2016 Compensatory Draft Picks Primer: What Can Teams Do To Prepare?

I’ve spilled plenty of pixels talking about how 2014’s free agency could affect the 2015 compensatory picks. But it’s also my intention to look toward the future, and how free agent decisions made in 2015 will affect 2016’s slate of picks. To kick this off, we should address some higher level questions: To what extent, if any, should teams alter their approach in free agency to increase their chances of compensatory draft picks? And which teams in particular should perhaps pay more attention than others to this aspect this year?

Five years ago, AdamJT13 pondered the “should” question considerably, and I think his overall conclusion is sound. It would be foolish for teams to obsess over comp picks to the point of hindering the goal of making your football team better. But it would be equally foolish to completely ignore the process and possibly cost your team some valuable draft picks.

I would also add that different front offices have different styles of how to build a football team, invoking strategies that place acquiring comp picks at a higher or lower level. The two most blatant examples of teams placing exceptional weight on the draft, of which comp picks are a key part, are the Baltimore Ravens and Green Bay Packers. The Ravens declared GM Ozzie Newsome to be the “Wizard of Compensatory Picks”, while last year it was noted that Packers GM Ted Thompson hasn’t signed a true UFA since 2012 (a streak that I believe is still active). Their strategies speak for themselves, as they lead the league in all time comp picks awarded. But there are also teams that prefer to get in experienced, veteran talent in the building more so than bringing in younger players. The one front office that, of course, comes to my mind first, were the Denver Broncos under Mike Shanahan. As you’d expect, in stark contrast to Baltimore (41) and Green Bay (33), Denver is second to last in comp picks awarded (9)—with the process starting in 1994, it coincides well with Shanahan’s time in Denver.

Neither approach is inherently good or bad for building a successful football team—all three of the teams I used as examples have won Super Bowls, after all. However, regardless of how a GM wants to build a team, there can still be room for simple observances made to increase the odds of earning a better quality or quantity of comp picks, without having to resort to the amount of effort that Baltimore and Green Bay put into it.

Here’s a short list of what those rules could look like:

  1. If all else is equal, prefer signing street free agents (SFAs) over unrestricted free agents (UFAs).
  2. Keep the number of UFAs lost greater than the number of UFAs gained.
  3. Pay additional attention to your high value UFA losses and gains.

A strict adherence to rule #1 will guarantee that you are at least in play to earn comp picks. Baltimore and Green Bay do this by focusing on veterans who were cut instead of having their contracts expire. This is why you saw Baltimore pounce on Elvis Dumervil and Green Bay pounce on Julius Peppers—because both were cut. Under the comp pick formula, it doesn’t matter if you lose the highest valued UFA in the market: if you sign even one low level player that qualifies for the formula, that player has the potential to cancel out a comp pick that you could have earned—and even a high one.

Of course, playing the game as strict as Baltimore and Green Bay isn’t always feasible or even desirable. That leads to rule #2, which suggests keeping a tally of UFAs lost and UFAs gained. If the lost/gained ratio isn’t going to remain above 1 if you sign a certain UFA, it may be worth it to double check to see if that UFA you want is worth giving up a future comp pick. It may not be worth focusing on it if you’re just getting one very late 7th rounder that may not differ much from the undrafted free agent market. But such a double check may become more needed when it comes to rule #3, if you’ve lost a high value UFA without gaining one of similar value.

For the 2015 comp picks, the Cincinnati Bengals could learn the above lessons the hard way. As I’ve noted in the 2015 projections, if Marshall Newhouse (hardly a household name) qualifies, it will cost Cincinnati a 4th round pick for losing Anthony Collins. Newhouse wasn’t a useless player for the Bengals: he provided depth as well as versatility in jumbo packages. But could the Bengals have found a similar player in either a rookie, an SFA, or could they have tried waiting to sign Newhouse until after June 1, when he would transition from a UFA to SFA? The answer isn’t obvious, of course—perhaps Marvin Lewis saw something notable enough in Newhouse that risking losing him to another team wasn’t worth going a different route. But it’s still worth asking the question, if even briefly.

Moving on to 2016 (of which relies on 2015’s free agency period), the one team that stands out to me as the one to heed the advice of rule #3 in particular would be the Detroit Lions. It appears very likely that Ndamukong Suh will be trying to break the bank in free agency, and equally unlikely that the Lions will be able to match the highest bidder. Knowing this, if Suh does indeed get that huge contract elsewhere, why not at least consider resolving to not signing any UFA over a certain amount (probably about $8.5 million APY), and make sure you lose at least one more UFA than you gain? The realities of free agency may or may not prove to make that goal feasible, but if attained it will almost certainly net Detroit the 97th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft.

On that note, I thought it might be instructive to see which teams could stand to gain high 2016 comp picks if the ratios are managed in their favor. The following table is based on Jason’s Top 25 Free Agents list he provided for Sporting News, while I have added his estimated APYs that each player could get on the market, and an estimated comp pick value that could respectively be assigned. In addition, I have highlighted players with the color of their 2014 team, if the team in question is in position to possibly earn multiple comp picks in 2015. Some of these players, of course, won’t come close to hitting the market (like Dez Bryant, Demaryius Thomas, and Justin Houston), but they are still included for illustration.

Player2014 TeamEstimated APYRound
1Ndamukong SuhLions$16,000,0003
2Demaryius ThomasBroncos$13,000,0003
3Dez BryantCowboys$13,000,0003
4Justin HoustonChiefs$14,500,0003
5Jason Pierre-PaulGiants$12,500,0003
6Greg HardyPanthers$13,000,0003
7Mike Iupati49ers$8,000,0004
8Jerry HughesBills$11,500,0003
9DeMarco MurrayCowboys$6,500,0004
10Randall CobbPackers$10,000,0003
11Jeremy MaclinEagles$9,500,0003
12Devin McCourtyPatriots$8,000,0004
13Pernell McPheeRavens$8,000,0004
14Brian OrakpoRedskins$8,000,0004
15Jason WorildsSteelers$6,500,0004
16Torrey SmithRavens$7,000,0004
17Julius ThomasBroncos$7,000,0004
18Orlando FranklinBroncos$6,000,0004
19Bryan BulagaPackers$6,500,0004
20Derrick MorganTitans$5,000,0005
21Brandon GrahamEagles$5,000,0005
22Mark SanchezEagles$8,000,0004
23Byron MaxwellSeahawks$6,000,0004
24Terrance KnightonBroncos$5,000,0005
25CJ SpillerBills$4,000,0006

As you can see, more than half of the players are highlighted from just nine teams. It should be of no surprise that both the Ravens and Packers have multiple players on this list, and it leads me to believe that it’s unlikely that any of those players will be re-signed. Newsome and Thompson are likely already thinking about the 3rd or 4th round picks they stand to get in 2016. Denver is another team that appears several times, and just as last year it appears that the Broncos under John Elway differ from the Shanahan-led past in that they’re not afraid to move on from certain players. Among the teams that aren’t repeat candidates, Philadelphia stands out as a team that could stand to spend a little time thinking about comp picks in their plans for free agency.

****

Teams spend a lot of time and money on scouting the college ranks to make the correct decisions in the draft. But it cannot be denied that there is a great element of luck to the draft. No one knows for sure how a young man in his early 20s will handle playing at the highest level of football, all while being offered thousands to millions of dollars to do so. One way you can mitigate the luck factor, however, is getting more chances to select in the draft. Gaining compensatory draft picks not only gives you those additional chances, it also gives you more flexibility to move your original picks to your advantage. Comp picks should hardly be the overriding factor to consider as a team approaches the free agency period. But teams like the Ravens and Packers have proven that considerable emphasis can be placed upon it, and it is likely part of the formula that keeps them as perennially successfully franchises. It may serve other teams well to emulate.

  • ConservativeChas

    Not sure how to contact y’all with updates, but the Browns cap space should be increased now that they just cut OG Paul McQuistan. This should provide them with a net increase of about $1.3 MM in 2015 available cap space.

    • Bo Jørgensen

      Write to: jason@overthecap.com

      When you subtract the dead money and the cap hit of the new player that will count towards top-51, they will gain about 900K in cap space

  • Mike

    “As you can see, more than half of the players are highlighted from just
    nine teams. It should be of no surprise that both the Ravens and Packers
    have multiple players on this list, and it leads me to believe that
    it’s unlikely that any of those players will be re-signed. Newsome and
    Thompson are likely already thinking about the 3rd or 4th round picks
    they stand to get in 2016.”

    That’s not really how Packers do things. Both Cobb and Bulaga are approaching their second contract. The draft and develop appraoch means Packers will want to sign these guys and get the player at their peak. We get the compensation picks by letting players like Jennings, Jones go later on in their career (ie their 3rd contract). That combined with the approach to signing players above (go for street FAs) gets us compensation picks, allows us to keep our core for their prime years and keeps the team young.

    Not saying we will sign Cobb and/or Bulaga but I expect us to try hard to do so.

    • Nick

      I agree that it’s wise to re-sign your own that you want to keep, and the Packers indeed do this (they certainly have in the past with players like Jordy Nelson, and clearly you don’t let someone like Clay Matthews walk just for the 97th overall pick). My point is that even if they fail in reaching a satisfactory extension, they know that there’s a silver lining in comp picks that they actively take into account to their advantage.

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  • Troy Chapman

    What kind of return would Houston be looking at for Kareem Jackson if he signs elsewhere. He will probably get $8-9m per yr avg.

    • Nick

      If he got that kind of APY it would probably be on the cusp between the 3rd and 4th rounds. That will depend on what the 2015 cap will be, and of course what kind of UFAs Houston decides to pursue this year.