Earlier this week, we had a discussion on compensatory picks. Compensatory picks are extra Draft picks the league awards for teams that lose prominent free agents. The league has a complicated formula to determine the selections, but it comes down to whether a team lost more than it gained in free agency.
The Jets are not going to get any compensatory picks in 2016. They added way more in free agency than they lost in 2015. That was necessary. Due to a long line of poor personnel decisions over many different years by two different general managers, the Jets had a dearth of talent on the roster. They had to add the best players possible to get this football team back into a competitive mode.
It will be interesting to see whether adding compensatory picks will factor into the Jets' team-building strategy in years to come. Many teams ignore the potential of compensatory picks. Others factor picks into their plans whether by design or coincidence. There are teams like Green Bay and Pittsburgh that like to build their respective rosters with almost entirely homegrown talent. That isn't a bad way to go. There is always a degree of risk adding players from another team. You have to import them into a new locker room, culture, and system that could differ from those from the team with which they had success. It better to mold a young player from the day he starts in the NFL. Naturally, these teams lose more than they gain in free agency. They develop quality players, but quality young players eventually require bigger contracts. In a salary cap league, it is impossible for a good team with many good players keep all of them. Some leave and in turn get replaced by the next wave of cheap, young, homegrown talent.
There are other teams that are less shy about importing talent. I'd like to take a look at two teams that have still used compensatory picks with their team building strategies, the Baltimore Ravens and the New England Patriots.
Having your cake and eating it too (Baltimore)
As discussed above, compensatory picks are based on whether a team loses more than it gains in free agency. This provides teams a certain incentive to avoid the free agent market. There is a bit of a loophole to this rule, however. Compensatory picks are only awarded for players who complete their contracts. Players who were released by their former teams do not count against a team in the formula when the league hands out compensatory picks.
During the 2014 offseason, the Ravens added Justin Forsett, Owen Daniels, and Steve Smith, Sr. in free agency. These additions made an appreciable impact in helping Baltimore get to the Divisional round. Baltimore also added three compensatory picks. They got value in free agency and added extra picks from the league.
A year earlier, Baltimore pounced on Elvis Dumervil after his contract fiasco forced the Broncos to release him. He has 26.5 sacks in two years with Baltimore. The Ravens were also in a bit of a bind that offseason at inside linebacker. Ray Lewis had retired. Dannell Ellerbe left in free agency. They signed Rolando McClain, but he retired before playing a snap. The Ravens patiently waited and snagged former Jaguar Daryl Smith in June, after the point where signings count in the compensatory pick formula. The Ravens ended up with the maximum of four compensatory picks again despite adding value.
Replenishing lost resources (Baltimore)
Trades in the NFL are rarely made where both teams are looking to upgrade something specific. In most cases, a team has decided to move on from a player and is simply looking to get something in return instead of letting the player go for nothing.
There are frequently good players available on the trade market available at low prices. Most late round picks do not pan out. Giving up one for a proven good player sounds like a win.
There is a cost. In a salary cap league, teams simply cannot afford to build their rosters around expensive players. It is important to have young, cheap talent filling roles. The Draft is the place to find such players. You only get one first round pick, one second rounder, and one third rounder per year, though. To find enough talent frequently requires finding value on the third day.
The later the Draft goes, the more of a lottery it becomes. This isn't to say late round picks are total luck. Player evaluation matters later in the Draft as much as it does anywhere. These are players every team has overlooked multiple times, though. A team either needs to find reasons the other teams were wrong or have a belief its coaching staff can improve a player. These projections are very hit and miss. It is somewhat like a lottery. The best way to find contributors is to have a lot of lottery picks.
If you really want a player, is a fourth round pick going to stand in the way? Probably not, but losing it does have a cost. Let's say a team needs to add one good player on the third day per year. Losing that fourth round pick means the team lost one of its four shots to do so. It was also the best shot. Now that team is down to three.
It becomes easier to part with a third day pick in a trade if extra picks are coming in. In 2006, Baltimore needed an upgrade at quarterback. They were coming off a 6-10 campaign quarterbacked by Kyle Boller and Anthony Wright. The Titans were ready to move on from Steve McNair after drafting Vince Young third overall. Baltimore sent a fourth round pick for McNair. McNair wasn't spectacular. He did provide a steady hand at the position and a big upgrade. The Ravens won their division in 2006. That fourth round pick is probably something the Ravens would have parted with anyway, but it helped that they added four compensatory selections, including a pair of additional fourth rounders.
In the years to come, Baltimore would replace the fourth round pick it traded for Lee Evans with fourth and fifth round compensatory picks. The fourth and fifth round picks for Eugene Monroe were replaced by a pair of fourth rounders and a fifth rounder as compensatory selections. The fifth rounder for Jeremy Zuttah was replaced by a fourth and a pair of fifths.
Now the Evans trade was a flop, but that was about player evaluation. The structural thinking was sound. It's easy to give up picks in a trade for veterans when the trading team knows there will be picks to replace it.
Trades pay for themselves (New England)
Over the past few years, the Patriots have used a technique similar to one utilized by the Oakland Athletics in Michael Lewis' book, Moneyball.
The A's were a small market team that could not afford big money free agents. There is no salary cap in baseball so teams that made more money could afford to take all of their good free agents. This put an emphasis on developing young, cheap talent.
If a player was in the last year of his contract, a team that was out of the playoff race would frequently look to trade that player to get something in return before that player left in free agency. A contending team would rent that player for a few months to a year hoping he would be the final piece of the puzzle.
The A's were good, but they would be the last team you would expect to make a rental trade like that. Too much of their strategy was tied up in developing young players to be trading them for rentals they surely would not be able to afford after a year.
Yet Oakland constantly made this type of move. They kept trading for veterans who they would lose in free agency. Was this short-sighted? It was actually part of their plan exploiting the rules to their advantage. At that time, teams in baseball got two early draft picks if they lost free agents. The A's figured they could get value for a year out of a good player. Then they could replace the prospects they lost in the trade with the draft picks they would get for losing the veteran player in free agency.
The Patriots have made a few trades that ultimately paid for themselves. Back in 2012, their secondary was in rough shape so they made an in season deal, sending a fourth round pick to Tampa Bay for Aqib Talib. Talib stuck with New England through the 2013 season when he signed with Denver. The Pats ended up getting a third round compensatory pick for him.
You might say they eventually lost Talib, but this is what happened in the big picture. That trade turned a fourth round pick into a third round pick. What did they sacrifice to make that happen? They had to accept Talib giving them excellent cornerback play for a year and a half and a stabilizing on their secondary.
In 2013, the Pats again worked a deal with Tampa Bay. They sent a seventh round pick and Jeff Demps for LeGarrette Blount. Demps had four touches from scrimmage in his time with the Bucs. Blount averaged 5 yards per carry on 153 attempts for New England in 2013 and a 166 yard, 4 touchdown postseason performance against the Colts. The Patriots let him go, and Blount factored into the compensatory pick formula. The Pats eventually got back that seventh round pick. So they got the pick back after getting a nice season out of a back.
The Pats gave up a sixth round pick to trade for Akeem Ayers this year. Over the Cap projects they will get a sixth rounder because Ayers signed elsewhere.
The rentals pay dividends (New England)
This past season, New England won a fourth Super Bowl. One of the biggest reasons was the secondary, in particular a cornerback corps bought during the previous offseason, Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner. Both were lost in free agency.
These were key pieces to a championship team. Revis in particular was the most important Patriot on defense given his quality of play and what he allowed in terms of scheme. This alone would make things worth it.
The Pats also look like they are going to see an additional reward. Over the Cap estimates that one year of Revis will net New England an additional third round pick in 2016. Browner will contribute to New England getting an additional sixth rounder by cancelling out one of their signings.
Compensatory picks aren't the reason the Pats signed these guys, but they provide a nice bonus. A year ago there was plenty of discussion about whether it was smart for the Jets to spend cap money they couldn't roll over on free agents. There is no need to rehash that. The results speak for themselves. Signing players on short term deals can have a positive impact for a team looking to "build through the draft." You don't just sign players for compensatory picks, but that certainly should be a factor in the thinking.
I'm not saying the Jets need to adopt all or even any of these strategies. I'm not even saying these determine a whole lot. You could get the maximum four compensatory picks, and that won't matter if the wrong guy is making the picks.
What I am saying is the NFL is a league structured to drive parity. The system looks to help the good teams get better and make the good teams worse. Every little advantage a team can give itself is worth utilizing.
This isn't about compensatory picks as much as it is about how little forward thinking I have seen from the Jets front offices in the past. The Jets have certainly had general managers who thought they had outsmarted the league by doing things like trading for the "unconventional" Tim Tebow, signing Dimitri Patterson to stabilize cornerback at a bargain price, and referring to trades as potential coups.
When the talent base gets higher, I am hoping this new regime can think outside the box in ways like this. These might be little advantages, but the little advantages add up. It is no accident that some of the most successful teams in the league find and exploit these subtle advantages.