2021 Compensatory Picks Potential and Preview

The 2020 league year in the NFL may officially start on Wednesday, March 18, with the “legal tampering” period of free agency commencing two days before on Monday, March 16, the time when we would typically get first knowledge of the largest contracts to be signed. With those contracts signed come the generation of compensatory picks for the 2021 NFL Draft, thus it’s time to take a look at what comp pick potential teams might be looking at.

However, this will be one of the most unusual times of the year, for three reasons:

  1. This league year could either start with either the current collective bargaining agreement, or a brand new CBA. We will learn the fate of that question when voting by the NFLPA’s members concludes at the end of Saturday, March 14.
  2. With a new CBA comes new rules, and one of the most sweeping changes comes to the compensatory pick formula. These may be coming even if the proposed CBA is rejected by the NFLPA.
  3. Finally, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic could throw all kinds of unknown wrenches into the start of the new league year, up to and including a delay to its start.

Given those caveats, let’s proceed.

Reviewing the changes to the compensatory formula

At some point, I highly recommend reading Appendix V (as in the letter vee, not the number 5) of the proposed CBA, which for the first time publicly publishes the heart of the compensatory formula. Here are the important highlights to keep in mind:

UFAs must be valued within the top 35% instead of the top 50% to qualify as compensatory free agents (CFAs).

In my opinion, this will be by far the most consequential change to the compensatory formula. This will result in far few players becoming CFAs due to a low Average Per Year (APY) or low snap counts. If this 35% rule was applied to the 2020 comp picks, contracts would have needed to have an APY of about $2.3 million (instead of about $1 million for the 50% threshold). Therefore, for 2021 I would guess that the APY cutoff qualification would be something around $2.5 million, give or take some range in both directions for snap count adjustments. That will give teams much more flexibility in signing UFAs without the risk of them becoming CFAs that would otherwise cancel out their higher valued CFAs lost.

Teams may unilaterally designate some signings to be as an “Excluded UFA” that would disqualify a player to become a CBA.

The requirements for Excluded UFA designation would be that the player would have to sign a one year contract for a maximum of $1.75 million (an amount that will very lightly rise in later years of the CBA) that cannot be renegotiated until the conclusion of that team’s season.

While I expect teams to experiment with the Excluded UFA designation, as I read the entirety of Appendix V, in my opinion this new tool will be mooted by the 35% rule explained above, since contracts with an APY of $1.75 million or less will be well below the estimated $2.5 million cutoff of the 35% rule.

Players who sign Veteran (formerly Minimum) Salary Benefit (VSB) Deals will not become CFAs.

Again, I also expect this provision to be mooted by the 35% rule, as these contracts will have a value well below the approximate $2.5 million cutoff explained above.

Players who became UFAs due to declined options will no longer become CFAs.

OTC has been aware of this change for quite some time, and it was also codified in Appendix V.

The “Alan Faneca rule” does not apply to quarterbacks.

This refers to when the Steelers were taken by surprise when they got only a 5th round comp pick as a maximum for losing Alan Faneca instead of an expected 3rd, due to having ten or more accrued seasons. However, Appendix V says this rule, for whatever reason, does not apply to quarterbacks.

This exception to this rule will prove to be very consequential for this offseason, as there are quarterbacks like Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, and (very hypothetically) Drew Brees well over ten accrued seasons that could still sign very large deals elsewhere.

Even excepting quarterbacks, there are still a handful of other players subject to the Alan Faneca rule this offseason. They include Jason Peters, Jason Witten, Andrew Whitworth, Emmanuel Sanders, Demaryius Thomas, Ndamukong Suh, Gerald McCoy, and Jason Pierre-Paul.

Workout bonuses, performance incentives, and salary escalators will now count in the compensatory formula.

These devices were sometimes used to circumvent the compensatory formula by artificially lowering a player’s APY, and abuse of this circumvention like what the Eagles recently did may have resulted in this rule change.

According to Appendix V, the types of these payments that will count will be those “that are earned by the player in the first League Year of the contract, or that are considered “likely to be earned,” either upon execution of the contract, or as the result of the year-end netting of incentives”. Since Not Likely To Be Earned incentives might still not count, and make up the grand majority of such possible payments, there may still be some leeway for teams to manipulate APY, but they will be limited.

How OTC’s 2021 compensatory pick projection will operate

  • If the proposed CBA is approved, the program will unquestionably run on all new rules in Appendix V, most critically disqualifying UFAs from becoming CFAs that are not in the top 35% of leaguewide players.
  • If the proposed CBA is rejected, the program will still run on the Appendix V rules, but will make a special note of UFAs in the 35% to 50% range, as well as VSB contracts, indicating that they may be possible CFAs.
  • Workout bonuses and LTBE incentives will be included, and adjustments will be made near the end of the regular season for any salary escalators or NTLBE incentives that were earned. Since this is a new provision, the margin of error here will be greater than usual.

Now that you know about the many changes that lie ahead, let’s take a look at each of the 32 teams.

2021 Compensatory Pick Potential

Buffalo Bills

With Quinton Spain recently extended and Jordan Phillips the only other one of their 12 pending UFAs logging more than half of the snaps, they should expect very little action that would generate possible comp picks. Potential: Very Low

Miami Dolphins

Their roster was stripped down to the studs last season, and it shows with only 7 pending UFAs, the most notable being Aqib Talib, who they acquired as a salary dump. No team should expect less here than Miami. Potential: Very Low

New England Patriots

Where Tom Brady plays in 2020 has been the hottest question approaching this offseason. If it’s not in New England, Brady will be a prime 3rd round compensatory pick candidate for the Patriots despite playing accruing well over ten seasons, due to being a quarterback. But it doesn’t end there: Joe Thuney, Devin McCourty, Ted Karras, Jamie Collins, Kyle Van Noy, and Phillip Dorsett are all other pending UFAs who could get CFA-caliber contracts. The Patriots have received multiple 3rd round comp picks and the max of four comp picks in the past two seasons, and that could easily become three in a row. Potential: Very High

New York Jets

Robby Anderson will be the leading candidate here, although there is word that he has interest in staying with the Jets. Three starters from the 2019 offensive line–Kelvin Beachum, Alex Lewis, and Brandon Shell–are also among their high number of 21 pending UFAs, along with edge rusher Jordan Jenkins. However, with high cap space they could easily sign as much or more as they lose, especially if they retain Anderson. Potential: Low

Baltimore Ravens

Matt Judon appears to be a likely franchise tag candidate, so beyond him, the Ravens would have to look at Michael Pierce, Patrick Onwuasor, Jimmy Smith, or Josh Bynes to continue their comp pick collecting habits. Few of them stand out, so while their reputation says they’ll be mindful of their ledger, it also wouldn’t be the worst time for them to take a momentary pause from comp picks and sign some external CFAs if the above players do not sign for much elsewhere. Potential: Moderate

Cincinnati Bengals

With AJ Green as another likely franchise tag candidate, there is little beyond him: perhaps Andrew Billings, Tyler Eifert, Darqueze Dennard, or Nick Vigil. The Bengals’ modus operandi of free agency generally allows them to naturally collect comp picks, but coming off a league worst record in 2019 the interest may be colder than typical. Potential: Low

Cleveland Browns

Among only six practical pending UFAs, Joe Schobert is the only one expected to land a big deal elsewhere. If Schobert is the only CFA they end up losing, they’d have to abstain from signing CFAs from elsewhere, and that seems unlikely in their position. Potential: Very Low

Pittsburgh Steelers

Bud Dupree leads another short list of 8 pending UFAs, and he’s one that could also be tagged. Beyond that, Javon Hargrave may be the only other notable name there. Artie Burns and Sean Davis have not lived up to their draft status, and Tyler Matakevich is a strict special teamer that will likely not sign a contract large enough to qualify as a CFA under the new rules. If the Steelers let Dupree walk they could try to hold back to ensure a high comp pick for him, like they did for Le’Veon Bell last offseason, but otherwise they could be another team suited to take a break and pursue external CFAs. Potential: Low

Houston Texans

DJ Reader has been getting much buzz as a high priority UFA that should be a high CFA candidate as well. Bradley Roby will try to improve on his one year, prove it deal that he signed with Houston last offseason. With 14 pending UFAs in total they could get some padding elsewhere from others signing small CFA-caliber deals. The primary goal for Houston may be to preserve just a high comp pick for Reader if he leaves. Potential: Moderate

Indianapolis Colts

Anthony Castonzo is the leading name here, and while he’ll be coming back for another season, it appears more likely that’ll he’ll be re-signed by the Colts. After Castonzo, there are similarly older candidates like Jabaal Sheard, Dontrelle Inman, and (of course) Adam Vinatieri, and younger talent in transition such as Eric Ebron, Clayton Geathers, and Chester Rogers. Overshadowing all of this, however, is a very high amount of cap space and a need at quarterback at the Colts that may drown out all of this. Potential: Low

Jacksonville Jaguars

Yannick Ngakoue is the only notable CFA candidate among the Jaguars, and he’s a likely franchise tag candidate. Add that to a franchise that has struggled since their 2017 AFC Championship appearance, and it’s likely that they’ll have more work to do in unrestricted free agency than on the comp pick front. Potential: Very Low

Tennessee Titans

They can’t tag all of Ryan Tannehill, Jack Conklin, and Derrick Henry, and whoever of them is able to hit the open market should generate high comp pick worthy deals. So should Marcus Mariota even on a backup QB deal. Logan Ryan playing 99% of the snaps in 2019 could also draw interest, as well as Tajae Sharpe. The Titans are well poised to strive for comp picks if they so choose. Potential: Very High

Denver Broncos

Justin Simmons will likely get extended or franchise tagged, but beyond him the Broncos have plenty of CFA worthy candidates to consider. Lead among them is Chris Harris Jr., a likely departure after trading for AJ Bouye. So too are defensive linemen Derek Wolfe and Shelby Harris, center Connor McGovern, and backup safety Will Parks can’t be counted out for a possible starter level contract elsewhere. While the Broncos aren’t shy about participating in unrestricted free agency when needed–and it likely will be if they lose the above players–they also are sharp at making sure comp picks are not neglected at the same time. Potential: High

Kansas City Chiefs

Chris Jones will likely be tagged, but beyond him the Chiefs still have 18 pending UFAs to work with. Among them are cornerbacks Kendall Fuller and Bashaud Breeland, edge rusher Emmanuel Ogbah, and wide receiver Demarcus Robinson. The Chiefs may not generate a high quality of comp picks if they retain, or tag and trade, Jones, but as Super Bowl champions they could also possibly see some of their UFAs overpaid on the market. Potential: Moderate

Las Vegas Raiders

They have a high quantity of pending UFAs at 17, but the quality is low. Daryl Worley and Karl Joseph are the only ones that played more than 50% of the snaps in 2019, and they were part of a defensive backfield that struggled mightily. As a franchise that generally doesn’t care much about comp picks, I don’t see that changing much this offseason: Potential: Very Low

Los Angeles Chargers

With the Chargers announcing that Philip Rivers will enter free agency, that will position them to garner a likely 3rd round comp pick due to the revelation that all quarterbacks, even those with more than ten accrued seasons, can garner one. Melvin Gordon will also be looking for the big payday he’s struggled to gain as a running back. Even if the Chargers tag Hunter Henry, other players that could be CFA candidates are Adrian Phillips, Damion Square, and Michael Schofield. The comp picks are there for the taking for the Chargers if they want them. Potential: High

Dallas Cowboys

More well known than the Titans’ situation, the Cowboys have their own three trio of top tier players in Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper, and Byron Jones that they cannot tag all three of. Whoever of them is allowed to hit the open market will put the Cowboys in prime position for comp pick returns. Combine this with other players like Jason Witten, Maliek Collins, and Jeff Heath among a very long list of 24 pending UFAs, and Dallas is situated quite well in this department. Potential: Very High

New York Giants

The Giants traded for Leonard Williams despite his status of being on the final year of his contract. Should they not work out an extension, a tag could be in play for him. Markus Golden, who logged 10 sacks on a one year deal in New York, could also get interest around the league. With Eli Manning retired, the remainder of the Giants’ pending UFAs might not be in CFA territory, but there is enough for them to work with if they so choose. Potential: Moderate

Philadelphia Eagles

The Eagles have an eclectic mix of pending UFAs: the longtime vets in Josh McCown, Jason Peters, and Vinny Curry, and younger transitional talent Halapoulivaati Vaitai, Ronald Darby, Jalen Mills, Timmy Jernigan, and Nelson Agholor. With compensation for losing Peters capped at the fifth round, there may not be much top level quality here, but good mid level quantity that could keep Philadelphia’s reputation as being a comp pick heavy team going. Potential: High

Washington Redskins

Brandon Scherff is the leading candidate but could get extended or tagged. If that happens, then Case Keenum might be the only remaining potential CFA, as even as backups quarterbacks can get CFA caliber contracts. The Redskins have shown a little recent interest in comp picks, but traditionally that has not been the case for them, and it wouldn’t surprise me if they reverted to tradition this offseason. Potential: Low

Chicago Bears

With Danny Trevathan extended, the focus shifts to fellow linebacker Nick Kwiatkowski, who has reportedly been drawing interest leaguewide. But much like the Redskins, beyond him the only potential CFA may be backup quarterback Chase Daniel, and they are also another team that historically does not care for comp picks, even if they went out of character last year by cutting Mike Davis to get a 4th round comp pick. Potential: Low

Detroit Lions

A’Shawn Robinson is a young interior defensive lineman that could get some attention, as well as center Graham Glasgow. Lingering veterans like Rashaan Melvin or Tavon Wilson could still find homes in the league, too. The question is whether Detroit will stand pat with their own players instead of pursuing external CFAs after coming off a bad season. Potential: Low

Green Bay Packers

Blake Martinez is another linebacker that’s rumored to have leaguewide interest. Longtime right tackle Bryan Bulaga is the type of player that the Packers of the past would clearly let walk for a comp pick. Peripheral players like Geronimo Allison or Kyler Fackrell could also be in play as CFAs. Under Ted Thompson, the Packers would have been determined to get comp picks for all of them, but Brian Gutekunst has shown no need to hold back in free agency just for that reason. We’ll see which way Gutekunst decides to lean in 2020. Potential: Moderate

Minnesota Vikings

Safety Anthony Harris leads a group of possible CFA candidates in the defensive backfield that also includes cornerbacks Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander. With 17 total pending UFAs on a team strapped for cap space, the Vikings could be comp pick recipients just on that basis alone. Potential: High

Atlanta Falcons

Austin Hooper will be a prime CFA candidate if he is allowed to hit the open market. Behind him are players like De’Vondre Campbell and Vic Beasley that will try to find good vested veteran contracts, and older veterans like Jack Crawford or Adrian Clayborn that could catch on elsewhere. Much like the Vikings, the Falcons are tight for cap space, and those combinations could put them on the comp pick board. Potential: High

Carolina Panthers

Tre Boston and James Bradberry are high snap level defensive backs that could draw attention. Daryl Williams will try to recover his stock after coming back from injury. Older vet Gerald McCoy could see another good contract due to his draft pedigree. The big question surrounding the Panthers is that this is a team in transition after moving from Ron Rivera to Matt Rhule. That could indicate either a build through the draft that generates comp picks, or a build through unrestricted free agency that doesn’t. Potential: Moderate

New Orleans Saints

Drew Brees would be the leading CFA candidate here by far if he left New Orleans, but no one thinks that he will. But even putting Brees aside, there is his backup in Teddy Bridgewater that will hope he can finally get that starter level, 3rd round comp pick valued contract elsewhere. There are three defensive backs in Vonn Bell, PJ Williams, and Eli Apple all hitting the market. There is first round pick Andrus Peat could could get a good deal based on that reputation. And there are a total of 17 pending UFAs, putting Brees aside. No team cares less about comp picks than the Saints, but if any year could break their drought, this would be the one. Potential: Very High

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

It appears unlikely that the Bucs will let one of the best stories of the NFL in Shaq Barrett hit the open market. First overall pick Jameis Winston, however, could be another story, and if he’s allowed to leave he stands to possibly generate a 3rd round comp pick valued contract even on a one year prove it deal. The tradeoff, of course, is that the Bucs would have to replace Winston, and they may very well do so by signing a quarterback of their own to a 3rd round comp pick contract. Thus, if Barrett and Winston are out of the picture one way or another, the Bucs would need to rely on the likes of Ndamukong Suh, Jason Pierre-Paul, Carl Nassib, and Peyton Barber to get them by. Definitely plenty to work with there if the Bucs so choose. Potential: Moderate

Arizona Cardinals

The Cardinals have a high quantity of pending UFAs at 21, but thanks to the DJ Humphries extension that quality is low. With the new 35% qualification rule, the Cardinals may see few of those players qualify as CFAs even if they do get attention from the rest of the league. Potential: Low

Los Angeles Rams

The Rams’ pending number of UFAs are low at 10, but they have notable names among that small group. Cory Littleton and Dante Fowler, Jr. will be the young players leading the way, while older players like Andrew Whitworth, Michael Brockers, and Greg Zuerlein can’t be counted out. The Rams have shown mindfulness with going after comp picks, and cramped cap space due to previous large contract could push them in that direction. Potential: High

San Francisco 49ers

Arik Armstead is by far the leading candidate here, but he could be a likely tag candidate for that reason. Beyond him, they’re looking at players like Jimmie Ward or Emmanuel Sanders as possible CFAs. Their cap space is also on the low end so they could be in play for a comp pick or two even if the quality and quantity doesn’t end up comparing to some other teams. Potential: Moderate

Seattle Seahawks

First overall pick Jadeveon Clowney leads the way among a bevy of defensive linemen hitting unrestricted free agency that also includes Jarran Reed and Quinton Jefferson. Opposite from them on the line, Germain Ifedi and George Fant will try to find decent vested veteran deals elsewhere. Those players front a group of 19 pending UFAs that will likely keep Seattle’s reputation as a leading comp pick garnering team going. Potential: High