CHICAGO — It’s now official. The Bears have elected to decline the fifth-year option on quarterback Mitch Trubisky’s rookie contract, a league source confirmed to the Chicago Tribune on Saturday.
General manager Ryan Pace had avoided questions about the team’s plans on that issue since December. But now the Bears will go forward with Trubisky officially heading into the final year of his deal.
The move is hardly a surprise. So what factored into the team’s decision? What are the risks and rewards of this move? Here’s a look at eight key questions.
1. What was the cost of Trubisky’s 5th-year option?
The Bears would have been on the hook for $23.873 million if Trubisky had remained on the roster into the start of the 2021 league year, which begins in March. That price tag is based on position and is higher for top-10 picks, equivalent to the current transition-tag cost at quarterback. The only other quarterback drafted in the top 10 in 2017 was Patrick Mahomes, whose fifth-year option also includes the $23.873 million price tag. The Chiefs, of course, picked up Mahomes’ fifth-year option as a placeholder as they continue negotiations for a much bigger long-term deal with the 2018 MVP and 2019 Super Bowl champion.
The Texans picked up the fifth-year option for 2021 on Deshaun Watson’s rookie deal as well while aiming to sign their franchise quarterback to a lucrative long-term deal. The fifth-year price tag for Watson, who was drafted at No. 12, is north of $17 million.
2. But isn’t the 5th-year option not fully guaranteed?
Correct. This is the last year, under the league’s previous collective bargaining agreement, where the fifth-year option of first-round picks is only guaranteed for injury.
That means that had the Bears picked up Trubisky’s fifth-year-option, the $23.875 million wouldn’t have kicked in until next March, leaving the team an out to cut him at no cost before then as long as Trubisky didn’t suffer a serious injury.
In the winter of 2019, the Bears picked up the $13.2 million fifth-year option for Leonard Floyd. But Pace released Floyd last month before that investment kicked in. That was something the Bears took into account while making their decision on Trubisky. Still, they opted to decline the quarterback’s option.
3. So what is the risk in picking up the fifth-year option?
The risk, plain and simple, is injury. If Trubisky suffered a severe injury in 2020 that left him unable to play in 2021, the Bears would have been on the hook for the full $23.873 million while getting nothing in return. Perhaps it seems misguided to worry about a quarterback suffering a severe injury. That’s not something that happens with any kind of regularity.
But just this week, ESPN dived deeper into the journey of fellow quarterback Alex Smith, whose career was derailed and his life threatened when he suffered a compound fracture in his right leg during a November 2018 game. It was a routine play that resulted in a gruesome and catastrophic injury. Smith’s harrowing story, with ugly images of what happened to his leg, proves sobering. Why even take that chance, especially on a quarterback like Trubisky whose production through three seasons has been so ordinary?
4. What would have been the reward in picking up the fifth-year option?
With an escape hatch still available, a move to pick up Trubisky’s fifth-year option would have given the Bears peace of mind in the event the quarterback has his long-awaited breakthrough in 2020. If Trubisky plays like a rising star — or even just like an above-average and improving starter — the Bears would likely want to lock him into their plans for 2021 and possibly beyond. The fifth-year option would have given them that final season at $23.873 million at the very least. It also could have served as a placeholder and a starting point if they choose to negotiate a longer-term deal.
5. But in the Trubisky-makes-a-big-leap-in-2020 scenario, couldn’t the Bears also use the franchise tag on him for 2021?
They can. The franchise tag for quarterbacks this year is just north of $26.8 million and will rise some by next spring. So even in declining Trubisky’s fifth-year option, the Bears still have that in their back pocket. Unless, of course, they need to use the franchise tag on someone else. That someone else, in this case, could be receiver Allen Robinson, the only standout on offense right now whose current contract is set to expire after this season.
It seems likely the Bears will try to negotiate a new deal with Robinson before the 2020 season begins. But those discussions haven’t progressed significantly in recent months.
6. Are there examples of highly drafted quarterbacks who haven’t had their fifth-year options picked up?
From 2011-2017, 13 quarterbacks were drafted in the top 10. The only two who didn’t have their fifth-year options picked up were Jake Locker of the Titans and Blaine Gabbert of the Jaguars.
Locker and Gabbert were selected eighth and 10th in the 2011 draft, respectively.
The Titans declined Locker’s option in the spring of 2014. (He had been injured and inconsistent in each of his first three seasons.) And while he was the Titans’ Week 1 starter going into the final year of his rookie deal in 2014, he suffered wrist and shoulder injuries during his fourth season. He was benched because of poor performance and ended the year on injured reserve. Locker retired the following March.
The Jaguars declined the fifth-year option on Gabbert’s rookie deal in spring 2014 and subsequently traded him to the 49ers to play out the final year of his contract.
In addition to Locker and Gabbert, Robert Griffin III is the only top-10 quarterback in that group who had his fifth-year option picked up only to be released by the Redskins before it kicked in the following spring.
As far as first-round quarterbacks drafted outside the top 10 who didn’t have their fifth-year option exercised, that list includes Christian Ponder, E.J. Manuel and Teddy Bridgewater. In addition, Brandon Weeden, Johnny Manziel and Paxton Lynch all were released by the teams that drafted them before a decision on their fifth-year option came up.
7. What has been the Bears’ history with fifth-year options?
From 2011-2017, the Bears made seven first-round selections. They declined the fifth-year options for Gabe Carimi, Shea McClellin, Kyle Fuller and Kevin White and picked up the options for Kyle Long and Floyd.
Floyd, as mentioned, was released before the fifth year of his contract kicked in and Long was given a long-term extension before his fifth season.
Fuller, meanwhile, had a terrific year in the fourth and final year of his rookie deal and cashed in accordingly with the Bears in free agency the following spring.
8. What does this mean for Trubisky going forward?
The Bears declared an “open competition” for starting quarterback with Trubisky battling veteran Nick Foles for the job. Regardless of what move Pace made with Trubisky’s fifth-year option, the soon-to-be-26-year-old quarterback was going to have to prove himself again, needing to convince coach Matt Nagy that he knows how to read coverages, improve his pocket presence and consistently make the kind of game-changing plays that separate standout quarterbacks from mediocre ones.
No one knows yet how that competition will unfold, especially with the lingering uncertainty of when the Bears will be allowed back at Halas Hall. But the focus on Trubisky’s contract status for 2021 means little with his role for 2020 still unknown.
Pace not only drafted Trubisky with the No. 2 pick in 2017, he made a bold trade to move up one slot to draft him, making it clear that the Bears rated Trubisky significantly ahead of Mahomes and Watson. Pace would certainly stand to benefit if Trubisky emerged as the player the Bears believed he can be. But the Bears also have a major incentive to win in 2020 above anything else. So it’s important the general manager recognizes that.
With this latest contract decision official, Trubisky will now have to fight for his future in the organization.
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