The last Collective Bargaining Agreement introduced the fifth-year option to the contracts of players selected in the first rounds of NFL Draft classes. Prior to that, first-round picks simply had five-year contracts, to which they were bound unless released prior to that point.
Since the introduction of the fifth-year option, the Pittsburgh Steelers have drafted nine players in the first round. They have had to make the decision as to whether or not to pick up the fifth-year options of six of those players so far, doing so for four—Cameron Heyward from 2011, David DeCastro from 2012, Ryan Shazier from 2014, and Bud Dupree from 2015. They passed on the options for Jarvis Jones from 2014 and Artie Burns from 2016. It’s safe to say they will be picking up T.J. Watt’s option as well.
Under the proposal for the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, however, the stakes are being raised pretty heavily on that decision. Teams much make the decision whether or not to pick up the option by around draft time of the player’s fourth season, but the fifth-year salary does not become guaranteed except for injury until the start of the league year of his fifth year.
That would change under the new CBA. Both the fourth- and fifth-year salaries of players whose fifth-year options are picked up would become fully guaranteed (short of disciplinary measures that render all guaranteed void) once the team exercises the option. So for example, if the Steelers pick up Watt’s option in a couple of months, that will guarantee his salary for both 2020 and 2021 immediately.
That’s no the only change. Currently, the value of the fifth-year salary comes in two tiers depending upon where the player was drafted in the first round. Top-10 picks have their fifth-year salary raised to the level of the transition tag amount for their position. The salaries of later picks amount to the average salary of the third-to-25th-ranked salaries at their position.
Based on the wording, it sounds as though the salary will start at the transition tag level for all players, but it can also be raised. It’s been reported, for example, that a player who reaches the Pro Bowl in two of his first three seasons will see his fifth-year salary raised to the level of the franchise tag, instead of the transition tag.
It’s unclear if this effect will be immediate, and thus relevant to the 2017 draft class of which Watt was a part. If it is, then his 2021 salary would hit at the franchise-tag level, since he has made the Pro Bowl in each of the past two seasons, for him years two and three.
Suffice it to say that this makes the decision to pick up the option far more significant for clubs, and I would expect to see the number of options picked up reduced, perhaps greatly. This is fine for the players, since it would open them to hitting unrestricted free agency after four seasons rather than being controlled for five.