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What to do with Reuben Foster’s 5th year option

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San Francisco 49ers versus Los Angeles Rams Nhat V. Meyer/Digital First Media/The Mercury News via Getty Images

Taken with the 31st pick in the 2017 draft by the San Francisco 49ers, Reuben Foster was a human wrecking ball during his time playing linebacker at Alabama. His senior year, he was both a consensus All-American and the winner of the Butkus Award for the best linebacker in the country.

His experience in the NFL, however, hasn’t been nearly as impressive, and has been marked by injuries on the field and legal drama off of it. In his rookie season (2017) with the 49ers, he finished with a 72 combined tackles (59 solo) and the highest Pro Football Focus grade (90.7) among rookie linebackers. However, he lost 6 games due to two different injuries, one to his ankle and another to his ribs.

Before the 2018 season, Foster was suspended two games for a weapons offense and misdemeanor drug violation. He only played in 6 games that season, accumulating 29 tackles (25 solo), before being arrested for a domestic violence offense in late November 2018. He was eventually released by the 49ers, the accumulation of legal problems making Foster - in head coach Kyle Shanahan’s words - “very hard to trust.”

Foster was, shortly thereafter, claimed off waivers by the Redskins, investigated by the NFL in association with the claims of domestic abuse, and eventually fined two game checks.

Things were - relatively - looking up for Foster when team practices began with the Redskins in 2019, with the assumption that he would be well positioned to assume one of the two starting inside linebacker roles. Then, disaster struck. In a non-contact drill, on the first day of practice, Foster stepped on another player’s foot, twisted his knee, and ended up tearing his left ACL and LCL. Foster’s entire 2019 season was lost to rehabilitation. On the positive side, despite the down time, he seems to have stayed out of “off the field” trouble this year.

What’s Next?

So, with relatively little to show for it thus far, Foster has burned through 3 years of his rookie contract, the first two with the 49ers and the last one with us. He is currently under contract with the Redskins through 2020 at a very reasonable $1.7M. However, as a result of Foster being taken in the first round of the 2017 draft, the Redskins are also on the cusp of an important decision regarding whether to exercise Foster’s “5th year option.”

Every player selected in the first round of the NFL draft has a 5th year option on their contract - a “bonus” that gives the team the right to retain him for an additional year under a fixed set of salary conditions. In the case of a player drafted outside of the top 10, like Foster (or Jon Allen, for whom we have the same decision this offseason), the 5th year option salary is calculated by taking the average salaries of the 3rd through 25th players at the position. As an example, last year, the 5th year option amount for linebackers in this draft range was ~$9.5M (the prior year, it had been about $9.2M). So, for the sake of this exercise, let’s assume Foster’s 2021 5th year option will be around $10M.

The team must make a decision on Foster’s (and Allen’s) 5th year options by very early May 2020 or otherwise allow them to pursue free agency at the end of the 2020 season.

One Path Forward

The reality is that we will have no new information on Foster’s ability to perform in the NFL prior to having to make a decision on his 5th year option. We also have a significant need to upgrade our ILB play in the coming years, and, if Foster could realize his potential in the NFL, he could certainly be a key piece of that. Finally, it’s important to remember that in 2020 we still have Foster on a very team-friendly $1.7M deal (rookie contracts are glorious).

So, if we were to extend Foster through 2021, we would be paying him about $6M AAV ($1.7M + $10M) over the next two years, which would put him just outside the top 20 ILB salaries. That would be a great deal, if he pans out, but a fairly expensive mistake with the 2021 salary cap if he happens to bust.

One option would be for the Redskins’ new GM to use this uncertainty to get creative: Why not propose something like a 4-year deal at an AAV of $7M, with two years ($14M) guaranteed and load it up with some incentives? If Foster busts hard and has a career-ending injury, that’s about $12M at risk (which shouldn’t be taken lightly), but if he plays either at a starter or stud level, that’s a pretty good (or great) deal for the Redskins through 2023.

Another reasonable alternative - that I think I would prefer - would be to pass on Foster’s 5th year extension altogether and let him “bet on himself” in 2020, though if he plays well, he’s likely looking at a second contract in the $10M AAV range (which could still translate into a solid compensatory pick if the Redskins declined signing him). The difference in option 1 and option 2 is only about $4M (total), spread across 4 years. That “surcharge” seems like a reasonable hedge to pay if Foster manages to get on the right track.

What are your thoughts?

Poll

Do you think the Redskins should exercise Foster’s 5th year option?

This poll is closed

  • 39%
    No, let him test free agency.
    (383 votes)
  • 31%
    Yes, but only extend him through the 5th year.
    (305 votes)
  • 29%
    Yes, but pursue a longer term extension.
    (293 votes)
981 votes total Vote Now