Long List of NFL Teams Declining Fifth-Year Options Show Harsh Reality of 2021 Draft

Let the 2021 NFL draft serve as a reminder to all teams searching for a franchise quarterback.
BYU quarterback Zach Wilson poses with jersey after being selected in the 2021 NFL draft.
BYU quarterback Zach Wilson poses with jersey after being selected in the 2021 NFL draft. / Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Thursday was a significant day for first-round picks from the 2021 NFL draft.

It marked the deadline for NFL teams to decide whether or not to exercise the fifth-year option for the 2025 season on the contracts of 2021 first-round picks.

Of the 32 first-round selections from that year, 30 were eligible for a fifth-year option. And 12 of those 30 players saw their fifth-year option declined.

That list included four of the five quarterbacks picked in the first round. Trevor Lawrence, the top pick of the 2021 draft, was the only quarterback selected to have his fifth-year option picked up.

The other four—Zach Wilson, Trey Lance, Justin Fields and Mac Jones—all were declined a fifth year on their rookie deals. In fact, all four of those quarterbacks are with different teams than the one that selected them in 2021.

Wilson, the No. 2 pick, was traded to the Denver Broncos in April. Lance was traded from the San Francisco 49ers to the Dallas Cowboys last summer. In March, the Pittsburgh Steelers acquired Fields from the Chicago Bears, who moved on from the No. 11 pick in 2021 after landing the top pick in the 2024 draft and eventually using it to select Caleb Williams, their new franchise quarterback. Jones, the No. 15 pick, is now in Jacksonville backing up Lawrence.

The other members of the 2021 draft class to see their fifth-year option declined: Cardinals linebacker Zaven Collins, Commanders linebacker Jamin Davis, Chiefs receiver Kadarius Toney, Titans cornerback Caleb Farley, Steelers running back Najee Harris, Saints defensive end Payton Turner, Packers cornerback Eric Stokes and Buccaneers linebacker Joe Tryon-Shoyinka.

The 12 players not receiving a fifth-year option isn't an anomaly. Fourteen first-round picks in 2020 weren't given a fifth year on their rookie deal, and that number was 11 players in '19.

But after the 2024 draft, an event that saw a record six quarterbacks be taken in the first 12 picks, the '21 class is a good reminder of how hard it is to find a franchise player under center.


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Tom Dierberger

TOM DIERBERGER

Tom Dierberger is a writer and editor for the Breaking & Trending News Team at Sports Illustrated. Tom joined SI in 2023 after stints at FOX Sports, Bally Sports, and NBC Sports. In his spare time, Tom can be seen throwing out his arm while playing fetch with his dog, Walter B. Boy.