The 2011 labor deal revamped the compensation system at the top of the draft, implementing a rookie wage scale that prevents busts from absconding with millions. Unfortunately, this keeps the non-busts at the top of the draft from getting proper compensation until their teams decide to give them a second contract.
Ideally, that happens at some point after the player’s third year in the NFL and the completion of his rookie contract. Unless the team decides to take full advantage of all five years of the rookie deal, followed by a year or two of the franchise tag.
For the 2014 first-round class, only two players — Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles and Buccaneers receiver Mike Evans — have had their fifth-year options replaced with long-term contracts. Two of the players whose options weren’t picked up, receiver Sammy Watkins and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, got their contracts on the open market, after becoming free agents. Ditto for tight end Eric Ebron, whose option was exercised but who was cut before the option became fully guaranteed on March 14.
Cornerback Kyle Fuller received a long-term deal after his team declined to pick up the option, applied the transition tag, and matched the offer sheet signed by the Packers.
Those who arguably have earned a new deal (given that their fith-year options were exercised) but who are still waiting for a new contract include Texans linebacker Jadeveon Clowney, Raiders linebacker Khalil Mack, Falcons tackle Jake Matthews, Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr, Titans tackle Taylor Lewan, Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr., Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald, Cowboys tackle Zack Martin, Ravens linebacker C.J. Mosley, Dolphins tackle Ja'Wuan James, Patriots receiver Brandin Cooks, Packers safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Chiefs linebacker Dee Ford, Bengals cornerback Darqueze Dennard, Chargers cornerback Jason Verrett, Cardinals linebacker Deone Bucannon, 49ers safety Jimmie Ward, and Broncos cornerback Bradley Roby.
Of those, the absence of a new contract for players like Clowney, Mack, Beckham, and Donald has become glaringly conspicuous. Donald skipped all of training camp last year to no avail; most recently, he has seen the team give $14 million to Ndamukong Suh for 2018. Beckham skipped the offseason program a year ago, suffered an ankle injury during the preseason, broke his leg in Week Five, and now finds himself the subject not of a long-term extension but trade rumors.
To the extent that the system needs to be changed, that won’t happen until the next CBA arrives. Even then, it’s unlikely that the players will be inclined collectively to make a concession that would compel teams to give young players more money sooner, even if a return a system that allows star players to leverage big rookie deals into bigger second deals would potentially stretch the market at the various positions, giving more players a chance to get more in their own negotiations.
The easiest fix would be to get rid of the fifth-year option completely, allowing players to hit the market or commence the franchise-tag dance in year five. Alternatively, the league and the union could agree to a system that voids the fifth year based on playing-time or performance triggers applicable to each position.
However it plays out, a system aimed at not providing windfalls to first-round picks who never make it has given teams the ability to wait far too long to give a fair and just reward to those who do.