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Rams, as usual, don’t have to sweat “5th year option decision” in 2021

There’s at least one benefit to hanging back and waiting until day two of the draft

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The first round of the 2018 NFL Draft gave us some great NFL talent to watch over the last three seasons. Lamar Jackson has already won an MVP award, Josh Allen came close to following him in that prestigious honor, and Baker Mayfield has an argument for why he’ll be joining that conversation next season.

Now consider the costs that those happy NFL teams must allocate towards their first round pick three years ago.

By making a Pro Bowl and playing the quarterback position, Jackson and Allen’s fifth-year option is $23.1 million, while Mayfield and third overall pick Sam Darnold, who had his option picked up by the Carolina Panthers last week, will get $18.8 million.

And the Panthers were happy to do it.

So too did the NY Giants pick up the fifth-year option of Saquon Barkley, guaranteeing him a $7.2 million salary in 2022, which is oddly $3 million less than what Barkley will make this season as the third-highest paid running back in football. While still playing on his rookie deal.

First round picks from 2018 who will make between $9 and $13.7 million on their fifth-year options include Denzel Ward, Bradley Chubb, Quenton Nelson, Mike McGlinchey, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Marcus Davenport, Tremaine Edmunds, Jaire Alexander, Frank Ragnow, and D.J. Moore. In some of those cases you must believe that $12 million is a bargain, but in many it is abundantly clear why those teams will come to long-term agreements before ever having to pay out a single-year salary that high for sometimes underwhelming picks.

  • Barkley missed three games in 2019 and 14 games in 2020.
  • Darnold’s only been bad so far.
  • Ward has missed three, four, and four games during his three NFL seasons.
  • Chubb missed 12 games in 2019.
  • Prior to being an MVP candidate, Josh Allen struggled in his first two seasons. But 2020 virtually guarantees Allen a record-breaking contract in the near future.
  • Fitzpatrick is one of three players who were selected in the top-11 who are no longer with the team that drafted him.
  • The Bucs picked up a $7 million fifth-year option on Vita Vea, who missed 11 games last season.
  • Marcus Davenport has been fighting off the bust label since the Saints traded up to him, has missed 11 games in three seasons, and hasn’t been an especially good pass rusher in his career, but he’s supposed to get $9.553 million in 2022 on his fifth-year option.
  • Derwin James might be the best safety in the league, but he’s also missed 27 games in the last two years. His fifth-year option is $9 million.
  • Ragnow has been an excellent center for the Lions, and they’ll be paying him that way soon: Ragnow’s $12.65 million fifth-year option makes him the highest-paid player at his position in 2022.

In some fifth-year option cases, the player becomes a bargain, but I would say this is rare. Three of the four quarterbacks (Josh Rosen’s rookie contract disappeared when the Dolphins cut him and nobody picked him up on waivers) would be a steal on their fifth-year option salaries. Players like Roquan Smith and James and Da’Ron Payne could be bargains, but then others like Ragnow, Quenton Nelson, it’s more like paying them what they’re worth or more as the highest-paid at their respective positions.

Then there are the difficult decisions to not give out fifth-year options, knowing that if you’re wrong about said player’s future, he will walk away a year early or become significantly more expensive than he could have been on the option.

Cowboys linebacker Leighton Vander Esch was a second-team all-pro as a rookie and would have seemed a lock for the option, but Dallas hasn’t been as forgiving to his injuries as the Chargers have been with James. Vander Esch has missed significant time in each of the last two seasons and his play has been slipping. He’s not expected to get the option.

The Falcons traded for tight end Hayden Hurst last year but then decided to draft Kyle Pitts and to not pick up Hurst’s fifth-year option, which would have been $5.4 million. So far, Vander Esch is the only player in the top-20 to not have his option picked up, but D.J. Moore and Lamar Jackson are the only players outside of the top-20 to have them picked up so far.

The Rams were set to pick 23rd, but dealt the pick to the New England Patriots for Brandin Cooks. Bill Belichick opted to draft tackle Isaiah Wynn, and while it wouldn’t be shocking to have his option picked up, it is unexpected after Wynn has missed 30 of a possible 48 games in his career.

The option would still cost $10.4 million, if they do. Now consider the state of the 2021 LA Rams and why it is a benefit to have avoided these salaries and decisions all along.

The Rams could have stuck at 23 and picked Wynn, either as a guard and/or a successor to a tackle, and maybe the result is the same as what New England is dealing with today. But the fifth-year option would be difficult to justify given that LA has consistently been working up against the cap by going after proven veterans instead of taking their chances with a potential bargain or flop in the first round of the draft.

Imagine the Rams paying Isaiah Wynn $10.4 million when they currently only have two players on the entire roster who are set to make at least that much in 2020: Matthew Stafford and Aaron Donald. Imagine that list.

“So who are your highest-paid players again, Les?” - Stan Kroenke.

“Stafford, Donald, Ramsey, Floyd, Kupp, Wynn, Whitworth...” - Les Snead.

“Oh hell yeah we’ll win!”

“No, I mean-”

“Win! Win! Win!”

..... “Yes, sir.”

Yes, the LA Rams still have to pay the players who they trade for and they have to pay them a lot more — and a lot sooner — than if they had taken their chances in the draft. They also know that Jalen Ramsey, Brandin Cooks, Marcus Peters, Matthew Stafford have proven themselves against professional competition, and that they’re saving some money and some difficult decisions down the line when they avoid the first round of the draft, and I do believe that is worth noting when we bring up the fact that the Rams don’t play with day one.

They also don’t have to play with year five.