The time has come for the NFL to make changes to its compensatory selection award process.
It’s a matter of good idea, bad execution - and the NFL isn’t the only major sports league that follows this approach. The MLB also awards teams additional draft capital for losing players via free agency or qualifying offers, and the league can reduce draft capital for teams that spend in excess of the luxury tax limits.
The driving idea behind these compensatory draft awards is that smaller market teams may not have the cash or ability to attract players in free agency, and the league gives them additional draft capital in order to maintain competitive balance.
But in practice that’s not how it works in the NFL, or at least that’s not how things have shaken out in recent years.
Teams like the Los Angeles Rams have leveraged the compensatory formula in their team build, and wisely so. LA prioritizes signing players that have been released versus entering free agency with an expiring contract - Leonard Floyd, Eric Weddle, Ndamukong Suh, Bobby Wagner, and others are examples. With owner Stan Kroenke’s deep pockets and the draw of the Los Angeles market, the Rams are able to recruit the top talent available. The result has been a star-studded roster and a 2021 Super Bowl ring.
The rules of the system are in plain sight and the Rams use them to their advantage - it’s objective and completely fair. If the formula regularly rewards large market teams with cash to burn, do the rules then need changed?
And this is not meant to make the Rams out to be the bad guys - they are not alone. If the intent is to restore competitive balance within the NFL, why do the compensatory draft picks seem to be consistently awarded to the best teams?
2022 Compensatory Awards
Based on free agency spending in 2021
The following teams were awarded multiple compensatory choices ahead of the 2022 NFL Draft, with the notation of their record in 2020.
- Arizona Cardinals: 6th round, 2 7th round (3); 8-8 record
- Baltimore Ravens: 2 4th round (2); 11-5 record
- Dallas Cowboys: 2 5th round (2); 6-10 record
- Detroit Lions: 3rd round, 5th round, 6th round (3); 5-11 record
- Green Bay Packers: 4th round, 7th round (2); 13-3 record
- Indianapolis Colts: 5th round, 6th round (2); 11-5 record
- Kansas City Chiefs: 2 7th round (2); 14-2 record
- Los Angeles Chargers: 6th round, 4 7th round (5); 7-9 record
- Los Angeles Rams: 4th round, 4 6th round (5); 10-6 record
- San Francisco 49ers: 2 6th round, 7th round (3); 6-10 record
- Tennessee Titans: 4th round, 6th round (2); 11-5 record
Of the 31 total picks outlined above, a solid majority went to teams that won at least 8 games (18 or 58%). If you count the Chargers at 7-9, who also have the Los Angeles market to recruit top talent, the percentage jumps to 75%.
The Lions were awarded 3 compensatory selections for the 2021 draft, but where were the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Cincinnati Bengals, the Houston Texans, or the Minnesota Vikings? These are all smaller market teams that you’d expect the compensatory formula to benefit as a means of restoring competitive balance, but they are notably absent from the list.
2023 Compensatory Awards**
Based on free agency spending in 2022
**Projected via OverTheCap.com
The following teams are projected to earn multiple compensatory choices ahead of the 2023 NFL Draft, with the notation of their record in 2021.
- Arizona Cardinals: 3rd round, 5th round, 6th round (3); 11-6
- Dallas Cowboys: 4th round, 2 6th round (3); 12-5
- New England Patriots: 3rd round, 6th round (2); 10-7
- New York Giants: 5th round, 7th round (2); 4-13
- Kansas City Chiefs: 2 6th round (2); 12-5
- Las Vegas Raiders: 5th round, 2 7th round (3); 10-7
- Los Angeles Rams: 2 5th round, 6th round, 7th round (4); 12-5
- Minnesota Vikings: 2 6th round (2); 8-9
- San Francisco 49ers: 5th round, 6th round, 7th round (3); 10-7
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 5th round, 7th round (2); 13-4
- Washington Commanders: 3rd round, 6th round (2); 7-10
28 projected compensatory selections are listed above, with 24 picks (86%) slated to go to teams that won at least 8 games this past season.
Savvy teams understand the benefit of gaming the compensatory selection formula, and for the most part these additional draft picks are being distributed to already well-run organizations.
While these draft choices are intended to level the playing field and restore competitive balance, in recent years they have only widened the gap between the have’s and have not’s. Teams like the Rams and Cowboys use their large markets and deep pockets to attract the best talent - and year in and year out they stretch the salary cap to its maximum constraints.
Meanwhile the organizations at the bottom of the barrel seem to stay there, and the Jaguars, Lions, and Texans are still swirling the drain.
Is the system fixable?
The NFL has awarded compensatory picks since 1994, though the idea of approaching free agency with the intention of maximizing future draft capital seems to be new. The disparity in outcomes is probably not enough to warrant ending the practice altogether, but changes need to be made in order to strike a balance.
Should the NFL begin accounting for a team’s win/loss record in the compensatory formula? The draft is mostly a crapshoot even for the most adept organizations, so why not give the worst teams more darts to throw?
One of the most exciting aspects of professional football is the parity that occurs year in and year out. Each season comes with a renewed sense of optimism, even for teams that had no shot at contention a year ago.
The way to grow the game is to ensure this parity continues to take place, and perhaps even throw gasoline on the fire. Giving the bad teams a nudge could help them turnaround their roster build quicker - and it would make the NFL more competitive overall.