Thinking About Compensatory Picks for the First Time in a Generation

| March 12th, 2019

Bears fans are in unfamiliar territory.

For the first time in a long time, they are in position to lose more than they gain in free agency. And it’ll be that way the next few years. This is a good thing, as it means the Bears have finally been drafting well and now have enough talent that they can’t afford to keep everybody.

With that in mind, it’s time to pay attention to compensatory draft picks, a confusing program the NFL runs to reward teams like the Bears that lose talented players in free agency. The general idea here is teams who lose more valuable free agents than they bring in get additional draft picks in the following draft. So the Bears could be looking at compensatory picks in 2020 based on what happens this month with Adrian Amos, Bryce Callahan, and Aaron Lynch.

The Bears haven’t had a compensatory pick since 2009 so it’s understandable if many Bears fans aren’t super familiar with how they work. The exact NFL formula for them is a secret, but some people have done really good work tracking them over the years and figuring the general process out. If you’re really interested, here’s the best detailed breakdown I could find, but for now I’m going to give a primer and go over the basics.

Where The Picks Are

For the very basics, let’s start with where compensatory picks fall in the draft. Nobody is getting an extra 1st round pick based on losing a valuable free agent, so don’t hold your breath there.

Instead, compensatory picks slot in at the end of each round starting with round 3. So rounds 3-7 will each have a few extra picks tacked on to the end, with 32 total compensatory picks awarded each year (thus each team has an average of 8 draft picks even though the draft is only 7 rounds). Getting extra picks is particularly valuable for those first few rounds, especially when you consider how well Pace has drafted in rounds 4 and 5.

What The Picks Are Based On

Again, the exact formula for compensatory picks is not publicly known, but people have mostly figured it out. There are several factors that seem to matter, but the most important one by far is the annual salary a player makes in the contract they signed. In 2018, here are the general salary ranges and how they corresponded to various compensatory picks.

  • Round 3: $11M/year +
  • Round 4: $8-10M/year
  • Round 5: $6-8M/year
  • Round 6: $4-5M/year
  • Round 7: $2-3M/year

It’s worth noting that these are only rough estimates, as player performance after signing the contract factors in a bit too.

It’s also worth noting that free agents you sign count against free agents you leave. So let’s say hypothetically that the Bears lose Aaron Lynch on a contract averaging $5M/year, but then sign Buster Skrine to a deal averaging the same $5M/year. They spent the same money they lost, so they don’t get a compensatory pick for Lynch. In a more concrete and less hypothetical scenario, Josh Bellamy would net the Bears a 7th round compensatory pick, but since they signed Mike Davis to a similar deal, those contracts cancel out.

Some Players Don’t Count

Now here’s where smart general managers can game the system. There are some players you can sign that won’t count against you in the compensatory pick formula. Most notably, that includes players who were cut and players who sign after June 1. (I’ll note this also applies to players you cut; you only get compensatory picks if they leave as free agents after their contracts expired.)

This is absolutely something Bears fans should hope Ryan Pace keeps in mind. If the Bears lose, say, Adrian Amos to a big contract in free agency, they should try to replace him with somebody who was cut (there are a host of options, including Johnathan Cyprien, Tashaun Gipson, and Darian Stewart) rather than a veteran who became a free agent organically if it is feasible. That way they will maximize their compensatory pick for Amos while still replacing him adequately.

It’s a new era for the Bears. Every free agency period for the last decade has meant significant investments in free agents, but now Bears fans should approach this time with a different mindset. The Bears aren’t going to be spending big to bring in outside players, so instead root for compensatory picks. That means hoping guys the Bears lose in free agency sign really big contracts elsewhere, and guys the Bears sign reached free agency through being cut by another team.

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