For likes of Morris Claiborne, Doug Martin, option decision means uncertain NFL future

Published May. 5, 2015 12:14 a.m. ET

It's called an option -- which means sometimes the answer is "no." Some three-year NFL players just heard that "no."

Teams had until Sunday to pick up the fifth-year options of contracts for the first-round Class of 2012. For those who have been disappointments, it was time for disappointing news.

The Dallas Cowboys declined the option on the contract of cornerback Morris Claiborne, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers did the same with running back Doug Martin.

Seattle Seahawks linebacker Bruce Irvin got the same treatment, and whether or not he was surprised, he had an awfully strong reaction.

Claiborne, a No. 6 overall selection, has been injured for much of his time with the Cowboys, missing 12 games last season with a torn tendon in his knee. After playing 15 games as a rookie, Claiborne played 10 in 2013.

Even before he was hurt last season, though, the Cowboys had benched him and he reacted poorly, skipping practices. Had Dallas exercised the option, Claiborne could have been paid about $11 million for 2016. That's an awful lot for a backup cornerback, especially on a team that just drafted another corner, Byron Jones, in the first round last week.

Martin posted a productive rookie season for the Bucs, rushing for 1,454 yards and 11 touchdowns, but he, too, has been hurt since, failing to total even 1,000 yards in the last two years combined. Martin has played a total of 17 games in 2013 and 2014, and his rushing average dropped under 4.0 yards.


Had the Bucs picked up the option for the 5-foot-9 back, nicknamed the "Muscle Hamster," he could have been paid $5.6 million in 2016.

Understandably, trade rumors about Martin, which circulated last year, started up again.

If Martin, Claiborne and Irvin don't sign new deals by the end of this season, they become unrestricted free agents.

And the way this system works -- as set up in the collective bargaining agreement to cut down on huge rookie deals -- even an option that's picked up now doesn't guarantee money in 2016. A club can change its mind before March, let the player go and not be on the hook for any salary.

So, considering that picking up the option can be nothing more than a low-risk place-holder, a club's decision to decline may say a lot about its outlook on a particular player.  

The salary figures for fifth-year options are determined by this formula: Top 10 draft picks get the transition tags for their positions, and the rest of the first-rounders receive the average salary at their position among the NFL's Nos. 3 through 25 highest-paid.

(Explanation via MMQB's Andrew Brandt.)

It wasn't all bad news about the Class of 2012 on Monday.

*Houston Texans linebacker Whitney Mercilus received a four-year contract extension.

*The Minnesota Vikings exercised the options on safety Harrison Smith and offensive tackle Matt Kalil. A Pro Bowl pick his rookie season but not since, Kalil went at No. 4 in the draft and would be due over $11 million in 2016.

And Claiborne and Co. should take heart, because things could always be worse. Running back Trent Richardson, quarterback Brandon Weeden and wide receiver A.J. Jenkins didn't have to sweat out their fifth-year options, because they'd been released. Overall, NFL clubs have picked up options on 20 of the 32 players from 2012's first round.