The deadline for exercising or declining the fifth-year options for the first round picks from the 2017 NFL Draft is next Monday (May the 4th be with you). The Titans had two first round picks that year thanks to their trade with the Rams back in 2016 and they selected Corey Davis with the 5th pick in the draft and then turned around and tabbed Adoree’ Jackson with the 18th pick later that night.
Before we get into discussing the merits of picking the option for either player, let’s have a refresher of how fifth-year options work.
All first round picks automatically have a fifth-year option added to the end of the NFL’s standard four-year contract for drafted rookies. That option is there to offer a little extra cost control to teams for players that they invested a major resource in.
The cost of the option varies based on where the player was picked and what position they play. For example, a quarterback drafted in the top ten will get a salary worth the average of the top ten quarterback salaries in the league (locks in at the time the option gets exercised), for the 2017 draft class that number is expected to be roughly $25.1 million.
A safety drafted in the first round, but outside of the top ten would receive a salary that is the average of the 3rd through 25th highest salaried safeties in the league. This year, that would be about $6.7 million.
That calculation will change next year due to the new CBA, but the 2017 class is still grandfathered in on the old rules for one more year. That also applies to the fact that the fifth-year options for the 2017 class will be guaranteed for injury only at the time of signing. That means that teams can exercise the option now and then decide release the player between now and the first day of the 2021 league year and get off the hook for the salary... as long as the player isn’t injured.
That out for teams will disappear next year as the 2018 class will have their fifth-year options fully guarantee immediately, but for now, the chance to bail remains, though it is rarely used.
Another piece of context that will color the decision making process for Jon Robinson is the fact that the salary cap is expected to increase substantially next season, possibly even as much as a $40 million hike over this year’s $198.2 million cap. That’s based on a few different factors.
First, the new CBA increased the players’ share of the league’s revenue from 47% to 48%. That might not sound like a lot, but based on 2018’s revenues, that equates to about a $5 million dollar bump in salary cap per team right off the top.
Then you have the two additional playoff games that got added when the NFL added an extra wildcard team to each conference. The revenue from that change alone is estimated to be worth $150 million total, which would add a little over $2 million to the salary cap for each team.
Lastly, the biggest factor of them all... the new television contracts. The NFL has already had “informal conversations” with TV execs according to Sports Business Journal’s John Ourand and hopes to have deals finalized by the end of this year. The league’s TV ratings have rebounded after a brief dip in 2017 and the NFL remains, by far, the biggest draw of any television programming in America. These deals are going to be enormous and 48% of the additional revenue generated when they go into effect will be dispersed to the players by way of additional salary cap.
All that adds up to monster hikes in 2021 and probably another sizable jump when the league expands to 17 games (which would trigger another automatic bump in the players’ revenue share). So could we be looking at a $275 million cap for the 2022 season? It’s certainly possible, though it’s also hard to project what kind of impact the presence of COVID-19 might have on the NFL’s 2020 revenues. Either way, the cap is going to be on the rise pretty dramatically over the next couple seasons.
So with all that background set, let’s take a look at the options for Davis and Jackson and what the Titans should do with them between now and Monday.
Adoree’ Jackson | CB | 18th Overall Pick
Jackson’s projected fifth-year option salary for a cornerback drafted outside the top ten is slated to be around $10.0 million according to Mike Sando of The Athletic.
Let’s start with the easy one... there is absolutely no possible way the Titans should decline Jackson’s fifth-year option. At just $10 million, it’s a bargain for a guy who is still just 24 years old and has three years of starting experience under his belt.
He’s coming off a season where he graded out as PFF’s 8th best cornerback in the league and carried the 5th best coverage grade among corners with at least 700 defensive snaps. Even if you don’t buy into PFF grades, it’s not hard to see the impact that Jackson had on the Titans defense last year. When he was in the starting lineup, Tennessee allowed just 19.6 points per game. When he was out with a foot injury late in the year, they allowed 24.3 points per game, and one of those matchups came against a resting Texans squad with A.J. McCarron at the helm.
Jackson is still coming into his own as one of the league’s best cover corners and given his age and performance level, he’d command much more than $10 million on the open market. For comparison’s sake, Bradley Roby — a soon-to-be 28 year old who checked in as PFF’s 60th ranked corner last year — just got $36 million over three years from the Texans a few weeks ago.
Having Jackson on the roster at a $10 million price tag for the 2021 season will be an absolute bargain and I wouldn’t be totally surprised if the Titans approached him to discuss a more long term extension within the next year. This is a no-brainer.
Corey Davis | WR | 5th Overall Pick
Davis’ projected fifth-year option salary for a wide receiver drafted in the top ten picks is slated to be around $15.8 million according to Mike Sando of The Athletic.
Through three years Davis has compiled 142 catches for 1,867 yards and 6 touchdowns. That yardage total ranks 42nd among NFL receivers since 2017, not exactly the production that you’d like out of a 5th overall pick, but it’s also not a totally insignificant contribution. Davis slots in ahead of guys like Mike Williams — the receiver taken just two picks after him in 2017 — and Sammy Watkins.
If you look at just the last two seasons combined his numbers are a little better, ranking 34th among all NFL wide receivers. Again, not what you want from a 5th overall pick, but also not a total non-factor, especially when you consider the offense that he played on.
No team has attempted fewer passes than the Tennessee Titans over the last two years and it’s not even close. The next closest team — the Seahawks — have attempted 59 more passes than the Titans 885 attempts. The average NFL team has attempted 1,110 passes in 2018 and 2019 combined, a whopping 25% more than the Titans. The most pass happy team in the NFL — the Falcons — have attempted 1,301, nearly one and a half times Tennessee’s volume of passes.
Obviously, with any volume stat in the NFL, opportunity is a massive part of the equation. It’s hard to reach 1,500 receiving yards if you’re only seeing 90 targets per year. If you take Davis’ numbers and multiply them by 1.25 to get a view of what his production would look like on a league average passing offense, he jumps up to 21st in the NFL in receiving yards, slotting in between Allen Robinson and Courtland Sutton. Still not top five pick production, but good. If you put Davis into the Falcons volume levels, he jumps onto the fringe of the top ten.
So how do you judge Davis? Do you penalize him for not putting up big stats in a low passing volume offense? Do you think his performance level is driving the Titans to run the ball more than other NFL teams? I think those are all fair questions and the fact that he got lapped by a second round rookie last season makes his value as a pass catcher even more questionable.
However, there are some positives with Davis too. He famously blocks his butt off and has never brought a complaint about his lack of targets to the media. He played through a turf toe injury last season and has missed just one game since the hamstring injury early in his rookie year. In his best games, Davis has flashed the ability to take over, even against top corners like Stephon Gilmore.
I always bristle against the idea that Davis is a bad NFL receiver. If he was taken in the third round instead of the top five, he’d probably be a fan favorite and appropriately viewed as a hard-working WR2 who occasionally flashes some interesting upside. Ultimately, that’s what he is right now. Does that make him a bust as a top five pick? Absolutely — at least to this point — but he can be a disappointment as a draft pick and still be a player that helps you win football games. Those two thoughts aren’t mutually exclusive.
The question of whether or not the Titans should pick up his fifth-year option is a fascinating one. On one hand, he has yet to do anything that makes paying $15.8 million for one season seem like an equitable value for the team. That would slot his salary between Jarvis Landry and Adam Thielen among the highest paid receivers in the game. He’s not proven himself to be worthy of that kind of company to this point.
On the other hand, the fifth-year option — as noted above — is guaranteed for injury only so the Titans could exercise the option and then release Davis if he failed to live up to expectations in 2020. The risk, of course, is that you exercise the option and Davis suffers a season ending injury that ends up locking in his 2021 salary. The benefit is that you have some cost control for 2021 in the event of a break out season.
There is still at least a small chance that we see Davis finally break out in 2020. Yes, we’ve been saying that literally his entire career, but it’s not like Davis doesn’t have the physical tools to have a big year with better quarterback play and more chemistry with Ryan Tannehill. If that season does happen — and the cap makes a big jump as expected — Davis would be much more expensive on the open market as a 26-year old former top five pick coming off a big season.
Of course, if Davis does suddenly emerge as a top level wide receiver, the Titans could still have the franchise tag as a safety net if they decline his option. It would cost them roughly $2 million more than the fifth-year option, but it comes without the risk of an injury putting them on the hook.
Ultimately, I think it makes more sense for the Titans to decline his option. A.J. Brown has emerged as the team’s WR1 and a run-first offense paying a WR2 almost $16 million doesn’t make much sense to me, especially with yet another extremely talented crop of wide receivers expected to be available in the 2021 draft.
Top talent such as LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase and Terrace Marshall, Clemson’s Justyn Ross, Alabama’s Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith, Minnesota’s Rashod Bateman, Ohio State’s Chris Olave, and Purdue’s Rondale Moore headline another deep and talented pool of pass catchers that some analysts think could end up rivaling the 2020 class by the time the draft rolls around. That could make back-filling Davis’ spot with a draft pick a more attractive option than it normally might be.