dominant force and he’s recognized as such. He’s still playing on his rookie contract, however, and will make $1.9MM in base salary plus another $1.67MM in prorated signing bonus. From the team’s perspective, Watt is the ultimate bargain, but Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio says, “the Texans arguably are treating Watt like a chump by not rewarding him now for his contributions and potential.”

For perspective, Watt’s newest running mate, No. 1 overall pick Jedeveon Clowney will make $4.05MM in 2014. Together, Watt’s and Clowney’s combined 2014 cost is $7.62MM, which is less than the Vikings will pay Everson Griffen ($8.2MM combined base salary and prorated signing bonus), who has started one game in four years.

While Watt is deserving of a deal commensurate with his status, Florio isn’t just taking up for him. Instead, he sees Watt as a poster child for a bigger issue, one USA Today’s Jarrett Bell detailed on Friday: the implementation of the fifth-year option, a new contract element introduced as part of the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement, effectively penalizes first-round picks. While 2011 draftees Richard Sherman (fifth round) and Colin Kaepernick (second round) have already landed mega second contracts, first-rounders like Watt can be controlled by their team and kept off the open market for an extra year. From a player’s perspective, that’s a tough pill to swallow given football’s inherent injury risk.

Florio concludes his editorial by saying, “Watt’s case arguably is the most glaring for a league that has yet to sign any of the 2011 first-round picks to second contracts. In a year featuring plenty of holdouts, none of them have taken a stand. It will be interesting to see whether the patience demonstrated by Watt and others will run out if the offseason clock expires without new deals being given to any of the guys picked at the top of the first draft that, thanks to the rookie wage scale, paid them a lot less than they would have earned a year earlier.”

PFR kept track of which 2011 first-round picks had their options exercised by the May 3 deadline. Click here for the full list.

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