Fifth-year option: A primer on the decision that awaits Redskins on RG III

How to make RG III a pocket passer

ESPN Redskins reporter John Keim talks about how the team can help Robert Griffin III become a more successful pocket passer.

The Washington Redskins already decided that Robert Griffin III will be their starting quarterback entering training camp. But an equally big decision awaits them on May 3. That’s the deadline for when the Redskins must decide whether to pick up his fifth-year option.

The option is worth $16.2 million and guaranteed for injury only. But there are plenty of questions that make this anything but a no-brainer decision. Here are some answers, based on multiple conversations with sources in the NFL Players’ Association and others involved in the NFL and familiar with the fifth-year option.

What does it mean to be guaranteed for injury only?

It means a team can cut a player with the fifth-year option without cap ramifications -- if they’re not hurt and they’re released by a certain date. If Griffin plays poorly this season and doesn’t get hurt, the Redskins could cut him before the league year begins in March 2016 and have no salary-cap hit. If he’s on the roster at the start of the league year, then the contract becomes guaranteed and the cap hit would be $16.2 million.

What happens if he gets hurt?

This is the risk that the Redskins must consider. Some say it’s a small one; perhaps for other players it is but not for Griffin, which is why some say it should not be picked up. He’s already endured two ACL surgeries in his career (one at Baylor, one after his rookie year) and the ankle injury last season.

But the key is that the player must be able to pass the season-ending physical. If Griffin were to get hurt and fail the physical then, multiple sources say, the Redskins would be on the hook for the contract in 2016. If, for example, there’s a repeat of 2012 where Griffin suffers a torn ACL late in the year then he would be unable to pass the physical. At that point the contract (and cap hit) become guaranteed.

What if it’s a minor injury?

If Griffin hurts his ankle, say, with two games left but would be healthy enough to return had the season gone another week then it’s real hard to see the Redskins failing him. It certainly would work against them if they did (that is, if they wanted to subsequently release him).

The injury -- and his status -- could be viewed one way by the Redskins and another by Griffin’s side. In that case, if the Redskins pass him Griffin could file a grievance. If that occurs, 40 percent of the $16.2 million would count against the Redskins' salary cap until the grievance process ends. It could take a few months. If the Redskins lose the grievance, they would have to pay a settlement, which would count against their 2016 salary cap.

Why else would this be risky?

Because the organization is split on Griffin. He’ll get the chance to prove again what he can do this season and if he plays well, then that split would go away. If you’re sold on him, the injury risk is not as big because you know that player will be with you in 2016 and probably beyond. But if you’re not sold on his future here, then you could put yourself in a tough spot if something does happen to him, especially later in the year.

If there’s risk, why would they pick up the option?

It could be another vote of confidence -- just like announcing in February that he’ll be the starting quarterback. Also, the Redskins could decide that they simply want to control him for another year. If he plays poorly and they don’t want to continue with him, and he’s healthy, then they could cut him before the start of the league year and there’s no cap charge. That way, they could save their franchise tag label (or even the transition tag) for other players whose contracts will be up and who will be in line for big deals: linebacker Ryan Kerrigan and left tackle Trent Williams.

If Griffin has a great year, then they’d have him for less than what the franchise tag would cost (it was $18.5 million this offseason) while still trying to negotiate a longer-term contract.

Why haven’t they picked it up yet?

The biggest reason could be that they view it as too risky. But if they ultimately do, there are some reasons to wait.

Let’s say the Redskins draft Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota at No. 5 and want to trade Griffin. In that scenario, it’s likely that a team would want to decide about the option themselves. Another team might view the option as risky, but would still like to take a shot at a 25-year-old quarterback with talent. So if the option is picked up before a deal, it could limit the trade possibilities. Chances are a team that would want to trade for Griffin already knows what it would or wouldn’t do with the option.

Another reason they might not have picked it up is they wanted to get some early returns on his offseason before deciding. Coaches can’t work with players on the field now, but they can work with them in the classroom.

If they do pick it up and the Redskins enter December with no shot at the playoffs and Griffin is playing poorly, they could always bench him to spare them of a possible cap charge. And if he’s playing well? That’s the sort of issue they want to have -- and it becomes money they’d want to spend.