On the day New York Giants quarterback Daniel Jones officially secured his four-year $160 million extension in March, general manager Joe Schoen seized on the hindsight that could become an annual staple of regret in the NFL.
“If I thought I was going to be here a year ago, I would have done that fifth-year option,” Schoen cracked to reporters.
It was a funny line. But also true.
If the Giants had gambled and picked up Jones’ fifth-year option prior to the 2022 season, they’d have secured one more year of runway to evaluate their long-term commitment to their starting quarterback through the 2023 season. And it would have been accomplished at a rate of about $22.4 million, no less — which is far less costly than the commitment they were forced to make in March, which netted Jones a hefty $82 million in true guarantees.
Such is the risk that teams are now weighing with the latest iteration of the fifth-year option for former first-round draft picks. Since the last collective bargaining agreement made the option fully guaranteed rather than simply guaranteed for injury, NFL teams have been forced to make significant judgement calls a full season early. And when it turns out to be the wrong call — as it was with Jones — a franchise can be backed into a costly corner. In the case of the Giants, the unpalatable options were: et Jones leave via free agency; secure him via a franchise tag that would cost (at least) $32.4 million for one season; or pony up for a contract extension that would commit more money but also hedge some of the risk of Jones having a banner year in 2023 and significantly driving up his price.
Yeah, $22.4 million would have been a much more painless route. And it’s almost certain we’ll see a similar situation develop with the latest batch of declined fifth-year options, which set a league record for fewest options exercised (12 of 32).
With that in mind, here are four players who appear to be positioned to replicate what Jones did — backing their team into a financial corner and flipping a declined option into a lucrative payday …
Washington Commanders edge rusher Chase Young
This one isn’t rocket science, considering Young was the No. 2 pick in the 2020 NFL Draft and considered a nearly can’t-miss player coming out of Ohio State. He didn’t exactly “miss” with Washington, as much as simply having a promising start completely derailed by injuries. The questions for the Commanders are fairly simple. Can Young recapture the explosive ability that made him the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year in the 2020 season? And if he can, how much more of the salary cap can the Commanders pour into their defensive line, which is already carrying substantial extensions for Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen (not to mention facing defensive end Montez Sweat’s contract expiring after 2023)? In a way, it might be a race of sorts for Young and Sweat. The Commanders can’t apply a franchise tag to both, so it’s very likely if they both have banner seasons in 2023, one will be heading to free agency and the other will be tagged in an effort to carve out an extension. Simply due to salary cap realities, it seems unlikely Washington would want to devote four mega contracts to four defensive linemen. Barring another hollow season, Young will have suitors. When his option was declined, one AFC general manager was already talking about how attractive it would be to add him in a reboot of their defensive line. He isn’t alone, and plenty of eyeballs will be on Young this season.
New York Jets offensive tackle Mekhi Becton
Like Washington’s Chase Young, Becton had a banner rookie year, touting a litany of skills that had some initially believing he was the best offensive tackle drafted in 2020. But also like Young, injuries took their toll and essential erased Becton’s past two seasons. That reality — along with concerns about his weight and conditioning from one season to the next — has created a monumental amount of frustration inside the Jets' franchise. So much so, the organization has told Becton that if he believes he’s a true left tackle in the league, he’s going to have to show it and earn it in 2023. Time will tell if that happens, but Becton is reportedly down into the 350-pound range with his weight, which should have the organization thrilled, considering he was over 390 pounds at one point in early 2022. The franchise’s brain trust has long wanted Becton to play consistently in the 350-360 range, believing that would maximize his ability as a pass and run blocker. If he can do that in 2023, the Jets will very likely apply the franchise tag to him and seek to play out a fifth year while considering an extension. If that doesn’t happen, Becton is going to get plenty of looks across the NFL, which is notoriously tackle-starved. Particularly for a 24-year-old who showed so much ability as a rookie. Regardless of who pays it, Becton will cash in if he can again put it all together in 2023.
Linebacker combo: the Seattle Seahawks’ Jordyn Brooks and Baltimore Ravens’ Patrick Queen
The situation for Brooks and Queen is not a perfect 1-for-1 comparison, largely differentiating on how each franchise arrived at a crossroads of apprehension. For Brooks, his torn ACL in January put the Seahawks into a position where they had to weigh a $12.7 million price tag (which is fairly rich) for an off-ball linebacker vs. the reality that he’s going to spend the majority of next season recovering from his knee injury. As much as the Seahawks love Brooks’ talent, they’re playing a numbers game that suggest a less costly outcome down the line that still results in Brooks remaining with the team.
Queen, on the other hand, is a player who seemed to thrive after the trade addition of Roquan Smith. That trade was consummated largely because the Ravens were having frustrations with how Queen had developed. But it also led to a blossoming of sorts, as Queen became a larger factor as a pass rusher once Smith was in the fold. For the Ravens, the math is suggestive that Queen has proven better as a complementary piece who showcased himself after Smith's arrival. And that typically isn’t the kind of thing that leads to a franchise picking up a fifth-year option, let alone signing a large contract extension.
But this is where Brooks and Queen intersect. Beauty and price tag are ultimately in the eye of the beholder, and both will have significant markets barring an absolute bomb of a season in 2023. For now, it seems Seattle isn’t likely to let Brooks get away, even if that means having to apply a franchise tag following next season. But Queen, even with a high-end season, might be a luxury the Ravens can afford now that they’ve agreed to extensions with Smith and a Lamar Jackson contract that’s going to start weighing on the team fairly quickly. Both will be interesting decisions. And both will be watched closely across the league.