To date, the fifth-year option for Jon Robinson’s first-round draft picks has been more like an optical illusion. Players see it, but they can’t actually grasp it.
Adoreé Jackson came close. Last year, the cornerback selected 18th overall in 2017 became the first of Robinson’s first-round picks to have his fifth-year option picked up. When that contract year was at hand in March, however, Jackson was released to create space under the salary cap.
Tackle Jack Conklin (eight overall, 2016) and wide receiver Corey Davis (fifth overall, 2017) had their fifth-year options declined. Both quickly got multi-year deals from other clubs in free agency.
As a result, Tennessee is one of five AFC teams and eight overall that will not get a fifth year from any of its first-round picks in 2016 and 2017. One of the others is the New York Jets, who picked up their option on safety Jamal Adams (sixth overall, 2017) but traded him to Seattle last season in a deal that gave the Seahawks – among other things – an extra first-round pick in each of the next two drafts.
Now, it falls to inside linebacker Rashaan Evans. Tennessee has until May 3 (two days after the 2021 NFL Draft) to decide whether to add a fifth year to his contract or allow him to become a free agent in 2022.
Evans, the 22nd overall pick in 2018, has been a full-time starter for the past two seasons and led the defense in tackles in 2019. Based on his career to date, he would cost the Titans $9.735 million in 2022, according to information the league provided to franchises in March.
It is not that Robinson, who became Tennessee’s general manager in 2016, is averse to the fifth-year option. He has given it to three first-rounders he inherited, including the first, wide receiver Kendall Wright (20th overall, 2012). He also hung on to left tackle Taylor Lewan (11th overall, 2014) and quarterback Marcus Mariota (second overall, 2015). Among that trio, only Lewan played past the fifth year.
The fifth-year option for first-round draft picks became part of the NFL’s annual decision making in 2011, when ratification of a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) ended an owners-imposed lockout that shut down the league throughout the offseason. Jackson likely would still be on the roster had the 2021 salary cap not dropped from the previous season, a first under the current CBA.
So, the wait for an extended stay for one of Robinson’s first-rounders continues.
A look at how the Tennessee Titans’ first-round picks since 2011 have fared in their fifth seasons and beyond or what might happen when they get that far:
2011: Jake Locker, QB (8th overall) – Fifth-year option declined. He retired to his hometown of Ferndale, Wash. rather than try to continue his career with another franchise.
2012: Kendall Wright, WR (20th overall) – Fifth-year option picked up. His fifth season with Tennessee was his worst (29 catches, 416 yards, three touchdowns). He played one more season with Chicago and spent time with Minnesota and Arizona. Has not played in the NFL since 2017.
2013: Chance Warmack, G (10th overall) – Fifth-year option declined. Spent two years as a backup with Philadelphia. Has not played in the NFL since 2018.
2014: Taylor Lewan, T (11th overall) – Fifth-year option picked up. His fifth season capped a run of three straight Pro Bowl appearances. Has been a starter for nearly all of his seven seasons.
2015: Marcus Mariota, QB (2nd overall) – Fifth-year option picked up. Lost his job as the starter six games into his fifth season (2019). Signed with the Raiders as a backup in 2020 and appeared in just one game.
2016: Jack Conkin, T (8th overall) – Fifth-year option declined. Signed with Cleveland as a free agent in 2020, played 94 percent of the Browns’ snaps on offense and was named an All-Pro for the second time.
2017: Corey Davis, WR (5th overall) – Fifth-year option declined. Signed with the New York Jets as a free agent this offseason.
2017: Adoreé Jackson, CB (18th overall) – Fifth-year option picked up. Released a day before the fifth year of his contract was to go into effect. Signed with the New York Giants a week later.
2018: Rashaan Evans, ILB (22nd overall) – A decision must be made on the fifth-year option in less than two weeks. Based on his performance and the fact that the salary cap likely will increase in 2022, he looks likely to stick around at least that long.
2019: Jeffery Simmons, DT (19th overall) – If Evans does not get a fifth year, Simmons almost certainly will, barring any serious physical injury. He is the type of rare talent that any team would want to retain as long as possible.
2020: Isaiah Wilson, T (29th overall) – He got nowhere near a fifth season with the Titans, and at this point it is possible his entire NFL career will consist of one season with one game played.