Weighing fifth-year options for 2018 NFL Draft's first-rounders

It’s that time of year again: time to think about fifth-year options! Players chosen in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft are closing in on the end of their third NFL seasons, meaning their teams will need to decide in the coming months whether to exercise the option that will extend their four-year rookie contracts through the 2022 campaign.

The fifth-year option equation will change with this class under the new collective bargaining agreement, with the options now being fully guaranteed when they are exercised, and with compensation now being determined in part by player performance. But the essential question — Has this player shown enough in three seasons to be worth investing in? — remains the same.

Below, I’ve examined each player selected in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft and provided a yes-no verdict as to whether their fifth-year option should be exercised this offseason.

NOTE: For simplicity’s sake, the players below are presented according to the order in which they were drafted in 2018. Players are listed here with their current teams; those players who have changed teams since being drafted are marked with an asterisk.

Exercise the option? Yes

This wasn’t a sure thing entering the 2020 season, but Mayfield has made so many strides (25:8 TD-to-INT ratio with a 2018-esque 62.7 percent completion rate and 95.8 passer rating) playing under first-year coach Kevin Stefanski that not picking up the option could be a costly mistake. The question of a long-term extension remains an open one at this point, but at the very least, exercising the option would alleviate any pressure (and media scrutiny) Mayfield might feel playing in a contract year next season.

Exercise the option? Yes

I still believe Barkley can produce at an elite level, even coming off the knee injury that cost him almost all of 2020. The big question is, will first-year coach Joe Judge, who wasn’t around when Barkley was drafted, feel Barkley is worth the financial commitment? Or will he hew closer to the philosophy of his mentor, Bill Belichick, who is historically loath to pay big bucks to running backs? 

Exercise the option? No

I have faith Darnold can become a top-tier quarterback. However, in today’s NFL, teams like the Seahawks (in the early days of Russell Wilson) and the Chiefs (before they had to pay Patrick Mahomes) have shown that building around a relatively low-cost rookie QB is a proven path to winning the Super Bowl. With Darnold remaining an unknown NFL quantity heading into Year 4, it would make sense for the Jets to add a quarterback with the second overall pick in next year’s draft and hold off on making any additional financial commitments to Darnold. Remember, general manager Joe Douglas was not yet in the building when Darnold — who does play better than you think — was selected.

Exercise the option? Yes

Ward leads the Browns in passes defensed (18) while chipping in two picks, 46 tackles and a forced fumble. Cleveland’s best cornerback is clearly worth ponying up for.

Exercise the option? Yes

After playing just four games in an injury-abbreviated 2019, Chubb has racked up 7.5 sacks and 19 QB hits in 2020, earning Pro Bowl honors. Yes, he’s currently dealing with an ankle injury that kept him out of Week 16, but this is a no-brainer — especially if the Broncos decide they want to clear cap space by parting ways with fellow edge rusher Von Miller, who is currently slated to count for $22.1 million against the cap in 2021, per Over the Cap. Miller is a future Hall of Famer, but he’ll also be 32 years old next season and will be coming off an ankle injury that cost him all of 2020. 

Exercise the option? Yes

As a two-time All-Pro who has earned Pro Bowl nods in each of his three professional seasons, Nelson will surely eventually earn the most lucrative extension given to a guard in NFL history.

Exercise the option? Yes

Look for Allen to land an extension that places him in Deshaun Watson’s financial stratosphere — or even higher, if he can lead Buffalo to the Super Bowl.

Exercise the option? Yes

Smith has become the consistent difference-maker Bears general manager Ryan Pace hoped he’d be. Against the Jaguars on Sunday, Smith became the fourth linebacker in 30 years to record two picks and a fumble recovery in the same game.

Exercise the option? Yes

McGlinchey is the fourth-highest-graded run blocker by Pro Football Focus — this is an easy decision. I’m more curious about whether the 49ers will re-sign veteran left tackle Trent Williams, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent.

Exercise the option? N/A

*Original drafting team: Arizona Cardinals

Rosen, who recently signed with the 49ers, is not eligible for the fifth-year option, because his rookie contract was voided when he was released by the Dolphins, who acquired him from the Cardinals in a trade last year.

Exercise the option? Yes

*Original drafting team: Miami Dolphins

After Miami unsuccessfully tried to make Fitzpatrick a jack-of-all-trades defensive back, he was traded to the Steelers, whereupon he instantly became the turnover-generating machine Pittsburgh’s defense needed to begin playing at an elite level once again, earning his second consecutive Pro Bowl nod in 2020. Fitzpatrick has nine picks and two forced fumbles in 29 games with the Steelers thus far.

Exercise the option? Yes

The Buccaneers’ defense is not as good without Vea — currently on injured reserve with a fractured ankle — plugging the middle. When he returns, Vea should continue to build up his interior pass-rushing skills while remaining a run-stuffing force.

Exercise the option? Yes

Payne doesn’t draw a ton of media attention on a star-studded defensive line, but the value he brings as someone who does the dirty work makes him worth the option.

Exercise the option? No

Considered a developmental prospect when the Saints traded up to draft him, Davenport has yet to fully realize his promise, collecting just 1.5 sacks in 10 appearances this season. He might still hit the heights New Orleans was looking for, but it will likely be easier to plan in investing in a more proven commodity at the defensive end position while also recognizing that the franchise tag can be used to retain Davenport in 2022, should he have a breakout 2021 campaign.

Exercise the option? Yes

Miller has proven wrong those who thought he was better suited for playing right tackle, and he will be richly rewarded for doing so. Miller has just two sacks allowed all season, per PFF.

Exercise the option? Yes

Just 22 years old right now, Edmunds is only going to get better, especially when it comes to forcing turnovers. Thus far in 2020 he’s racked up 110 tackles (second-most on the team) with three passes defensed and a sack.

Exercise the option? No

James has looked like a game-wrecker when healthy, earning Pro Bowl and All-Pro nods as a rookie, but his injury history (James is missing all of 2020 with a knee injury after being limited by a stress fracture in his foot to five games in 2019) makes the option too big of a risk. If James returns to form, the Chargers could use the franchise tag to keep him around in 2022.

Exercise the option? Yes

Alexander is Green Bay’s best cornerback since Charles Woodson’s heyday a decade ago. He holds PFF’s second-best defensive and coverage grades among cornerbacks with 100-plus snaps this season, with a completion rate allowed of 49.2 percent (fourth-best, per PFF).

Exercise the option? No

Vander Esch made the Pro Bowl after a great rookie season, in which he logged 140 tackles, two picks and seven passes defensed, but injuries have kept him from competing at that level since. Over the past two seasons, he’s appeared in just 19 games, with 132 tackles in that span.

Exercise the option? Yes

Ragnow is currently dealing with a fractured throat, but he’s become a cornerstone of Detroit’s offensive line, earning a Pro Bowl nod in 2020 while garnering PFF’s second-best offensive grade among centers (minimum of 100 snaps).

Exercise the option? No

Cincinnati’s selection of Price, who has started just one game so far this season, was the definition of reaching to fill a positional need after Ragnow came off the board.

Exercise the option? Yes

As a former linebacker himself, Titans head coach Mike Vrabel knows the value that a versatile player like Evans, who has 92 tackles, four quarterback hits and four passes defensed, brings to his defensive scheme.

Exercise the option? Yes

Wynn has appeared in just 18 career games thus far, missing all of 2018 and then landing on injured reserve this season in November. Still, the undersized Wynn has shown he can be a solid blind-side protector and serve as an integral part of the Patriots’ efforts to rebuild their offense in the coming years.

Exercise the option? Yes

Last season, Moore set career highs in receptions (87) and receiving yards (1,175). The fact that he’s on pace to finish with roughly the same yardage total while logging fewer catches in 2020 shows his evolution as a big-play threat in Carolina’s new offense under Matt Rhule. Moore currently leads the NFL in yards per catch with 17.9 (among those with 50-plus receptions) while sitting at 10th in receiving yards (1,092).

Exercise the option? Yes

*Original drafting team: Baltimore Ravens

The change of scenery that accompanied Hurst’s trade from Baltimore in March has helped him put up his best season to date (52 catches, 543 receiving yards, five receiving TDs) while establishing strong chemistry with quarterback Matt Ryan.

Exercise the option? Yes

A strong argument can be made that Ridley, who ranks fifth in the NFL in receiving yards (1,322) and third in yards per catch (16.1, among those with 50-plus catches) has replaced Julio Jones as the Falcons’ top receiver.

Exercise the option? No

Penny has been plagued by the injury bug, but even at 100 percent, he’s not the best running back on Seattle’s roster, which makes it tough to commit to him beyond 2021 at this point.

Exercise the option? Yes

Owning Pittsburgh’s fourth-best coverage grade, per PFF, Edmunds has a career-high two picks and eight passes defensed this season. The Steelers will give him a chance to continue building chemistry with Minkah Fitzpatrick.

Exercise the option? No

Chalk Bryan (eight starts out of 15 appearances, with 0.5 sacks and 18 tackles in 2020) up alongside Dante Fowler (picked No. 3 overall in 2015) as another recent first-round mistake made by the Jaguars on defensive linemen.

Exercise the option? No

Hughes, who has started just seven games in his career while logging just 13 total passes defensed in three seasons, has been on injured reserve with a neck injury since October. Meanwhile, the Vikings made draft commitments to other cornerbacks in 2020, selecting Jeff Gladney in Round 1 (No. 31 overall) and Cameron Dantzler in Round 3 (No. 89 overall), with Gladney recording 79 tackles, including seven for loss, and a forced fumble and Dantzler chipping in 45 tackles, two picks, four passes defensed and one forced fumble.

Exercise the option? No

Running backs sometimes fall from grace in New England, for a multitude of reasons. Michel (63 carries, 373 rushing yards, six total touchdowns) has not been able to build on a strong rookie season, ceding the spotlight this year to Damien Harris, who has proven he can handle the workload as the Patriots’ lead back.

Exercise the option? Yes

Is there any world in which the answer here is “no”?

Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter.

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