Earlier in the offseason, I took at look at the relative changes in positional value - as a function of the salaries of the top paid players at each position over time - to try to identify trends in the league, both on the defensive and offensive side of the ball.
On offense, both tackle positions were - by a wide margin - the spots that experienced the most dramatic rate of growth over the past decade.
On defense, the interior defensive line experienced the greatest rate of growth, but at the other end of the spectrum, linebacker (like running backs) experienced a steep decline:
No defensive position suffered as much as the running backs did on offense (-43%), in terms of salary growth lost to cap inflation, but the linebackers weren’t terribly far behind. Over the period examined, linebackers saw a 27% reduction relative to cap growth in terms of the average salaries of the top paid players at the position.
But top salaries are only one - albeit a good one - proxy for positional value. With Washington only one season away from having to make a critical decision on its own highly drafted interior linebacker - Jamin Davis - I thought it would be interesting to take a look at how teams that had drafted linebackers had handled them over the past 6 years.
As readers will likely remember, players drafted in the first round can be extended for an additional year under their rookie contract, if the team that drafted them desires to do so:
The 2020 Collective Bargaining Agreement allows for teams to exercise a fifth year option for players drafted in the first round as an addition to the standard four year rookie contract. Upon being exercised, the fifth year option is fully guaranteed, and any base salary in the player’s fourth year that was not fully guaranteed will become so.
What follows below is a listing of the past six draft years where there has been the opportunity to exercise 5th year options, the percent of all first rounders who had their options exercised, and the decisions for interior linebackers (not EDGE rushers) taken in each class.
5th Year Option Decisions on Interior Linebackers by Draft Year: (source)
2015: (Exercised - 63%)
- Pick 31 - Stephone Anthony (MIA) - Declined ($9.2M)
2016: (Exercised - 51%)
- Pick 20 - Darron Lee (NYJ) - Declined ($9.5M)
2017: (Exercised - 53%)
- Pick 21 - Jarrad Davis (DET) - Declined ($10M)
- Pick 31 - Rueben Foster (SF) - Waived
2018: (Exercised - 66%)
- Pick 8 - Roquan Smith (CHI) - Exercised & Extended ($20M/yr)
- Pick 16 - Tremaine Edmunds (BUF) - Exercised ($12.7M)
- Pick 19 - Leighton Vander Esch (DAL) - Declined
- Pick 22 - Rashaan Evans (TEN) - Declined
2019: (Exercised - 59%)
- Pick 5 - Devin White (TB) - Exercised ($11.7M)
- Pick 10 - Devin Bush (PIT) - Declined
2020: (Exercised - 38%)
- Pick 8 - Isaiah Simmons (ARI) - Declined ($12.7M)
- Pick 23 - Kenneth Murray (LAC) - Declined
- Pick 27 - Jordyn Brooks (SEA) - Declined
- Pick 28 - Patrick Queen (BAL) - Declined
2021: (Decision to be made by early May 2024)
- Pick 12 - Micah Parsons* (DAL)
- Pick 16 - Zaven Collins (ARI)
- Pick 19 - Jamin Davis (WAS)
Over the past six eligible draft classes, 14 linebackers have been selected in the first round. Of those 14, 11 (79%) have had their 5th year options either declined, or the player has been waived. That, in effect, means that the team determined the player was not performing (or was not likely to perform) at the salary they were going to be receiving as part of the 5th year option formula.
That’s a pretty poor showing, and I’m sure it will prompt the question of “how would other positions perform in such an analysis,” which is something I may take up at another time. In the meantime, I’d like to look at the three linebacker outliers, and one likely wild card from the 2021 class.
Tremaine Edmunds (2018)
By any conventional metric, Edmunds’ time in the NFL has been a success. In his second and third seasons, he was named to the Pro Bowl, and he was a defensive leader on the Bills for several years.
Accordingly, during the 2021 offseason, the Bills exercised Edmunds’ 5th year option, locking him in through the 2022 season for $12.7M. In 2022, Edmunds put up very similar numbers to those he had for the rest of his career, and yet the Bills decided to let him walk in free agency.
This offseason, Edmunds signed a 4-year deal ($18M/yr) with the Bears.
Devin White (2019)
Like Edmunds, White has also received significant accolades thus far in his young career. In 2020, he was named second team All Pro, and in 2021, he was named to the Pro Bowl. He’s had steady production throughout the course of his 4-year career, and as a result, the Buccaneers picked up his 5th year option during the 2022 offseason for $11.7M, locking him in through 2023.
Rumors circulated that White was unhappy with the terms of his 5th year option, and he missed OTAs earlier this offseason, leading to speculation that he might want to be traded. White thinks he’s worth more, and clearly the Bucs disagree.
Todd Bowles Has Stern, Indirect Message For Devin White— PewterReport ☠️ (@PewterReport) June 8, 2023
White has yet to appear at voluntary workouts this offseason.
The big question is whether he’ll show up for mandatory mini-camp next week or be a no-show?#Bucs #GoBucs #DevinWhite #GetLive45https://t.co/lLUSJDI6Nn
Roquan Smith (2018)
Smith is the best of this group, and as a result, his situation has worked out the best both for himself and the team that drafted him. Voted second team All Pro in 2020 and 2021, and first team All Pro in 2022, Smith had his 5th-year option exercised during the 2021 offseason, locking him in through 2022.
During the 2022 offseason, Smith tried to negotiate an extension, and ended up refusing to practice during training camp. Ultimately, he ended his hold out in late August, declaring that he wouldn’t negotiate with the Bears’ front office during the season.
In October of 2022, he was traded to the Ravens for AJ Klein, and a 2nd and 5th round pick in the 2023 draft. This January, the Ravens signed Smith to a 5-year deal ($20M/yr).
Micah Parsons (2021)
In his first two years in the league, Parsons looks like a potential, true “generational talent.” The 2021 Defensive Rookie of the Year, Parsons has been named first team All Pro in both of his first two years in the league. He’s a defensive menace, and indications are, this offseason, he already sees the handwriting on the wall as it pertains to an eventual 5th year option.
Short of significant injury, the Cowboys would be lunatics not to pick up Parsons’ 5th year option next year - and, at a minimum, they will. But, Parsons is unlikely to be satisfied with an option number that is likely to be $4-5M less per year than if he was classified as an EDGE rushing defensive end. Averaging over 13 sacks per season, Parsons is by no means your average off-ball linebacker.
Early this offseason, there were rumors that he was attempting precisely such a shift, presumably because of the potential 5th year option implications.
Recently, defensive coordinator Dan Quinn shot those rumors down, but it will be very interesting to see how the Cowboys handle things next offseason. Knowing Jerry Jones, I’d expect a significant multi-year extension that renders much of this speculation moot, given the fact that there’s no chance Dallas is letting Parsons get away.
"Micah Parsons is not making a full-time move to defensive end. He’s a pass-rushing linebacker. If you ever need position changes, come to me."— Cowboys Report (@_cowboysreport) May 13, 2023
-DC Dan Quinn on Micah Parsons role change#Cowboys | via @COWBOYSpeeps pic.twitter.com/Mw9tOaxAT7
So, of 16 linebackers drafted in the first round during this study period, it appears that 100% of them either will not, or are unlikely to, spend six years with the team that drafted them. Nearly 80% of the players taken didn’t even spend five years with their original team.
In my mind, this raises serious questions about the wisdom of using first round draft picks on inside linebacker at all. If the odds are you aren’t even likely to get the full five years out of a player - even if they’re better than average - because they simply aren’t worth what you would have to pay them as a condition of their 5th year option, why use that first round pick on them at all?
Based on their careers so far, I wouldn’t be surprised if Jamin Davis and Zaven Collins fall in the 80% group of players who aren’t good value at their 5th year option price. Would you be willing to pay Davis $14-15M in 2025 if he plays similarly to how he did in 2022? Parsons is clearly a different animal, and as I’ve said, I expect him to get extended by the Cowboys given his spectacular performance thus far.
Do you expect Washington to pick up Jamin Davis’ 5th year option?
This poll is closed
Yes, and I agree they should
Yes, and I think they shouldn’t
No, and I agree they shouldn’t
No, and I think they should.
Do you think it makes sense to avoid drafting linebackers in the first round?
This poll is closed