Chase Young’s fifth-year option: The cases for and against exercising it


The second-most-pressing issue on the minds of many Washington Commanders fans this spring would have seemed unfathomable 20 months ago: Should the team exercise the fifth-year option in defensive end Chase Young’s rookie contract?

The question captures the Commanders’ state of limbo. In 2020, Young and Coach Ron Rivera arrived as symbols of hope, fresh faces of the franchise, and now their long-term futures appear uncertain. Washington must decide how to handle Young’s option by May 2.

This week is important for Young. Washington’s offseason program, which he skipped in 2021 before underperforming and then suffering a season-ending right knee injury, starts Monday. Rivera has said he would like to see Young there.

It’s possible Young’s attendance at offseason workouts — and his approach to them — could go as far, if not further, toward helping Rivera decide whether to pick up the option than any of the other factors the coach has mentioned this offseason, including health, motivation and the team’s ownership change.

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The case for picking it up

The key words are potential and leverage. Young is 6-foot-5, 264 pounds and 24. He has a rare blend of size, power and athleticism, and he still has time to put it all together. This offseason, Rivera has repeatedly insisted there are no lingering concerns about Young’s health following the ACL tear that forced him to miss 22 games over the 2021 and 2022 seasons.

If that’s true and if Young dedicates himself, he can still become the star edge rusher the team always hoped he would be. In that case, picking up his fifth-year option — fully guaranteed for $17.5 million in 2024 — is the soundest financial decision. Elite edge rushers can command well north of $20 million per year.

Plus, think about leverage. If the Commanders don’t pick up the option and don’t work out a long-term deal with Montez Sweat this year, both edge rushers would become unrestricted free agents in 2024, which would put the front office in a tough spot. The team can use the franchise tag on only one player per year, and if the non-tagged player were to demand a lucrative deal, Washington probably would lose him and get only a compensatory draft pick in return — unless it traded Young or Sweat before this season.

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Even if Washington knows it can’t sign Sweat and Young to second contracts, picking up Young’s option lowers the financial risk. It would be cheaper than the franchise tag, which salary database Over the Cap projects to be $24.5 million next year for edge rushers.

Plus, if Washington considers trading Young, picking up the option is smart. It would give the team trading for Young another year of control and probably would increase the return for the Commanders.

And even if Washington’s front office is worried about how the full guarantee of the fifth-year option would affect the salary cap, it almost certainly can find a workaround. Defensive tackle Daron Payne was due to count $18.9 million against the cap this season; his new deal lowered the hit to $8.6 million, according to Over the Cap. That gave the Commanders room to make other moves.

In short, if Rivera still believes Young has the ceiling of a star, it would be shortsighted to give up the biggest benefit of drafting him in the first round just because he played poorly in the first half of his second year and took longer to return from a devastating injury than anyone would have liked.

The key word is production. Young has not proved he can be a consistent, game-wrecking force. Since 2021, opponents have looked unafraid of him, often not sliding protection his way and regularly leaving his blocker without help.

In 27 career games, Young has 75 tackles (13 for loss), nine sacks, seven batted passes and six forced fumbles. The best metric to gauge his effectiveness is pressure rate, which is far more predictive of future performance than sacks. Since 2020, Young has created pressure on just 9.2 percent of his snaps, according to statistical website TruMedia. Of 137 qualified defensive linemen, that ranks 88th.

If for any reason Rivera has lost faith that Young can become a game changer, then the fifth-year option goes from prudent to irresponsible. Washington would be committed to paying him $17.5 million — the eighth-highest average annual value among edge rushers — when the best statistical comparison for his career so far is Kansas City Chiefs backup Michael Danna, who was taken 175 spots later than Young in the 2020 draft.

In 768 career pass-rushing snaps, Danna has 72 pressures, 46 hurries, 26 hits and 10.5 sacks.

In 771 career pass-rushing snaps, Young has 71 pressures, 51 hurries, 21 hits and nine sacks.

Perhaps even more compelling: Look at how Washington played without Young last season. The line excelled with Sweat, Payne, Jonathan Allen and a rotation of backups in Young’s place.

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Then there’s motivation: If Washington declines the option, Rivera said at the Super Bowl, he wouldn’t be worried about the message it would send; that’s because of how Payne responded to the same situation last year. Rivera has acknowledged that, if his team doesn’t perform in its first year under new ownership, he probably will be out of a job. If he’s willing to pull every lever to get his team to perform better, it’s possible declining the option would give Young an extra boost.

But at the same time, if Rivera feels such a drastic move is necessary, is that an argument against committing to Young in the first place?

If Rivera believes Young no longer has star potential, or if he believes Young is primarily motivated by money, or if he’s not worried about any season beyond this one, or if the team strongly suspects it would prefer to keep Sweat over Young regardless, then the smart move is to decline his option.

If he’s healthy and interested in maximizing his earning potential, Young should want the Commanders to decline his option. If he has a breakout season, Washington would be forced to use the franchise tag, which is worth about $7 million more than the option, or let him walk and hit free agency before his 25th birthday. He probably would receive a multiyear deal with more guaranteed money than $17.5 million.

Even if he has an average year — or one comparable to his impressive rookie campaign — his age and physical talents could entice other teams to offer him a multiyear deal with more guaranteed money than the option.

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