What does the fifth-year option mean in NFL rookie contracts?

When was the fifth-year option introduced, and which players can earn this contract option?

Dec 7, 2023; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; The NFL logo is painted in the end-zone as the
Dec 7, 2023; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; The NFL logo is painted in the end-zone as the / Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

When it comes to draft picks, the earlier a player is selected, the more money they will cost on their rookie deals. These numbers pale in comparison to what top players around the league are making on their second and third contracts, but every so often, teams bust on players high in the first round and are forced to pay money on their contracts that they didn't earn.

The good news for teams is that there is a trade-off to this. For those who strike gold on their first-round selection and would like to keep them around even longer than the initial four-year rookie contract they sign after joining the team, there is the fifth-year option.

The reason it's called an 'option' is because it is not always exercised. Oftentimes, great players will sign a lofty extension prior to this point or teams won't be willing to pay the guaranteed money that a fifth-year option comes with.

So what exactly is a fifth-year option and how does it work? Here's what you need to know.

What is the fifth-year option in the NFL?

The fifth-year option is a provision designed specifically for former first-round draft picks. Teams who select a player in the first round have the choice to implement the fifth-year option as a player is getting set to enter the fourth and final year of their rookie contract.

This option allows NFL teams to retain players for one additional year beyond their rookie contracts under predetermined terms. The contract numbers for the fifth-year option are based on the salaries of top players at that player's respective position.

When was the fifth-year option first introduced?

The fifth-year option in the NFL first came about during the collective bargaining agreement back in 2011. These negotiations between the NFL and the NFLPA included resetting the rookie wage scale as well as defining the usage of how to determine contract numbers of the fifth-year option.

Steelers who have received the fifth-year option:

The fifth-year option is not always handed out. When a team misses on their first-round pick and a player doesn't live up to their billing, it's easy to pass on this option. Other cases are more challenging.

When it comes to the Pittsburgh Steelers, this is an option they have exercised multiple times since its establishment during the collective bargaining agreement in 2011. Here are the Steelers' former first-round picks who have earned the fifth-year option over the years as well as the year they were drafted:

  • DL Cameron Heyward (2011)
  • OG David DeCastro (2012)
  • LB Ryan Shazier (2014)
  • EDGE Bud Dupree (2015)
  • EDGE T.J. Watt (2017)