What are the ramifications of the Buffalo Bills declining Sammy Watkins’ fifth-year option?
As for the nuts and bolts — it means the Bills have not opted into the “one-year extension” for the fifth year of the wideout’s rookie contract. That team-option is attached to all first-round picks under the current CBA.
Players selected in the top 10 of the draft receive fifth-year money equal to the average of the 10-highest paid players at their respective position. For Watkins, that would have been $13.2 million in 2018. At the time of an option being picked up, that money is guaranteed for injury only and doesn’t change anything about the player’s cap hit in Year 4.
So, Watkins’ cap hit will still be (a fully guaranteed) $6.3M in 2017, which is now the final year of his rookie deal.
A declined fifth-year option — probably because of the word “declined” — seems to send a clear message that a team will not retain that player after his rookie deal is up.
But as I mentioned this on Buffalo Mumblings — our quick daily podcast, subscribe here :) — that’s not the case, and there have been a few instances in which those players with declined fifth-year options were retained by the team that drafted them.
Mark Ingram, Saints 2011 first-round pick
Signed multi-year extension with New Orleans
Ingram was limited to 11 games during 2013. He averaged 4.9 yards per carry but only rushed 78 times. In the final year of his rookie deal, he played in 13 games, toted the rock 228 times, averaged 4.3 YPC and scored nine rushing touchdowns. In March of 2015, he inked a four-year deal with the Saints.
Mo Claiborne, Cowboys 2012 first-round pick
Signed 1-year deal with Dallas
Claiborne was hurt in 2014, his third season as a pro, and appeared in only four games before landing on IR. In his contract year, Claiborne rebounded to play in 11 games. It earned him a one-year contract with the Cowboys.
Whitney Mercilus, Texans 2012 first-round pick
Signed extension with Houston
Mercilus appeared in 16 games in 2014, and was on the field for 71.1% of the Texans defensive snaps. After a six-sack rookie year, an a seven-sack sophomore season, he had five sacks in his third campaign. The Texas gave him an extension the day after declining the fifth-year option deadline.
Nick Perry, Packers 2012 first-round pick
Signed 1-year deal then signed multi-year extension with Green Bay
Perry played on 32.7% of the Packers defensive snaps in 2014. He had three sacks and 32 tackles. After a 3.5-sack 2015, the Packers agreed to a one-year deal with Perry. In 2016, he set career highs in tackles (52) and sacks (11). In March of 2017, he signed a five-year extension.
Doug Martin, Buccaneers 2012 first-round pick
Signed multi-year extension with Tampa Bay
Martin was injured in 2014, limiting him to 11 games and a grand total of 34.7% of the Buccaneers offense snaps that year. He averaged 3.7 yards per carry after a 3.6-yards-per-carry 2013. After his fifth-year option was declined, Martin ran for 4.9 YPC in 2015 which led to him getting a fifth-year extension from the Bucs.
The vast majority of players who saw their fifth-year option declined were obvious busts, such as; Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder, EJ Manuel, Dee Milliner, Derek Sherrod, Shea McClellin, Quinton Coples, and Jarvis Jones.
A few former first-round picks who did not receive a fifth-year option pick up were simply ineligible, as they’d already been traded or cut — woof.
We can all agree Watkins wouldn’t be placed in the “obvious bust” category. Actually, when healthy, he’s been efficiently productive. His career yards-per-target figure is 8.9. Odell Beckham Jr.’s is 9.0. Mike Evans’ is 8.0.
(Yes both OBJ and Evans have seen way more targets. 181 and 167 to be exact.)
Of course, the “when healthy” phrase is the caveat with Watkins.
There aren’t any regulations that stop a team from negotiating with a player after a fifth-year option is declined. An extension can be agreed upon at any time, as evidenced by what transpired with Mercilus and the Texans.
Also — and this is very important — the team can utilize the franchise tag on a player whose fifth-year option was declined.
(Imagine the criticism the Bills would have taken if they picked up Watkins’ option, he aggravated his foot injury in 2017 then they were on the hook for $13M — minus potential offset money from another team— in 2018.)
Essentially it’d be a more expensive version of the fifth-year option that can be applied further down the road when a player either shows improvement in his play or proves he can stay healthy.
For Watkins, the deadline for the Bills to make him their franchise player will be in early March 2018.
In 2017, the franchise tag for the receiver spot was $15.6M, so it should be a tick higher next season. In that case, Watkins would have been given the opportunity to bet on himself with a higher reward in 2018 than the $13.2M that would have come on the fifth-year option.
If Watkins is his normal self this season -- and can stay on the field — he’s likely set to be the next on a short list of players who had their fifth-year option declined but ultimately received another contract from the team that drafted them.