Grades for 2011 first-round draft picks were essentially posted Friday night — and more than one-third of the class has failed.
Clubs had until midnight to exercise a fifth-year option that would keep those players under contract through the 2015 NFL season. The trigger was pulled for 21 first-round picks who have matched or exceeded the lofty expectations that came with being selected so early in the draft (see list below).
That leaves 11 players, according to team press releases and media reports, who didn’t have the option exercised after underachieving for various reasons.
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Two of them — guard Danny Watkins (Philadelphia, No. 23 overall) and tackle Gabe Carimi (Chicago, No. 29) — are no longer with their original teams or under their rookie contracts, which makes them ineligible for the option. Four others had their careers hurt by serious injuries. And the remaining five simply haven’t shown enough to figure into a franchise’s long-term plans.
The fact three of these picks were quarterbacks selected in the top 12 — Jake Locker (Tennessee, No. 8), Blaine Gabbert (Jacksonville, No. 10) and Christian Ponder (Minnesota, No. 12) — should serve as a cautionary tale for this year’s draft about the dangers of reaching to fill a need at the game’s most important position. Cincinnati and San Francisco were rewarded for being more judicious in 2011. The Bengals and 49ers respectively selected wide receiver A.J. Green and outside linebacker Aldon Smith with top 10 picks and successfully addressed the quarterback position in Round 2 with Andy Dalton and Colin Kaepernick.
Here is my FOX Sports 1 breakdown of the 11 players whose fifth-year options weren’t picked up and what their NFL future may hold.
Name: QB Jake Locker
Team: Tennessee (No. 8)
Career summary: After seeing limited action as a rookie reserve, Locker moved into a starting role in 2012 only to miss five games after hurting his non-throwing shoulder. He was then sidelined for the final nine contests last season following a Lisfranc foot injury. But even when healthy, Locker still didn’t display enough of the earmarks desired in a franchise quarterback. Tennessee is a strong candidate to select a quarterback early in next week’s draft.
What’s next?: As San Diego’s offensive coordinator, new Titans head coach Ken Whisenhunt helped resuscitate quarterback Philip Rivers’ foundering career in 2013. Maybe he can work the same magic with Locker, whose accuracy troubles have plagued him since college. But doing so could make the Titans regret not exercising Locker’s option. Locker is now eligible for free agency after the season and will be much more expensive to sign or tag as a franchise player if he shines in 2014.
Name: Blaine Gabbert
Team: Jacksonville (No. 10)
Career summary: Gabbert is an example of how things can go wrong in the quest for a franchise quarterback. The Jaguars traded up to grab Gabbert despite the fact he had only two seasons as a University of Missouri starter. He was then mishandled by being thrust into action way too early as a 21-year-old rookie, followed by coaching changes that required Gabbert to learn three different offensive systems in three seasons. Gabbert failed to impress the current Jaguars regime of head coach Gus Bradley and general manager David Caldwell, leading to his being traded to San Francisco in March for a 2014 sixth-round draft choice. He left Jacksonville with a 5-22 starting record.
What’s next: 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh salvaged Alex Smith’s NFL career in 2011. He will attempt the same with Gabbert, who is competing for a roster spot as a backup to Kaepernick.
Name: QB Christian Ponder
Team: Minnesota (No. 12)
Career summary: Another quarterback reach that badly backfired. Minnesota prematurely played Ponder as a rookie after Donovan McNabb flopped. Ponder failed to show much progress over the next two years, leading the Vikings to unsuccessfully use him and two other unimpressive quarterbacks (Matt Cassel and Josh Freeman) as starters in last season’s 5-10-1 campaign.
What’s next: For now, Minnesota is still holding out hope that new offensive coordinator Norv Turner can make something of Ponder. But the Vikings are expected to enter the season with Cassel as the starter along with an early 2014 draft pick being groomed as the future starter.
Name: DT Nick Fairley
Team: Detroit (No. 13)
Career summary: The Lions thought that Fairley and Ndamukong Suh would form a dominant defensive tackle pairing. Instead, Fairley has underachieved because of inconsistent play and suspect conditioning, not to mention the off-field trouble he got into as a rookie.
What’s next: While hoping that not executing Fairley’s option will serve as motivation, this is a suspect move by Lions general manager Martin Mayhew. As with all fifth-year options, Fairley’s 2015 salary of $5.5 million would only be guaranteed because of injury. Although the club assumes that risk, Fairley would have proven a bargain if he were to finally fulfill his potential this season. Instead, Fairley is set to walk away with the Lions probably unable to keep him because of salary cap restraints if/when Suh signs a new mega-contract.
Name: DE Adrian Clayborn
Team: Tampa Bay (No. 20)
Career summary: The Bucs hoped they had solved their pass-rush woes when using 2011 first- and second-round picks on Clayborn and fellow end Da’Quan Bowers. This never happened. After a promising rookie showing, Clayborn hurt his knee in 2012 and logged only 5.5 sacks last year. New head coach Lovie Smith and general manager Jason Licht weren’t completely sold on Clayborn, leading to the costly free-agent signing of Bengals end Michael Johnson.
What’s next?: Smith hasn’t closed the door on reaching a contract extension with Clayborn before he becomes a free-agent in 2015. "He knows he’s going to be with us this year. That’s all that anybody is promised," Smith recently said.
Name: G Danny Watkins
Team: Philadelphia (No. 23)
Career summary: The selection of Watkins so early in the draft was considered a reach, especially because he was already 26 years old. Watkins started 18 games in his first two seasons before being benched and released in the 2013 preseason. Watkins was later signed by Miami but appeared in just one game.
What’s next?: Currently unsigned, it wouldn’t be surprising if Watkins retired to pursue a career in firefighting (one of his passions since high school).
Name: G James Carpenter
Team: Seattle (No. 25)
Career summary: Although considered a reach at the time, Carpenter hasn’t been a complete bust. He started 26 games the past three seasons, as well as Seattle’s Super Bowl XLVIII win over Denver, at left guard. But with the Seahawks facing major salary cap issues in 2015 — especially with quarterback Russell Wilson eligible for a contract extension — Carpenter’s $7.44 million option was considered too costly for someone who has struggled with inconsistent play and never panned out at tackle like Seahawks general manager John Schneider had hoped.
What’s next: Carpenter will still enter training camp as Seattle’s starting left guard, so the possibility of a more cap-friendly contract extension down the road can’t be completely dismissed.
Name: WR Jon Baldwin
Team: Kansas City (No. 26)
Career summary: Baldwin got his NFL career off on the wrong foot as a rookie when he broke his hand during a locker-room fight with well-respected teammate Thomas Jones. He caught 41 passes and had 10 starts over two seasons before being traded last August to San Francisco in exchange for wide receiver and fellow draft bust A.J. Jenkins. Baldwin notched just three receptions with the 49ers in 2013.
What’s next: Baldwin will be fighting for a 49ers roster spot in 2014.
Name: RB Mark Ingram
Team: New Orleans (No. 28)
Career summary: The Saints were so bullish on Ingram that they traded into the first round to snag the 2009 Heisman Trophy winner. Ingram showed significant improvement in 2013 after two middling seasons but not enough for New Orleans to exercise a $5.21 million option for the 2015 campaign.
What’s next?: Ingram is still expected to spearhead the Saints’ running back-by-committee approach this season.
Name: G/T Gabe Carimi
Team: Chicago (No. 29)
Career summary: Carimi’s NFL career was derailed as a rookie when he suffered a major knee injury that required multiple surgeries and lingered into the 2012 season. He was traded to Tampa Bay in the 2013 offseason by new Bears general manager Phil Emery. Carimi saw action in 14 games with three starts before being released by the Buccaneers in February.
What’s next?: Carimi has signed with Atlanta, where he will be reunited with Mike Tice, his first offensive line coach with the Bears. The Falcons are hoping Carimi serves as a versatile backup while also helping to mentor guard/center Peter Konz, a former University of Wisconsin teammate and 2012 second-round pick who has flopped in his first two NFL seasons.
Name: T Derek Sherrod
Team: Green Bay (No. 32)
Career summary: Sherrod suffered a broken leg late in his rookie season that proved so serious he needed almost two full years to return to the active roster. Sherrod appeared in only six offensive snaps as a reserve in 2013 and has yet to start a game for the Packers.
What’s next?: Forget about the $7.44 million option the Packers declined for 2015. Sherrod will be competing just to make Green Bay’s roster in 2014.
The 21 players whose options were picked up and 2015 salary (top 10 picks are paid at the average of the top 10 overall players at the position; picks 11 to 32 are paid at the average of the 3rd to 25th-highest paid at the position). Salary is guaranteed only for injury.