As the excitement was building to the 2022 NFL Draft, teams quietly made decisions that, in some cases, warned against expecting too much from the players about to enter the league from the college ranks.
May 2 marked the deadline for teams to exercise fifth-year contract options for 2019 first-round picks. Some of the moves made headlines, such as the New York Giants declining the option for quarterback Daniel Jones, which makes him eligible for free agency after the coming season instead of securing him through 2023, his fifth season, at an elevated and fully guaranteed rate. But it’s the big-picture trends that carry implications for how NFL teams decide to allocate resources. In this column, I stack the teams 1-32 by the rate they have exercised options since the system went into effect, adding thoughts on decisions looming in the future.
One trend points toward a lower option pickup rate for the final 14 slots in the round, the ones associated with playoff teams from the previous season. These are the picks that the Los Angeles Rams and other contending teams have have traded to acquire veterans such as Jalen Ramsey and Matthew Stafford.
The option pickup rate for slots 19-32 has dropped from 58% for the 2011-2014 draft classes to 36% for the 2015-2019 classes. These are the slots where teams typically have three choices: Draft a lower-rated player at a premium position; draft a higher-rated player at a non-premium position; or trade the selection for a veteran player. That last choice appears increasingly appealing.
Teams excited about the guards, running backs, off-ball linebackers and defensive tackles they selected 19th through 32nd this year should know that players from these non-premium positions had their options picked up just three times in 20 chances (15%) across the 2015-2019 drafts. Even if players at these positions contribute, teams must decide whether the premium option prices represent good value.
The rankings below are not a pure indicator for teams’ ability to evaluate. Some teams have consistently drafted earlier or later in the round, affecting their likelihood of finding good players. That is why I’ve included Average Draft Position (ADP) for each team, which is the average slot they’ve drafted players in the first round from 2011-2019, from Jacksonville at one extreme (7.6 average) to New England at the other (26.3).
1. Houston Texans: 100 percent
ADP 2011-19: 17.13 (20th-highest)
The Houston Texans took criticism following the 2019 draft after it appeared the Philadelphia Eagles outmaneuvered them. Both teams coveted offensive tackles. Houston held the 23rd choice. Philly was picking 25th. The Eagles traded fourth- and sixth-round picks to Baltimore to acquire the 22nd choice, jumping Houston. They selected Washington State tackle Andre Dillard. Houston appeared to “settle” for Alabama State tackle Tytus Howard.
Three years later, neither player is contending for all-star honors, but Howard projects as the more valuable contributor. The Texans picked up the fifth-year option for Howard, while the Eagles declined to do so for Dillard. Though Howard has struggled at guard, where the Texans have needed him, he was better at tackle late last season and projects there in the future.