While the NFL owners meetings have already given us rumors of a franchise swap and the latest tampering charges in the endless Jets-Patriots saga, they’ve also delivered a more meaningful, tangible bit of news. The NFL handed out 32 compensatory draft picks Monday night, with 14 franchises coming away with at least one selection.
Those picks, some as high as the third round, offer up subtly significant value. While the selections can’t be traded and come after a team loses a meaningful asset in free agency, they can supplement an organization’s draft haul or allow it greater flexibility with the tradable picks it does have.
And they add up over the long run; the league’s smarter franchises seem to come away with compensatory picks on an annual basis. Robert Mays recently noted how the Ravens constantly find talent with their compensatory selections. In January, I found that the compensatory picks the Patriots have generated under Bill Belichick have been about as valuable as getting the first overall pick for free. It’s no surprise that the Patriots and Ravens show up as the leaders in compensatory picks again this offseason.
With the extra picks now accounted for, we can finally do a run-through of the draft order and figure out what each team has to work with. That’s probably not very instructive, since you already know that the Buccaneers have more draft capital to work with than the Seahawks. But to start, here’s a table with each team’s respective draft value after the compensatory picks were announced:
Those draft values come from Chase Stuart’s draft pick value chart, which improves on the more famous Jimmy Johnson value chart by accounting for the actual observed return of players over the first five years of their professional careers, as well as the cost of having them take up a roster spot. No draft value model is perfect, but Stuart’s model is a leg up on the Johnson chart, which treats high first-rounders as far more valuable (relative to midround picks) than they actually are.
What’s more interesting to me is to put each team’s wheeling and dealing in context by comparing what it has to what the team would have had if it hadn’t made any moves at all. I went through the draft order and calculated what each team’s draft capital would be if draft pick trades were illegal and each team had the picks it would have otherwise earned from last year based on its record. To account for the compensatory picks, I assigned each team an equal share of the total value of all 32 comp picks, which came out to 1.6 points of value per team under the Stuart system.
After all the trades and free-agent compensation, who gained the most draft capital to work with this year? And who left the most on the table? Let’s run through the best and the worst, starting with the six teams that are missing the most draft value, and ask whether they’re likely to be happy with the choices they’ve made.
The Bottom Six
27. Seattle Seahawks
Expected Draft Value: 34.4 points (Rank: 31st)
Actual Draft Value: 31.8 points (Rank: 30th)
Difference: Minus-7.5 percent
The Seahawks actually improved by a tiny bit relative to the rest of the league, but that was only because a couple of other teams we’ll get to in a moment sunk their draft capital elsewhere. Of the six teams on the bottom end of this list, the Seahawks should be happiest with what they’ve done.
Much of their drop-off comes as a result of the Jimmy Graham trade, in which they dealt the 31st overall pick to the Saints with Max Unger and got back Graham and the 112th pick. That 81-pick difference is roughly worth 8.1 points, which is equivalent to the 64th overall selection, the final pick of the second round. Graham for Unger and a first-rounder sounds like a big haul for the Saints, but when you consider that the Seahawks were dealing the second-lowest first-round pick and got a pretty decent fourth-rounder back, the return isn’t quite as impressive for New Orleans as it might have sounded.
Obviously, the Seahawks are getting a pretty exciting player in Graham. And they helped make up for the draft pick gap by acquiring late-round selections elsewhere. They got a sixth-rounder from the Jets for Percy Harvin, but they also picked up four compensatory picks after losing the likes of Golden Tate and Brandon Browner last offseason in free agency. Those picks were worth 6.3 points of draft value, roughly the typical return of the 85th overall pick, a decent third-rounder. And with Byron Maxwell signing a huge deal with the Eagles, Seattle should be in line for a third-round compensatory pick next year.
28. New York Jets
Expected Draft Value: 53.6 points (Rank: Sixth)
Actual Draft Value: 47.5 points (Rank: 11th)
Difference: Minus-11.4 percent
The Jets still have a comfortable haul, if only because they finished with one of the worst records in football, but their lust for receiving options around Geno Smith has eroded some of their draft capital. Even after signing Eric Decker away from Denver last offseason, the Jets used two of their seven draft picks to go after big-name wideouts.
They sent a conditional draft pick to Seattle for Harvin during the 2014 season, a move that failed to move the needle and led to Harvin’s release earlier this offseason. That set the price of the pick going to Seattle as a sixth-rounder (worth 1.5 points of value) as opposed to a far more valuable fourth-rounder (at 5.0 points, more than three times as meaningful of a selection). And after Harvin flopped, new GM Mike Maccagnan sent a fifth-rounder to the Bears to acquire Brandon Marshall. The Jets also failed to come away with a compensatory pick from last year’s free-agent activity, which speaks to how bare their roster was after the 2013 season.
29. St. Louis Rams
Expected Draft Value: 48.9 points (Rank: 10th)
Actual Draft Value: 42.9 points (Rank: 18th)
Difference: Minus-12.2 percent
You can forgive the Rams for being aggressive with their draft picks, thanks to the years of extra selections they enjoyed from the Robert Griffin trade. With their Snyderian haul finally exhausted, the Rams are no longer applying the strength-in-numbers approach when it comes to selections. They don’t own any of their own selections after the third round, although that will pay off for them a year from now.
This basically boils down to two trades. The first is the deadline-day move to acquire safety Mark Barron from the Buccaneers, which cost the Rams their fourth- and sixth-round picks. Those add up to 6.1 points of draft value, or roughly the 88th pick in the draft, a midrange third-rounder. The jury is very much still out on Barron, who started only two games for the Rams after the trade. The former seventh overall pick hasn’t lived up to the expectations of becoming a true two-way safety, and the Rams mostly used him as a quasi-linebacker in three-safety sets in much the same way the Cardinals use Deone Bucannon. The Rams aren’t likely to pick up Barron’s fifth-year option, so he’ll have to prove himself in 2015 to justify this trade for St. Louis.
The other deal actually gives the Rams more draft capital, although the bulk of that is coming in 2016. As part of the Sam Bradford–Nick Foles swap, the Rams moved up from the 145th pick to the 119th selection in this year’s draft while adding a second-rounder from Philly in 2016. The Rams would have to send a pick back if Bradford gets hurt or fails to play the majority of Philadelphia’s offensive snaps, but they’re already well positioned to have a big draft class next year.
30. Miami Dolphins
Expected Draft Value: 44.7 points (Rank: 14th)
Actual Draft Value: 38.9 points (Rank: 22nd)
Difference: Minus-13.0 percent
Miami’s former third-round pick is actually the third-most valuable draft pick traded so far from this year’s draft (after the first-round selections dealt away by the Bills and Seahawks). The Dolphins sent that pick, the 78th overall selection, to New Orleans as part of the Kenny Stills deal. Stills will give the Dolphins some much-needed speed as part of their new-look receiving corps, but it remains to be seen whether he’ll flourish away from Drew Brees. The Dolphins also sent a seventh-rounder to Baltimore for Bryant McKinnie as part of the Superfund site that was their offensive line in 2013.
31. Detroit Lions
Expected Draft Value: 38.8 points (Rank: 23rd)
Actual Draft Value: 30.8 points (Rank: 31st)
Difference: Minus-20.6 percent
The Lions are unlikely to regret the drop in their draft value, given how desperate they were for a defensive tackle after Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley left town. The Lions sent fourth- and fifth-round picks to the Ravens for Haloti Ngata after Baltimore was unable to come to terms with Ngata on a contract extension. Those two selections and the absence of any compensatory draft picks account for Detroit’s drop-off.
The good news for Detroit is that it will get something back in the years to come. The Lions will almost surely come away with a third-round pick in next year’s compensatory class for Suh, and they could be in line for a pick in the later rounds for the Fairley deal. If they can’t re-sign Ngata after this season and he leaves in free agency, they would also likely pick up a compensatory pick for him in 2017. They would probably rather have Suh, but even after trading two picks away this year, they should make up for the missing draft capital in years to come.
32. Buffalo Bills
Expected Draft Value: 41.7 points (Rank: 19th)
Actual Draft Value: 19.9 points (Rank: 32nd)
Difference: Minus-52.3 percent
That’s what happens when you trade two first-round picks for one specific wide receiver in what may end up as the best wide receiver class ever. The Bills ended up sending Cleveland the ninth overall pick in 2014 before adding the 19th and 115th overall picks in this year’s draft. Adding the value of that fourth-rounder (4.4 points) turns the 19th pick (15.8 points) into roughly the 10th overall selection (19.9 points). Sammy Watkins is a good player, but it’s virtually impossible to justify dealing the fourth pick for two top-10 selections if you don’t come away with a franchise quarterback in the process.
The Top Six
6. Kansas City Chiefs
Expected Draft Value: 42.1 points (Rank: 18th)
Actual Draft Value: 47.3 points (Rank: 12th)
Difference: 12.4 percent
I went with a top and bottom six because I wanted to squeeze in the Chiefs, who came out with the league’s largest compensatory pick haul. The league awarded Kansas City a third-round pick (for losing Branden Albert1), two fifth-rounders (Tyson Jackson and Jon Asamoah), and a sixth-rounder (Dexter McCluster) for their free-agent losses from last offseason. That all adds up to 9.3 points of expected draft value, which is the typical return of the 53rd overall pick.
The exact NFL formula for determining compensatory picks is secret, so these are educated guesses.
Getting a second-rounder of value as compensation doesn’t make up for the losses of those four players, but Albert and McCluster got hurt, Jackson flopped, and Asamoah was mostly anonymous in Atlanta. The Chiefs will help replace Asamoah in 2015 with Ben Grubbs, whom they acquired from New Orleans for a fifth-round pick. They own all of their other selections in this year’s draft, and with the comp picks, the Chiefs are well positioned to rebuild the back of their roster.
5. Cincinnati Bengals
Expected Draft Value: 39.9 points (Rank: 21st)
Actual Draft Value: 47.0 points (Rank: 13th)
Difference: 17.8 percent
The Bengals probably didn’t intend to play the game this smoothly, but they just made the entire concept of free agency look pretty stupid. Cincinnati let Michael Johnson and Anthony Collins leave in free agency last year, with both eventually coming to terms with the Buccaneers. They both failed to impress, and the Buccaneers were so aghast that they cut both Johnson and Collins after one lone season.
Cincinnati, which failed to adequately replace Johnson and struggled to get after the quarterback last season, was happy to reap the benefits. The Bengals signed Johnson to a four-year, $20 million deal, which will allow them to push pass-rusher Wallace Gilberry back into a situational role. They might very well sign Collins, who remains a free agent. Even better, the Bengals were still awarded third- and fourth-round compensatory picks for originally losing Johnson and Collins. We rarely describe the Bengals as a smart organization, but thanks to some dumb luck, they look pretty clever right now.
4. New England Patriots
Expected Draft Value: 33.9 points (Rank: 32nd)
Actual Draft Value: 42.3 points (Rank: 19th)
Difference: 24.8 percent
Nobody moves up, down, and around the draft board better than Belichick. New England doesn’t own any of its own picks after the fourth round, but it acquired the second pick in the fourth round (the 101th overall selection) from the Buccaneers in the Logan Mankins deal. That pick alone is worth 5.2 points, more than half of the draft capital improvements.
The Patriots also unsurprisingly came away with a key compensatory pick. As a result of losing Aqib Talib to the Broncos, the Patriots picked up the top comp pick available, the 97th overall pick. They replaced him with Darrelle Revis, who didn’t produce a compensatory pick for the Buccaneers because players who are cut, as Revis was last offseason, don’t qualify for free-agent compensation.
And hey, what do you know? They’re going to do it again. Patriots beat writer Doug Kyed pointed out to me that the Patriots structured the deals of their free-agents-to-be in a way that would qualify for draft pick compensation. Because the Patriots technically declined the options of Revis, Brandon Browner, and Vince Wilfork, all three should be eligible for draft pick compensation. Revis’s hefty deal with the Jets will likely qualify the Patriots for another third-round pick.
If the Patriots had structured those deals in a more traditional way, they would have had to release Browner and Wilfork (if not Revis as well), which would have prevented New England from claiming any compensation when those players signed elsewhere. Do you think that was a happy accident?
3. Baltimore Ravens
Expected Draft Value: 37.0 points (Rank: 26th)
Actual Draft Value: 46.5 points (Rank: 14th)
Difference: 25.7 percent
Who could have expected the Ravens to show up here? Like the Patriots, the Ravens have also traded away their post-fourth-round picks, but they made up for it by acquiring a sixth-rounder from the Cowboys2 and adding fourth- and fifth-rounders in the Ngata salary dump. And as usual, they’ll bring in three compensatory picks after losing Arthur Jones, Corey Graham, and Michael Oher last offseason. Next year, it will be Torrey Smith and Pernell McPhee generating meaningful comp picks for Baltimore.
Albeit in a Rolando McClain trade that looks pretty lopsided in the Cowboys’ favor one year later.
2. New Orleans Saints
Expected Draft Value: 46.2 points (Rank: 13rd)
Actual Draft Value: 62.1 points (Rank: Third)
Difference: 34.5 percent
Look back at what the Saints did this offseason and you can see how their plan formed. Sean Payton and Mickey Loomis presided over a wildly disappointing 2014 team that failed to live up to lofty expectations, primarily thanks to the league’s second-worst defense. Given that the Saints were more than $20 million over the salary cap, it was going to be virtually impossible to make wholesale changes.
That is, of course, unless they somehow found a way to acquire a bunch of low-cost, high-upside assets. Those are draft picks, and Loomis got a bunch of them. It cost the Saints a fourth-round pick and a trio of offensive starters in Jimmy Graham, Ben Grubbs, and Kenny Stills, but the Saints came away from their offseason trade spree with the 31st, 78th, and 154th picks in this year’s draft. Even after subtracting the fourth-rounder, those 17.5 points amount to the expected return of a mid-first-round pick. The Saints now have three of the first 50 picks and five of the first 80.
Of course, you can’t just write off trading a weapon like Graham as an easy call. Loomis is the same guy who gave Jairus Byrd an enormous deal and signed Champ Bailey to start at cornerback last offseason, and both of those moves turned out to be mistakes. But if you figure that a team with Payton and Brees can create playmakers on offense a lot more easily than it can on the other side of the football, repositioning its assets toward defense makes a lot of sense. And given that the Saints are all in with Brees over the next two seasons, if they want to make the same sort of defensive leap that led them to the Super Bowl in 2009, it’s going to come from young, cheap talent on defense.
1. Cleveland Browns
Expected Draft Value: 46.6 points (Rank: 12th)
Actual Draft Value: 66.0 points (Rank: First)
Difference: 41.7 percent
And then, most frustratingly, there are the Browns. Their swing in draft capital mostly amounts to those first- and fourth-round picks from the Bills, but does it mean anything? The Browns had two first-rounders in last year’s draft after ripping off the Colts in the Trent Richardson deal, but they turned those picks into Justin Gilbert and Johnny Manziel, who look like colossal failures after disastrous rookie seasons. What’s to say they won’t screw up their two first-rounders in this draft?
That is a real possibility, but it’s also not the point. The Browns may very well be horrific at drafting and/or developing talent. That’s a problem. If the Browns are awful judges of character and talent, the best thing for them isn’t to trade up or keep a high pick. It’s actually to trade down and try to accrue as many picks as possible, if only in the hopes that they’ll stumble onto a winner with the extra selections.
It’s important to separate what the Browns do in terms of valuing draft picks from what they do with the actual picks themselves. For whatever they’re doing when they actually make the picks, the Browns are clearly making smart moves in how they value and swing picks around the league. That’s a good process, even if it results in an ugly outcome.
(Here’s a chart with all 32 teams and how their draft value changed as a result of trades and compensatory picks.)