Each first-round pick signs a four-year deal as dictated by the CBA. After year three of those rookie deals, the team can pick up an option for a fifth year at a predetermined cost. That fifth year is a bit on the expensive side, meaning good players typically see their options picked up. Bad players don’t. However, that is more of a rule of thumb than a hard and fast rule as Vic Beasley got his option picked up.
All of that was said to say there is rarely drama around rookie deals until after that third season. In 2021, Calvin Ridley has his option picked up while Hayden Hurst (a pricey trade acquisition by the previous regime) did not. Prior to that, Takkarist McKinkley’s option was declined in 2020, Keanu Neal’s option was picked up in 2019, and Vic Beasley’s option was picked up in 2018.
If that paragraph did not explain why Thomas Dimitroff is still unemployed in the NFL then nothing will.
For 2022, Dimitroff’s replacement Terry Fontenot will make decisions on not one but two players. Dimitroff, determined to finally fix the offensive line, took guard Chris Lindstrom at 14th overall and traded back into the first round and selected Kaleb McGary at 31st overall. The Falcons grabbed the draft’s top guard but more surprisingly gave up a 2nd and 3rd round pick for a tackle with both a questionable schematic fit and even more questionable draft value.
Like the recent history of Dimitroff’s first-round picks, these two players have had markedly different careers in Atlanta.
The Cost of the Fifth-Year Option
The 2020 CBA reworked the cost of this option, which was previously based on draft position. Instead, now it is based on the player’s position and three ways for the player to escalate the salary: (1) playtime, (2) one Pro Bowl selection, and (3) multiple Pro Bowl selections.
The new CBA lumps all offensive linemen into one bucket, meaning Lindstrom and McGary are in the same boat and cost the same price: $12.735 for 2023.
If the Falcons wanted to keep both players, they’d dedicate just over $25 million of 2023 cap space to two offensive linemen. The Falcons can likely afford that under an expected robust 2023 cap. However, that level of allocation to an offensive line would not make a lot of sense. The team could look to cheaper rookies to fill those positions, or even structure a long-term deal with cap hits pushed further into later years.
The Deadline for the Fifth-Year Option
With the Super Bowl in the rear view, teams have begun working on 2022 plans. That started with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers reportedly intending to pick up their option for standout linebacker Devin White. More should come up, but teams have until May 2nd to make things official.
For those keeping track, the NFL draft is April 28th through 30th. This gives teams flexibility to try to find replacements in free agency and the draft. If a team strikes out, it can still make a last-minute move to keep these players.
Can teams rescind a fifth-year option?
Under the old CBA, NFL could rescind the fifth-year option for healthy players. Put another way, the option was guaranteed for injury but not for performance. Hence, The Falcoholic sketching out the timelines for what seemed like the logical plan to rescind Beasley’s fifth-year option after the 2018 NFL season.
The Falcons did not rescind the option, instead deciding on a number of poor personnel and cap decisions that continue to plague the team.
The new CBA removed this “Beasley option” to rescind the option for poor performance. Meaning if a team applies the option, it is stuck with paying that player that healthy salary.
The case for and against Lindstrom
Lindstrom came into Atlanta as advertised and has reached expectations throughout his career. He has remained healthy and effective, and is frequently recognized as the team’s best offensive lineman. He may have been a confusing pick with Brian Burns available in the draft, but Lindstrom is one of the league’s best, young interior linemen. The Falcons should definitely keep Lindstrom and try to build the offensive line around him.
The only question is if the Falcons should exercise Lindstrom’s option or negotiate a long-term deal to lessen his 2023 cap hit. While Lindstrom will almost certainly cost more than $12.375 million per year, there is not a lot of “savings” using this option. The problem is all offensive linemen being included in that option cost, more premium positions like tackle push that number up. Atlanta’s potential savings from an annual perspective would likely be offset with a changing market for guards across the length of a potential deal.
Falcons should certainly exercise this option with Lindstrom but only to kick off contract negotiations. Locking down a young talent under cap friendly terms should be the plan.
The case for and against McGary
Dimitroff’s recent first-round hit rate was on display in this draft class. Lindstrom, despite being drafted early for his position, has become a Pro Bowl-caliber player. McGary, a player the team traded up for, has been anything but. McGary has had some very good outings but to this date is a below-average starter plagued with inconsistency. Additionally, McGary was not a raw or athletic prospect that was expected to take years to adjust to the NFL.
I say that to say there is not a lot of realistic hope he can improve on the player he is today. Paying $12.375 million for a below-average player, hoping he can build on his performance in his fourth year in the league, would be foolish. The Falcons could find other players in free agency with better upside at the same cap hit (if not lower).
McGary is the sort of player the Falcons could and should push to earn a new contract. If McGary finally shows he can be an above-average starter, the team can work out a long-term deal. If McGary suddenly becomes a dominant player, the franchise tag is still available. Projections for 2023 are not available but the 2022 tag for offensive linemen is expected to be about $16.5 million.
Assuming the numbers increase a bit, the Falcons could making a bet of about $4 million to $5 million that McGary does not turn into a top tackle. There are options. However, the simple fact remains that McGary has not yet shown he should be worth over $12 million per year.
As noted above, the Falcons have until May 2nd to make any move official. This should give the team ample time to find a replacement for or competition with McGary. Expect anything official on McGary’s option to come after that time, or closer to the deadline. Atlanta should lock up Lindstrom and exercise his option, but his timeline is less clear.