The Collective Bargaining Agreement solved the problem of unproven rookies taking millions out of the system while simultaneously creating an environment in which rookies who prove themselves have no real leverage for four or, in the case of first-round picks, five years. Thanks to the fifth-year option, a device that keeps a first-rounder from becoming a free agent after four seasons at compensation much lower than he’d get on the open market, teams have been able to delay giving great players the financial reward that they didn’t receive when drafted, for fear they’d never earn it.
For the player, the fifth-year option contains one very significant benefit: The salary for year five of his career is guaranteed for injury throughout year four. That’s the only thin silver lining in the dark cloud that has parked itself over the life of linebacker Ryan Shazier, who surely will never play again and who is struggling admirably and inspiringly to eventually lead a normal life. Under the fifth-year option exercised by the Steelers in 2017, the 2014 first-round pick will get $8.718 million for 2018, no matter what.
The fact that the Steelers will pay that much to someone who won’t play next season actually prompted a reporter to ask G.M. Kevin Colbert whether the Shazier injury will cause the Steelers to refrain from exercising fifth-year options.
“That’s the risk you run when you put that option into effect,” Colbert said during his recent 20-minute chat with folks who cover the team, via Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “Any player can get injured on any play, and that is our game. We understand that, and we understand the risk involved, and we try to make those decisions knowing that those type of things can happen.”
It’s the only way to look at it. Truly career-ending injuries don’t happen often, and a blanket decision not to exercise the fifth-year option would mean that plenty of talented first-round picks will become free agents (or get franchise-tagged to keep them out of free agency), costing the team much more money than it would have cost to keep them under the fifth-year option.
It would be ludicrous to let one injury to one player alter any team’s approach to the fifth-year option. For every first-round pick who becomes a quality player, the fifth-year option is a no-brainer, since it gives the team one more year at a rate of pay considerably lower than what the player would have gotten if he’d gotten a chance to hit the open market.