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How the NFL Draft’s compensatory picks work

October 19, 2019

The NFL Draft has seven rounds with each of
the 32 teams picking once. Except there are 256 total picks in the Draft, not 224 — that’s
a whole extra round of picks. What gives? Those extra selections are the compensatory
picks tacked on to the end of rounds 3 through 7. Basically, if an NFL team loses more players
in free agency than it signs, the league gives that team extra opportunities to replace those
players in the draft. Let’s take a look at how it works using
one of the teams that does it best, the New England Patriots. In 2015, the Patriots let five noteworthy
free agents sign with other teams while only signing one notable free agent. In the NFL’s compensatory formula, free
agents coming and going cancel each other out on a one-for-one basis, which means that
the Patriots were left with a four-player deficit, entitling them to four compensatory
picks in the following year’s Draft, the maximum any one team is allowed to receive. How does the NFL determine what rounds those
picks are in? The exact formula is a secret, but it depends mostly on how much money the
free agent’s new contract is worth and how much he plays the following season, with a
slight adjustment if he makes the Pro Bowl. In the Patriots’ case, Darrelle Revis signed
a huge contract with the Jets, then gave New York a Pro Bowl season, netting the Pats a
valuable third-round pick. Wilfork, Vereen, and Ayers all signed relatively
modest contracts with new teams, so they’ll become three extra sixth-round picks for New
England this spring. If a team is patient and develops talent well,
this is a sustainable model for success. Like any system, though, there are loopholes. For example, the Ravens — who have received
more compensatory picks than any other team despite arriving in Baltimore two years after
comp picks were introduced — have a habit of signing players who were cut by their previous
teams Because they were under contract with their
previous team, they aren’t *true* free agents by the NFL’s definition. So smart teams target players who were cut,
knowing it won’t affect their compensatory haul the following year. The more familiar you become with compensatory
picks, the more you can understand the moves made by the NFL’s most successful teams
— like the Patriots trading premiere pass rusher Chandler Jones to Arizona for just an offensive
lineman and a second round pick. While it’s hugely beneficial to the Cardinals
in the short-term, Bill Belichick and the Patriots have a longer view. Jones had one year remaining on his contract
and was unlikely to re-sign with the Pats — better to get a second-rounder for him
this year than a third-round comp pick in two years. Not surprisingly, the Pats replaced Jones by signing Chris Long, a talented defensive end who the Rams had
cut, thus not affecting the Patriots’ prospects for more compensatory picks. And so the cycle continues. It always does.


  • Reply kiano collie April 26, 2016 at 4:47 pm


  • Reply Turd Ferguson April 26, 2016 at 5:21 pm

    I had a basic understanding of this, but thanks for explaining it more in depth.

  • Reply Michael Underwood April 26, 2016 at 5:29 pm

    Thanks Matt!

  • Reply lukas cardoni April 26, 2016 at 6:54 pm

    Coming from a Vikings fan the patriots truly are a genius organization

  • Reply Matthew DeCoste April 27, 2016 at 4:04 am

    Awesome explanation! Really helpful.

  • Reply Jonathan B. David April 27, 2016 at 3:53 pm

    Very well explained by Matt

  • Reply Throbbin So Hard April 29, 2016 at 3:47 am

    my first time learning about compensatory picks, but they seem to disproportionately favor good teams. If you compare how much money and success a wide receiver for the browns and a wide receiver for the patriots will get in a free agent contract, the patriots player will probably get a better contract and thus a higher compensatory pick.

    the whole point of the draft is to give each team a more or less even playing field that favors teams that did badly the previous year with earlier picks.

    and the compensatory picks do the exact opposite by rewarding good teams with more and higher picks.

  • Reply Janis Andrew April 29, 2017 at 8:40 am

    if the compensatory picks are tacked onto rounds 3-7? how did we get a 2nd round pick from the Jones trade?

  • Reply 0hsnappl3s May 13, 2017 at 3:51 am

    Not even a Pats fan and I already knew they were a very well-run team, but after seeing this, their GM is just a boss

  • Reply jasonfire34 August 20, 2017 at 8:31 pm

    I think I speak for 31 fanbases when I say, I can't wait till Belichick retires.

  • Reply Hugo lopez October 12, 2017 at 5:30 am

    not even a patriots fan, but seeing how bill belichick works the system and makes smart moves, is so entertaining

  • Reply Nevertheless I Live November 25, 2017 at 5:59 am

    Belichick is Emperor Palpatine.

  • Reply Peter Madaffari February 24, 2018 at 7:30 am

    How does it work? The NFL hooks up who ever will make them the most money. Your welcome.

  • Reply Stokey Junior April 29, 2018 at 6:03 pm

    They need to put this in madden Franchise

  • Reply David Helmer September 25, 2018 at 7:15 am

    Once played an over time game 272-264

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