The NFLPA announced today that the arcane and mystical formula that spits out the compensatory pick numbers has awarded no picks to the Minnesota Vikings, as was to be expected. The Green Bay Packers were awarded a third-round pick and a fifth-round pick, while the Detroit Lions received two fourth-round picks.

These compensatory picks are given at the end of the rounds they are tagged as part of, which means the four third-round picks that were awarded (Pittsburgh, Green Bay, Baltimore and San Francisco) take place at the end of the third round and before the fourth round.

The formula is secret, but it’s not quite as mystical as all that.

Generally speaking, the picks are awarded based on the net flow of free agents: the players a team loses to free agency measured against the players added to the team in free agency. This doesn’t always mean “more” free agents are added than lost, because the quality of player matters, too. In fact, the formula takes into account, the salary, playing time and postseason honors of the total free agent net a team has

Losing Jasper Brinkley in the 2013 offseason did not compare to gaining Greg Jennings. Up to 32 compensatory picks are awarded every year, which means teams that qualify for a compensatory pick through the formula may not end up receiving one.

In the NFLPA document, there is an implication that every player who hit free agency is ranked at the end of the year due to these considerations (or in some way is given a value).

I don’t know what the formula is, but after looking at the compensatory gains and losses listed in each NFLPA document, I can guess that one of the processes that plays out is a ranked ordering where values are added and subtracted. It could be that the addition/subtraction process is not ordinal (top-ranked gain vs. top-ranked loss), but rather that players with the most similar value are put up against each other, which San Francisco’s 2013 offseason can demonstrate. The four marginal additions (Phil Dawson, Craig Dahl, Glenn Dorsey and Dan Skuta) eliminated the four marginal losses (Ted Ginn, Ricky Jean Francois, Isaac Sopoaga, Delanie Walker), leaving Dashon Goldson standing alone and giving them a high pick (end of the third round).

An alternate method that would make sense to me, but I don’t think is used, is an ordinal ranking. The top-ranked eligible player lost by any given team is (in my estimation) subtracted against the top-ranked player gained by that team, and a positive value means a compensatory pick (usually). Then the process continues down the line for each eligible player gained and lost.

Then, I imagine, because teams are limited to four compensatory picks at the max, residual positive value is first added to the highest-ranked negative values (say, if the second-ranked player lost was worth less than the second-ranked player gained, but the top-ranked player lost was worth more than the top-ranked player gained) continuously until either that second ranked value is near the original gross value (of the lost player) or they run out of eligible ranked players to add in to the rankings. After that, they add to the highest-ranked positive value.

This bit is more speculation than most, because I recall only one team losing five or more net free agents in the past three years: the Green Bay Packers, who lost Daryn Colledge, Korey Hall, Brandon Jackson, Cullen Jenkins and Jason Spitz to the market in 2012 while adding no new FAs. They gained two fourth-round picks and two seventh-round picks for their trouble.

After that, I assume the negative values are then subtracted against the highest-ranked remaining positive value. Alternatively, negative values are thrown out and teams are awarded picks based on their remaining positive value slots. I think the first idea is more likely because of the following observation:

To my knowledge, no teams have gained compensatory picks while netting a gain in the total number of players in free agency, though teams have earned compensatory picks when they have not suffered a net loss or gain in the total number of free agents (all very low-round picks). That is, a team that signs three players eligible for the formula, but loses two to other teams, does not gain picks. But a team that signs two players and loses two players can earn a compensatory pick (and to my knowledge has not earned more than one).

This has not come up for this year’s draft, because three teams suffered a net loss in free agents (the Chicago Bears, the Atlanta Falcons and the Cincinnati Bengals) but those losses ranked 33rd, 34th and 35th. The Oakland Raiders qualified without suffering a net loss (or, like I said, gain) but effectively ranked 36th and therefore was not awarded a compensatory pick, either.

In the case of the Packers, Greg Jennings saw ample playing time and a good contract from the Vikings, and Green Bay did not add any players in free agency (other than players who do not count, usually those given reserve/futures contracts, were on the practice squad or did not make the team. Players who declared for the draft that year and were signed afterwards as free agents also do not count). That means, the value lost on that free agent was very large, and was therefore worth the second-best compensatory pick (pick 98). Only the Steelers’ Mike Wallace ended up netting more (because Bruce Gradkowski was the only player lost).

Players cut by teams (like Letroy Guion), traded by teams (like Percy Harvin) or re-signed by teams (like Everson Griffen) do not count towards or against teams when it comes to compensatory free agents.

Another interesting quirk is that regardless of how well Jared Allen gets paid this offseason (or how much playing time he receives, or what his postseason honors are), the Vikings will not get more than a fifth-round pick in compensation. So, even if Allen plays every snap, gets paid $12,000,000 a year for five years and is awarded the league MVP after a 30-sack season with Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors, the Vikings would still only receive a fifth-round pick.

That is because the system is designed to protect teams from players leaving their rookie deals more than anything else. Players at the end of their second (or third) deals have a significantly smaller impact, unless that player was given their “second” deal as a restricted free agent (to a point, presumably). Specifically, the player’s age is a significant factor if they are entering their third (or sequentially later) deal.

Unless that player’s a quarterback.

Or if that player signs after June 1st.

It’s a complex formula, but it encourages teams to build through the draft, re-sign their players and keep their teams young. As if they didn’t need a reason to already.

While initially a mechanism designed to restore competitive equity for teams that lost free agents, it may actually be a system that enforces disparity. The teams most likely to spend on free agents are the ones who do not have adequate players on their roster, which means that teams that have ready replacements for free agents who will make serious money on the market will receive additional compensation. That is to say, teams that draft well are rewarded by getting more draft picks.

I am not a fan of this system.

Edit: As commenter Jordan points out, the fact that Jennings will net a third-rounder for Green Bay despite being 29 when signing his third contract while Jared Allen can only net a fifth-rounder if all things pan out for the Vikings (which is unlikely, given the free agents they have signed) as a 31-year-old signing his third contract reinforces the absurdity of the system. Presumably, there is a cut-off for 30-year-olds and the Packers squeaked by.

As commenter K0N points out, there is also the additional complexity of figuring in extensions vs. new contracts. Oh joy.

As an aside, there are two potential meanings to a specific player not being awarded more than a fifth-round pick. It could either provide generic validation to the concept of player-for-player pick accreditation and that the formula is caŕried out and a pick cap is applied, or it could mean that a players max value is capped at whatever the formula determines a fifth-round pick is worth. There is not really a way to prove it one way or the other.

This changes the Vikings picks, so that they now have the following picks: 8th (1.8), 40th (2.8), 72nd (3.8), 96th (3.32 from SEA), 108th (4.8), 148th (5.8), 184th (6.8) and 223rd (7.8). Green Bay ends up with these picks: 21st (1.21), 53rd (2.21), 85th (3.21), 98th (3.34), 121st (4.21), 161st (5.21), 176th (5.36th), 197th (6.21) and 236th (7.21). The Detroit Lions end up with these: 10th (1.10), 45th (2.13), 76th (3.12), 111th (4.11), 133rd (4.33), 136th (4.36), 189th (6.13), and 227th (7.12). They traded their fifth-round pick to Jacksonville for receiver Mike Thomas.

The Chicago Bears, like the Vikings, remain unchanged in the total amount of picks, but have their order changed in the later rounds as follows: 14th (1.14), 51st (2.19), 82nd (3.18), 117th (4.17), 156th (5.16), 183rd (6.7 from TB) and 191st (6.15). They traded their seventh-round pick to Dallas for tight end Dante Rosario and received Tampa Bay’s sixth-round pick for Gabe Carimi.

Green Bay earned a third-round selection because of Greg Jennings and a fifth-round selection because of Erik Walden. Detroit was awarded their fifth-round picks due to a net loss of two free agents. They lost Cliff Avril, Gosder Cherilus, Justin Durant, Drayton Florence and Sammie Lee Hill, while gaining Reggie Bush, Jason Jones and Glover Quin.

The last time the Vikings earned compensatory selections was in 2012, after losing Ray Edwards, Sidney Rice, Ben Leber and Tarvaris Jackson to free agency while gaining Charlie Johnson and Remi Ayodele. With those picks, they selected Rhett Ellison and Greg Childs. Compensatory picks may not be traded (a provision whose enforcement is suspect given the possibility of after-pick trades, but one that has not been violated by obvious loopholes as far as I can tell).


  1. Just curious.. was Jennings on his 1st or second contract when he didn’t re-sign with GB? I’m too lazy to look it up but isn’t he 29 or 30 yrs old? Seems crazy that packers get a 3rd rounder when we sign their 29 yr old, but we get a 5th round when (if) someone signs Jared Allen.

    • He signed his third contract with the Vikings at the age of 29. Jared Allen will likely sign his third (or fourth, depending on how the system counts one-year RFA contracts) at age 31.

      It’s a stupid, stupid, stupid system.

      • I really wish the NFL would just come out and admit that there is an age element involved instead of dancing around behind the 3rd/4th contract crap. I have believed for awhile they are worried about an age discrimination lawsuit and the admission of favoring younger players in the comp pick formula would give credence to that type of suit. It’s the only way I can justify the secret nature of how they determine these picks. I actually had emailed Florio about this at the trade deadline last season when they were reporting any team trading for Allen would need to give up a 3rd round pick. I said he was too old to get a 3rd rounder and was told none of his sources had heard anything about age playing into it. The next day there was a correcting entry stating Allen wouldn’t get the 3rd round pick and referenced the # of contracts as the reason.

    • Jennings received a 3 year extension to his rookie deal in 2009. I’m not sure how extensions factor into the equation for compensatory picks though. Also, If someone signs Allen, the max we could get for him would be a 5th round pick, however, we would need to have more of our own free agents sign with other teams, get good deals, and perform well. In all likelihood we won’t get anything for him because of the amount and quality of the free agents we have signed.

    • It has nothing to do with age. These picks come based on what you spent on free agents vs what someone else spends taking one of your free agents. We won’t be looking at much, just because of how much we had to invest this year.

  2. money, age and number of previous seem like silly inputs for the evaluation of a player. I think they ought to simply use playing time, performance and honors.

    • While I generaly agree with you (strongly), it is difficult to determine performance, especially for positions that don’t touch the ball, so I am OK with money as a determinant to replce that, especially because money is a good indicator of how people expected the player to perform after seeing him with that original team (which means it’s a good look at what THAT team lost instead of what another team gained); that’s important because players like Mike Wallace are a greater loss to their original team (the Steelers) than they were gains for their new team (the Dolphins), but were paid as if they continued their production from their old team.

      But age? Get that dumb crap out of here.

    • There was also a Cowboys blog that did a very good job of this for a few years a while back (not Blogging The Boys, though they do great work), too.

  3. We may get one if cook is valuable to SF and Toby in Jax. Linval and captain are young and more likely to be productive but can be cancelled by Kwill and JA. But even so, a 3rd rounder < a quality FA

  4. The ambiguity and subjectivity of the compensatory pick process should cause fans and the league to ditch the idea. If a team is unable to manage their cap or make their organization attractive to in-house free agents, should they be rewarded with a 3rd or 4th round pick?! Is the loss of an aging Greg Jennings by the pack really a detriment to the team in the long haul? Is the loss of an old Jared Allen (who had 1-2 years left of good football in him) really worth the compensatory pick the Vikings will get for him next year? Remember the opportunity cost of keeping such a player (8 mil or however much Jennings is getting and what Jared allen will get costs you the ability to go out and sign cheaper, younger players who may have a better playing days ahead). Ditch the compensation!

  5. regardless of compensatory picks–the vikings gm did a hell of a job getting 3 1st rounders last year. I was jealous of his screwd moves and i’m a packer fan. what green bay does is they sign players who are cut by their teams–this way they don’t count as a gain for the team when they calculate compensatory picks. Thompson simply won’t engage in the typical free agents–he waits ’till they are cut. a lot of teams are learning this method and getting good at it.

  6. @packbuck thank you. Too many people want our GM fired. I think he’s done a hell of a job and I’m excited to see what will happen with Zimmer and Turner bringing actual football knowledge to the coaches room

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