Exercising the fifth-year option: Aldon Smith, Julio Jones among players with uncertain futures

Thomas Campbell-USA TODAY Sports

The deadline for teams to exercise their fifth-year options on 2011 NFL Draft first-rounders is fast approaching. The Texans already exercised their option on J.J. Watt. Will the likes of Aldon Smith, Julio Jones and Mark Ingram also be extended?

J.J. Watt became the latest first-round pick from the 2011 NFL Draft class to be handed a fifth-year option, along with fellow defensive ends Corey Liuget and Muhammad Wilkerson, cornerback Jimmy Smith and offensive tackle Tyron Smith. The Carolina Panthers are also expected to exercise their option on Cam Newton, wrapping up the quarterback for a healthy pay raise in 2015.

Free Agent Spending

The 2011 class is the first under the collective bargaining agreement to be subject to the fifth-year option, which gives teams the right to extend the mandated four-year contracts for first-round rookies an extra season after their third year with the organization. Players drafted Nos. 1-10, like Newton, earn an average of the top-10 salaries of players at their position from the prior year. Players drafted Nos. 11-32 earn an average of the top-25 players at their position, not including the top-two richest contracts.

That means that the Houston Texans will still be getting J.J. Watt, the 11th overall pick in 2011 and the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2012, for incredibly cheap -- just $6.97 million in 2015. The lead-up to the deadline for teams to exercise their fifth-year options, May 3, also gives us an opportunity to see how much teams value their fourth-year players.

Here's a snapshot of some of the key players who may be extended to a fifth year, and some who definitely won't.

On the fence

Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons

This may be somewhat unfair. Jones was on pace for a monster season in 2013 before suffering a season-ending foot injury, and probably will receive his option if he isn't extended by the Falcons. The organization may be worried about lingering foot problems, however, as well as the $10.176 million price tag with which the option comes.

Aldon Smith, San Francisco 49ers

Smith, meanwhile, has seemingly had too many off-field issues to warrant the Niners' confidence in a fifth year. ESPN's Adam Schefter reported as much Friday, saying that San Francisco is unlikely to exercise its option. David Fucillo at Niners Nation disagreed with reporters who say that Smith is going to fall by the wayside:

If the 49ers pick up the option, it provides them with numerous scenarios. If this TSA thing proves to have been overblown and Smith avoids trouble this year, the 49ers have him for 2015, and can work on a potential contract extension. If this TSA thing is not overblown, and Smith continues to have problems, the 49ers can still elect to release or trade him without cap implications for 2015.

Prince Amukamara, New York Giants

Amukamara is in a gray area -- he's good and improving, but perhaps not worthy of a $7 million contract. The good news for him is that the same can be said of Jimmy Smith, and the Baltimore Ravens seemingly had no trouble keeping him. For one  more prove-it season, the Giants may be willing to eat the cost.

Adrian Clayborn, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Clayborn is in perhaps a more extreme version of Amukamara's situation. The light has yet to come on for the defensive end, and certainly injuries haven't helped, but there have been enough flashes of brilliance to make the Bucs think hard whether Clayborn has a future in the NFL.

Mark Pouncey, Miami Dolphins

Pouncey has been an outright success as a first-round pick, earning a Pro Bowl nod last season. The problem for the Dolphins is that Pouncey, an interior lineman, would have to be given fifth-year salary that will be heavily influenced by the pricier offensive tackle market. Again, an organization will have to decide how much a "good" player is really worth.

Mark Ingram, New Orleans Saints

Ingram hasn't been particularly productive in New Orleans, but he did post a career-best 4.9 yards per carry last season and should be relatively cheap in his fifth year thanks to the plummeting cost of owning an NFL running back. There may be a ceiling on his ability, but lucky for him the market is bad.

Won't be optioned

Jake Locker, Tennessee Titans

Locker looked impressive in the few games he was able to play last season, but he struggled through injuries yet again. As a top-10 draft pick, he would make $14.67 million in 2015 if the Titans exercised his option. Locker's future is far too uncertain to invest that type of money.

Blaine Gabbert, San Francisco 49ers

While Locker's future as a franchise quarterback is murky, it's clear Gabbert doesn't have what it takes. He has already been jettisoned by his original team and is on his way to becoming a career backup.

Christian Ponder, Minnesota Vikings

Ponder's play hasn't earned him a lot of long-term confidence, but at least he would come at a relatively cheaper $10 million price for his optioned year as a former No. 12 overall pick.

Jon Baldwin, San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers have three players they could potentially hand fifth-year options, and they may ultimately exercise none of them. Baldwin had the frame to be a great receiver, but seemingly never had the will. Now he's buried on the Niners' depth chart.

Gabe Carimi, Atlanta Falcons

Carimi is now with his third team after being traded from the Chicago Bears to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, then released and unclaimed on waivers this offseason.

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