The rookie class of 2011 was the first group to be subjected to the rules of the new CBA, which significantly reduced the earning ability for young NFL players. Having completed three seasons, those players drafted in 2011 will be eligible for contract extensions for the first time this offseason, but according to Jason Cole of the National Football Post, executives around the league are skeptical that many players will cash in.
While teams will be able to negotiate new contracts with big-name 2011 draftees like Cam Newton, J.J. Watt, and A.J. Green, clubs will also have the opportunity to simply tender their ’11 first-round picks a fifth-year option, putting off contract talks at least one more year. For players drafted in the top 10, that 2015 option would be worth the average amount of the top 10 highest salaries at that player’s position. For players drafted between 11 and 32, the option salary would be calculated by averaging the third through 25th highest salaries at the player’s position.
For a defensive lineman like Watt, that would mean a fifth-year option worth in the neighborhood of $5-6MM, rather than a big payday this year. The Texans would then have the opportunity to use the franchise tag on him for 2016, meaning it still may be several more years before he and other 2011 draftees sign long-term contracts.
“If I was Houston and had Watt or I was the Jets with [Muhammad] Wilkerson, why do anything right now?” one executive told Cole. “What’s the pressure on the team? Sure, if you get a good deal and you can buy out three or four more years, essentially buy his whole career, maybe.”
Since the players’ fifth-year salaries would be non-guaranteed except in the event of injuries, executives expect virtually every 2011 first-rounder to be kept under contract via the option. Even underachieving ’11 picks like Adrian Clayborn and Gabe Carimi of the Bucs are worth tendering a fifth-year contract, since there’d be plenty of upside in having them locked up for an extra year if they have strong 2014 campaigns.
“You’d probably have to alter the contract a little so that you could buy insurance for the season against an injury,” noted an NFC executive. “But that’s not expensive. If you’re talking about a $13MM or $14MM salary, the insurance is about $150K and you’d get the cap credit back.”
The opportunity teams have to use that fifth-year option doesn’t mean we won’t hear rumors this offseason about players like Newton and Watt negotiating extensions, and some players may even work out long-term deals. But given the presence of that strong fallback option for NFL clubs, 2011 first-rounders won’t have a ton of leverage in contract discussions.