In mid-March, when Cleveland Browns fans were brimming with excitement over NFL draft possibilities (two first-round picks!), a cruel photo from 2012 began to circulate. Passed around on social media, it was a sharp illustration of draft architecture gone terribly wrong.
On the left, head coach Pat Shurmur held up a newly minted Trent Richardson jersey, with the first-round running back at his side. On the right, general manager Tom Heckert stood shoulder-to-shoulder with his first-round quarterback, each hoisting a crisp Brandon Weeden jersey.
Less than two years later, all four of those men were gone. Shurmur and Heckert were fired eight months after that photo. Richardson was traded to the Indianapolis Colts after 17 games (for a draft pick that would essentially become Johnny Manziel), and then later released. And Weeden was cut after managing only 20 starts.
Those vast disappointments were dredged up in May, when teams had to decide whether to trigger an optional fifth year on 2012 first-round picks. Richardson and Weeden didn't even qualify for the option, after both were released once and signed new deals with other teams. But they were hardly alone on the painful side of the ledger. Consider:
• San Francisco 49ers first-round wideout A.J. Jenkins went 511 days before catching his first pass in the NFL. He was traded to Kansas City and subsequently cut, getting picked up this offseason by the Dallas Cowboys.
• Jacksonville Jaguars wideout Justin Blackmon, the fifth pick in the 2012 draft, wasn't even eligible for a fifth-year option. Blackmon has been lost in the purgatory of an indefinite drug suspension since November 2013. That means his contract advancement toward a fifth-year option (or free agency) has been frozen for over a year. Blackmon's situation is so bad, whenever he enters the league again, he'll be playing for his 2014 salary.
Even the guys who did have their fifth-year options triggered aren't exactly assured of making it to 2016 with their current teams. Those fifth-year options aren't automatically guaranteed once picked up by a team, which means that after Andrew Luck, the 2012 class could see picks Nos. 2-7 all conceivably end up on the free-agent market again following potentially bad performances in 2015. Guys like Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin and Minnesota Vikings tackle Matt Kalil are most certainly playing for their jobs this season.
And the others? Here are six highly acclaimed draft choices who didn't have their fifth-year options picked up, and what their outlooks are as they head toward free agency next offseason.
Cornerback Morris Claiborne, Dallas Cowboys (sixth overall pick in 2012)
The Cowboys have quieted on asking cornerback Brandon Carr to take a pay cut and he remains on the roster, so all signs point to him being in the fold in 2015. And Orlando Scandrick's contract situation was resolved. This is all bad for Claiborne, who is still working his way back from a torn patellar tendon injury. Had Carr been cut or Scandrick held out in training camp, the door could have cracked open for Claiborne to grab an opportunity and show that he's got something … or anything.
With Claiborne still rehabbing, he is looking like a guy who will work in nickel or dime packages at best, and even that role isn't entirely certain with first-round pick Byron Jones in the fold. Dallas could move Jones to safety in training camp to get him on the field more quickly and resolve potential safety issues. But if Jones remains at corner, that means he is already showing he is good enough to eat into Claiborne's opportunities.
So what's left? Cornerback-needy front offices will be watching Claiborne from afar this season, gauging whether he has retained the speed and athleticism that so many teams loved when he was coming out of LSU. Teams always need athletic cornerbacks, so he'll be eyed closely. But for him to remain in Dallas, something catastrophic would have to happen with one of the starting cornerbacks to open up opportunities.
First things first: Barron was drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and was never a fit in Lovie Smith's defensive scheme after he was hired in 2014. That's what got him traded in the 2014 season. That said, Barron has been an average safety with a few flashes of potential since landing in the league. He has some issues in coverages and is more of a tweener safety/linebacker. That makes him a tough fit for a lot of teams. But Rams coach Jeff Fisher is a very good defensive coach and he was already getting Barron more involved at the line of scrimmage last season (and it paid dividends). Fisher has also said that the Rams declined the Barron fifth-year option because they didn't like where the numbers were going, and that the Rams would like to extend Barron.
There's every reason to believe St. Louis will try to get that done before the season starts, so don't be surprised if he has a contract extension before September. If not, there's still a shot Barron hits free agency. But considering Fisher knows how to use his safeties, the Rams will likely do everything they can to get Barron playing at a high level and then keep him.
Irvin's situation in Seattle was fairly predictable. The Seahawks have a serious salary cap crunch coming with quarterback Russell Wilson, linebacker Bobby Wagner and offensive tackle Russell Okung. It doesn't help that defensive end Michael Bennett is grumbling as well. Bottom line: sacrifices will need to be made and Irvin is going to be on the low end of those priorities.
If he doesn't implode, he should have a nice free-agent market waiting for him. He's a solid all-around player who can set the edge and stay on the field in almost any situation.
But teams are going to want to see Irvin on the field for a full season, something he has yet to accomplish in his career. And he's going to need to repeat or exceed his 2014 performance, which saw him become more of a factor in the backfield with 6½ sacks.
This isn't a situation where a fifth-year option is being declined based on talent or fit. Irvin is good enough to have that option picked up, and he's a strong emotional leader, too. He'll very likely be a victim of the financial squeeze, and teams should be lined up for him when the offseason comes.
McClellin has been a head-scratcher for three seasons in Chicago. He was a subpar defensive end for two seasons, and an average strong-side linebacker (arguably below average) last year. It doesn't help that he is changing coaching staffs and systems for the third time in four years. Yet another position change is in the offing, this time at inside linebacker.
There is plenty on the line with the latest move as NFL teams are rarely enamored with defensive free agents who can't make an impact at three different spots. And if McClellin can't do it under John Fox, who knows a thing or two about scheming a defense, that will be another red flag. But he has the size and athleticism to rush the passer. He just needs to show he can do it when counted upon. His youth makes him a viable piece for the Bears, but first he needs to lock up a starting spot. That hasn't been guaranteed.
Injuries, inconsistency, lack of impact and an inability to pin down a starting job, that's what kept the Packers from picking up his fifth-year option. It's particularly troubling for Green Bay (not to mention future suitors) that Perry hasn't maximized his opportunities across from a player of Clay Matthews' magnitude. He's a liability in pass coverage and probably more stiff in pass rushing opportunities than the Packers expected.
Now he's in a position where his time on the field will depend on where Matthews is playing, which isn't ideal when you're trying to max out chances to turn everything around in a contract year. It says plenty that the Packers declined this fifth-year option. They weren't happy with 2011 first-round pick Derek Sherrod and didn't pick up his option, either. Now Sherrod is in Kansas City.
Barring a sudden awakening, it's likely Perry will be elsewhere in 2016 as well.
For about a season, the whole "Muscle Hamster" craze was a thing. Then came the injuries, and Martin's career has pretty much hit a wall. His fifth-year option wasn't picked up simply because he has yet to show he can stay on the field, and once again show that he has burst.
Martin hasn't had a run longer than 20 yards since 2012. That's why his per-carry average plummeted under the four-yard mark. If Martin doesn't turn that around in 2015, that's a stat that will scare off a lot of free-agent suitors, too. There are too many cheap running back options in the draft nowadays.
But Martin will get his chance, with general manager Jason Licht already admitting that the starting running back spot is Martin's to lose. New offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter also likes what Martin brings to the table, so the support is there. If Martin can't get healthy – and fast – and turn it around this year, he's done in Tampa and will not find a robust free-agent market waiting for him, either.