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Changes to the fifth-year option salaries in the new CBA

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Players who were drafted in the first round of the 2018 draft and beyond are now governed by a new set of rules to determine their salary for their fifth-year option.

Cleveland Browns v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by: 2019 Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

In a previous article, I went over the Players Performance Escalator and how second- through seventh-rounders could earn an increased salary escalation in their last year of their rookie contract as outlined by the new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) due to outperforming their contract. Any of you who read it may have noticed first-round picks were left out. The 2020 CBA changed how first-rounders get compensated for the team holding control over the player’s rights in their fifth season of their rookie contract.


History

Prior to 2011, first-round picks were all given standard five-year contracts. Fifth-year contracts were implemented with the signing of the 2011 CBA as a way to keep a player’s rights for a fifth season, but it came at a cost. The fifth-year salary for players selected in the first 10 picks totals up to the transition tag, which is the average of the 10 highest salaries at the player’s position, which is the Transition Tag Tender amount. Players selected with picks 11-32 receive the average of the third through 25th-highest salaries at a player’s position.

Fifth-year options must be picked up prior to May 3 of the player’s fourth season and are not fully guaranteed until the start of the next year’s league year.

Fifth year is guaranteed for injury only. Ryan Shazier’s fifth year falls into this category.

These stipulations cover players up to the 2016 and 2017 first-rounders.


2020 CBA changes

If you want to read the CBA jargon yourself, click here and scroll to page 41.

With the new CBA, 2018 first-round draft picks and beyond are affected.

Fifth-year options become fully guaranteed at the time they are exercised which is before May 3 in the fourth league year of their contracts. This makes the fourth year fully guaranteed as well.

The amount of the players fifth-year option will be determined by the following criteria:

1. Players who reach a certain threshold will earn a base salary which amounts to the fourth-season salary cap average of the salaries of the third through 25th highest-paid players at that position and can’t be selected to the first ballot of the Pro Bowl in any of his first three seasons. The position will be defined by whichever position he played the most during his third season. The threshold which activates this salary schedule are if the player did NOT:
a. Play 75 percent or more of the offensive or defensive snaps in two of his first three seasons.
b. Average 75 percent of his team’s offensive or defensive plays over the course of his first three regular seasons
c. Play 50 percent of offensive or defensive snaps in each of his first three seasons.

2. Players who reach a certain threshold will earn a base salary that amounts to the fourth-season salary cap average of the salaries of the third through 20th highest-paid players at that position and can’t be selected to the first ballot of the Pro Bowl in any of his first three seasons. The position will be defined by whichever position he played the most during his third season. The threshold that activates this salary schedule are if the player DID:
a. Play 75 percent or more of the offensive or defensive snaps in two of his first three seasons.
b. Average 75 percent of his team’s offensive or defensive plays over the course of his first three regular seasons
c. Play 50 percent of offensive or defensive snaps in each of his first three seasons.

3. First rounders selected to the Pro Bowl on the original ballot in any of their first three seasons will receive a fifth-year salary equal to the transition tag of the player’s fourth year.

4. First rounders selected to the Pro Bowl on the original ballot in more than one of their first three seasons will receive a fifth-year salary equal to the franchise tag of the player’s fourth year.


Summarizing the four payment levels

To summarize, the four different qualifying levels are:

Level 1: Players who didn’t meet the number of snap requirements or make the Pro Bowl
Level 2: Players who did meet the requirements but didn’t make the Pro Bowl
Level 3: Players who made one Pro Bowl
Level 4: Players who made multiple Pro Bowls

They are not called these “levels” in the CBA, but I’ve decided to put them here to help better understand how the system works.


Looking at possible future fifth-year options for current Steelers

What could this mean for first-rounders Devin Bush and Minkah Fitzpatrick? Honestly, it is too hard to say due to uncertain times regarding the salary cap and the upcoming television rights negotiations but for fun let’s look at the four categories above for 2020 at each player’s position.

Fitzpatrick (Already has hit the #2 above)

Level 4: Franchise tag: $11.4 million
Level 3: Transition tag: $9.86 million.
Level 2: Transition tag: (3-20 average): $8.74 million.
Level 1: Transition tag (3-25 average): $7.92 million.

Bush (82 percent of 2019 defensive snaps)

Level 4: Franchise tag: $15.83 million
Level 3: Transition tag: $13.77 million.
Level 2: Transition tag: (3-20 average): $14.09 million.
Level 1: Transition tag (3-25 average): $13.21 million.


I was disappointed the owners and the NFLPA linked such lucrative paydays to the popularity contest known as the Pro Bowl and excludes any incentive for players who are voted as All-Pros. Players wanting to get on the field in their first year might clash with coaching staff who deem them not ready to play at the pro level. While there is really not a perfect solution, the system is at least a step in the right direction.