Scout's Notebook

Saquon Barkley, Baker Mayfield among interesting fifth-year option decisions; Travis Etienne team fits

Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. This edition opens up with the mounting decision teams face on some high-profile youngsters ...

When it comes to evaluating a player's NFL ability, what is a fair timetable for judgment? Scouts will tell anyone within earshot that it takes about three years of pro experience. This provides a big enough sample size to separate the wheat from the chaff. And over that span, true blue-chippers will show signs of dominance that'll allow evaluators to view them as elite players at their respective positions. That's why it is always interesting to track which first-round picks receive the fifth-year option.

The window to exercise that option on 2018 first-rounders opened on Wednesday, and teams now have until May 3 to pull the trigger. The 2020 collective bargaining agreement introduced a new sliding scale based on position and performance, with updated financial details provided by NFL Network's Tom Pelissero earlier this week:

Another important change in last year's CBA: The fifth-year option is fully guaranteed. Previously, it was only guaranteed against injury, providing teams with a lower-risk incentive to initially exercise the option, knowing it could be retracted if a player didn't perform well in Year 4. Now it's locked in, making the decision tougher for teams.

Looking at the Class of 2018, I see a number of question marks on this front, even when it comes to high-profile names like Saquon Barkley.

The former No. 2 overall pick, who earned Offensive Rookie of the Year and Pro Bowl honors in 2018, isn't a lock to get a long-term extension. A series of injuries have forced him to miss 17 games over the past two seasons, and the fact that he's currently recovering from a torn ACL has prompted the New York Giants to pause before picking up the option or extending his deal with a lucrative offer. Giants general manager Dave Gettleman discussed the challenge of making a decision on the team's best offensive player earlier this week.

"Well, I think that's part of the discussion, and obviously we're going to have to make a decision in the spring on whether we pick up his fifth-year option or not," Gettleman said. "You know, again, it comes back to that medical question. It's unknown, and what you have to do is get your trainer and your doctors involved and make your best decision."

This kind of talk probably takes some people by surprise, and understandably so: When healthy, Barkley is one of the most dynamic playmakers in the league. And Big Blue's roster isn't exactly flush with offensive firepower, a reality Gettleman acknowledges.

"Every team needs playmakers, let's be honest," Gettleman said. "Good lord willing, Saquon will be 100 percent and obviously he'll make a huge difference. A healthy Saquon obviously makes a big difference, but again, you're always looking to add good players. And, oh, by the way, we're not playing until September, so we've got free agency and we've got the draft, and we'll see how it plays out."

Definitely something to watch. But Barkley's not the only 2018 first-rounder with questions around his fifth-year option. Here are five more guys to keep an eye on:

Baker Mayfield
Cleveland Browns · QB

General manager Andrew Berry and head coach Kevin Stefanski must weigh the pros and cons of inking Mayfield to a blockbuster long-term deal. Yes, Cleveland just made the playoffs for the first time since 2002 with the former No. 1 overall pick under center, but the Browns succeeded with Mayfield operating as a game manager at the position. Cleveland's new scheme and stellar supporting cast elevated the young quarterback's play, as the team chalked up wins behind a run-centric approach that mixed in a complementary play-action passing game. With that in mind, the Browns could avoid overpaying Mayfield in the long term by utilizing the fifth-year option and a series of franchises tags instead of signing him to a hefty deal that could lead to buyer's remorse in a few years (see: Jared Goff and Carson Wentz).

Marcus Davenport
New Orleans Saints · DE

Sean Payton is still hoping for a return on his significant investment here. (Remember, Davenport cost New Orleans not one, but two first-round picks.) Davenport has provided little bang for the buck, with only 12 career sacks, including 1.5 in 2020. Although sack production isn't everything, it is hard to justify an additional $9.5 million expenditure -- his fifth-year cost -- on a pass rusher with few pelts on the wall. Facing a salary-cap crunch that will force the team to count every penny, the Saints should probably pass on picking up the option.

Leighton Vander Esch
Dallas Cowboys · LB

Despite making the Pro Bowl in 2018, Vander Esch largely hasn't played up to the standard as a top pick. The off-injured linebacker has missed 13 games over the past two seasons. Sure, LVE has flashed blue-chip traits at times, but he needs to be available and ballin' to command top dollar.

Derwin James
Los Angeles Chargers · S

It seems like a no-brainer for the Chargers to pick up James' option, based on his spectacular play and rare skill set, but injuries have kept the 2018 All-Pro safety on the sidelines for 27 of the last 32 games. With ankle and knee ailments potentially limiting his athleticism and movement skills, the Chargers will need to determine whether to take a year-by-year approach with James or sign him to a longer-term deal that could save the team a few bucks down the road.

Sam Darnold
New York Jets · QB

The Jets -- who hold a pair of first-round picks in the 2021 draft, including No. 2 overall -- must determine if they want to rebuild the team around Darnold or a rookie quarterback on a cheaper deal. If GM Joe Douglas and new head coach Robert Saleh decide to roll with the incumbent, they must pick up his fifth-year option to retain some cost control at the position in case Darnold emerges as a playmaker in the team's new scheme. Although the hefty price tag of nearly $20 million would appear to be quite steep, given the quarterback's performance to date, the option and subsequent franchise tags could ensure continuity with the luxury of a year-by-year approach.

TRAVIS ETIENNE: Five fits for RB prospect

All eyes were on Travis Etienne at Clemson's pro day -- and the spectacular playmaker didn't disappoint. The No. 2 running back on my top-five list dazzled evaluators in attendance Thursday on the way to cementing his status as a Day 1 prospect.

Checking in at 5-foot-10 and 215 pounds, Etienne showed off a chiseled frame that appears ready to handle the rigors of being a three-down back. The Clemson standout showcased A-level athleticism and explosiveness with a 10-foot-8-inch broad jump and a 33.5-inch vertical jump. Most importantly, Etienne clocked 40-yard dash times of 4.41 and 4.43 seconds. Although some evaluators expected him to post sub-4.4 times, there aren't any questions about his game speed, burst and explosiveness in pads. And let's be honest: Can anyone really consider 4.41 disappointing?

During positional drills, Etienne's combination of balance, body control and agility was impressive. He glided through the bags without losing speed and his instant acceleration at the end of the drills suggested that he has another gear to run away from defenders at the second level.

As a pass catcher, Etienne displayed better-than-expected hands and ball skills. He plucked the ball out of the air with ease and didn't appear to have any issues adjusting to errant throws. Although he lacks refinement as a route runner, he is an A+ athlete with the potential to become a mismatch in the passing game. Even if he fails to develop into an Alvin Kamara-like all-around weapon, he'll still remain an explosive option on screens and swings.

Comparing Etienne's workout to his performance in pads, it is easy to see why he was one of the most prolific playmakers in ACC and college football history. He finished his career with 6,000-plus scrimmage yards (4,952 rush yards, 1,155 receiving yards) and 78 total touchdowns (70 rushing, eight receiving) in 1,852 career snaps over 55 games.

Etienne is a dazzling one-cut runner with exceptional speed, quickness and burst. He has the kind of zero-to-60 acceleration that leads to sleepless nights for defensive coordinators crafting game plans to defend him in the backfield. As an inside runner, he displays outstanding balance, body control and agility running through arm tackles in traffic. He powers through contact and finishes his runs with authority.

In the passing game, Etienne is a dynamic playmaker on screens and swings. He displays the patience to weave through traffic behind his blockers while avoiding defenders in pursuit. He remains a work in progress as a route runner, but his overall explosiveness is eye-popping.

Overall, Etienne is a Day 1 prospect with the potential to become a star in the right system. He has speed to burn and a combination of balance, body control and vision that makes him a threat to score whenever he touches the rock.

Here are five ideal team fits for the Clemson product:

New York Jets
New York Jets
Top two picks: No. 2 and No. 23

The Jets' implementation of the wide-zone running scheme (Shanahan system) could make this pairing a match made in heaven. Etienne is an explosive one-cut runner with a decisive running style that perfectly suits the system. He possesses the speed and burst to turn the corner on outside runs while also displaying the vision, balance and body control to shoot through creases on the back side against fast-flowing defenses. With new offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur intent on running the rock to alleviate pressure on a young quarterback, the Jets could view the Clemson standout as the perfect playmaker to bring the running game to life.

Buffalo Bills
Buffalo Bills
Top two picks: No. 30 and No. 61

The Josh Allen Show is must-see TV, but the Bills' offense needs more firepower in the backfield to knock off the heavyweights in the AFC. Etienne is not only more explosive and dynamic than the current running backs on the roster (Devin Singletary and Zack Moss), but he is more likely to thrive as a three-down back in the Bills' wide-open offense. The prospect is an effective runner in spread formations. His combination of speed, burst and acceleration would pose problems for defenses forced to play with light boxes to account for Allen and Co. in the passing game. Given Etienne's big-play potential as a pass catcher on screens, swings and check downs, the Bills' offense could explode with this guy as the RB1.

Pittsburgh Steelers
Pittsburgh Steelers
Top two picks: No. 24 and No. 55

Fixing the running game is the No. 1 priority in Pittsburgh after the Steelers ranked dead last in rushing (84.4 rush yards per game) last season. Etienne would give the Steelers a home-run hitter in the backfield with every-down capabilities. As an explosive runner with the capacity to turn the corner or slash between the tackles, he is a nice complement to their spread passing game. As an effective runner from the shotgun, Etienne's presence would enable Ben Roethlisberger to continue to play his preferred style (dink-and-dunk passing game from wide-open formations) while adding balance to the Steelers' offense. With the speedster also showing promise as a pass catcher, particularly in the screen game, the Steelers could remake their offense into a more diverse unit. 

Miami Dolphins
Miami Dolphins
Top two picks: No. 3 and No. 18

If the Dolphins want to bring out the best in Tua Tagovailoa, they must upgrade the weapons around him. From running back to wide receiver, Miami needs to add more playmakers to the mix to enable No. 1 to play like a pass-first point guard directing a fast-break offense. Etienne would certainly add some explosiveness as an electric playmaker with big-play ability as a runner-receiver. He displays the zero-to-60 acceleration and burst to take it the distance on inside or outside runs, while also flashing solid receiving skills in the passing game. If the Dolphins want to add more sizzle to the offense, Etienne should be high on their wish list.

Atlanta Falcons
Atlanta Falcons
Top two picks: No. 4 and No. 35

New head coach Arthur Smith revived Ryan Tannehill's career in Tennessee by blending a smashmouth running game with a dynamic aerial attack. He could help Matt Ryan regain his MVP form by utilizing similar tactics with an electric runner in the backfield. Etienne fits the bill as a speedster with exceptional stop-start quickness and burst. He has packed on the pounds to handle the rigors of running between the tackles while retaining the breakaway speed that makes him special. As Smith implements his plan to add more pop to the Falcons' offense, he certainly must consider adding a weapon like Etienne to the mix.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter.

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