NFL Compensatory Draft Picks Hurt Parity—29 of 32 Extra Picks go to Teams with Winning Records

By Chris Malumphy

The NFL compensatory draft pick system continues to be a travesty, rewarding strong franchises while hindering the recovery of weaker teams and thwarting the hopes of many downtrodden fans who pray that their favorites can crawl out of the cellar and attain long term prosperity.

The league awarded 32 compensatory draft picks for the 2015 NFL Draft. Only three of those 32 picks went to teams with losing records in 2014, and two of those went to the Carolina Panthers who won their division and went to the playoffs after going 7-8-1 (.469). The only other team with a losing record to receive a compensatory pick was St. Louis who went 6-10 in the rugged NFC West and each of their divisional rivals received as many or more compensatory picks than did the Rams.

Compensatory draft picks are awarded in rounds three through seven to teams that lost more or better free agents than they signed the previous season. The concept behind the award of compensatory draft picks is simple but fatally flawed and and only exists due to the greed of NFL owners and their desire to keep player salaries down. Owners in every sport have hated free agency, but courts have ruled that teams cannot control players in perpetuity without violating antitrust laws absent freely negotiated contracts. Owners negotiated the compensatory draft pick system into Articles 6 and 10 of the Collective Bargaining Agreement with the NFL Players Association ostensibly to help minimize the negative effects on teams of losing players through free agency by providing them with extra draft choices.

A more cynical view, however, is that the compensatory draft pick system was proposed by the owners to reduce bidding wars by giving the player's current team with a rationale to avoid entering a bidding war to resign talent knowing that the team would likely obtain an additional draft selection in return for bowing out. Recent history shows that more and more teams take the approach of letting all but their most essential free agents move on regardless of whether the player is a fan favorite or not. It's an approach that is difficult to argue against even though it relegates players to the pile heap sooner than in the past and robs an increasing number of players, and their fans, of building lasting long term relationships. The fact of the matter is that a growing number of franchises now realize that letting high priced talent move on not only results in more operating room under the salary cap but also provides more draft picks and maneuverability to get the players they really want.

While compensatory picks cannot themselves be traded, they do provide the teams that are awarded them with more flexibility to trade other picks to get exactly the players they want on draft day. Teams awarded compensatory picks receive a choice that is better than any traditional pick that they had that comes thereafter thus placing them in a better position to grab the talent they intended, but also then enabling them to use that later traditional pick to target yet another player or use it in a trade to gain even more booty.

Former Eagles owner and later NFL Commissioner Bert Bell led the charge to create the NFL Draft in the league's early years to provide the weakest teams with the opportunity to obtain the best available players. Until it was surpassed by massive television contracts that fueled growth of professional football in other ways, the Draft was called the single greatest contributor the league's prosperity and was one of the hallmarks of Pete Rozelle's dream of providing competitive balance to keep the hopes of every fan of every team alive. The continuous award of compensatory draft picks to strong teams year after year undermines those hopes considerably.

In 2015, 14 teams will share 32 compensatory draft picks. At the end of the third round, compensatory draft selections have been awarded to New England (12-4-0), Kansas City (9-7) and Cincinnati (10-5-1). Not a losing team in a group that compiled an overall record of 31-16-1, .656 in 2014. So much for parity. In the fourth round, compensatory picks were awarded to San Francisco (8-8-0), Denver (12-4-0), Seattle (12-4-0), Cincinnati (10-5-1) again and Baltimore (10-6-0) with a cumulative record of 52-27-1, .656. In the fifth round, the Carolina Panthers (7-8-1) become the first team with a losing record in 2014 to receive a 2015 compensatory draft pick, but note that the Panthers only finished half a game below .500, won their division and made the playoffs. The Panthers also receive another compensatory pick later in the round. Joining the Panthers with compensatory picks in the fifth round are the Seattle Seahawks (12-4-0), Baltimore (also with two picks) (10-6-0), Kansas City Chiefs (also with 2 picks)(9-7-0) and Houston (9-7-0). The teams with compensatory picks in the fifth round had a cumulative record of 47-32-1, .587, if teams with two picks are counted only once. In the sixth round, Seattle (with two picks)(12-4-0), Green Bay (with two picks)(12-4-0), Houston (with two picks)(9-7-0), Pittsburgh (11-5-0), St. Louis (6-10-0) and Kansas City (9-7-0) finished 59-37-0, .615, with only St. Louis having a losing record. Teams with compensatory picks in the seventh round are: Denver (with three picks)(12-4-0), New England (12-4-0), San Francisco (8-8-0), Indianapolis (11-5-0) and Arizona (11-5-0), with an overall record of 54-26-0, .675.

Overall, the 14 teams receiving compensatory picks had a record of 140-82-2, .629, versus an overall record for the 18 teams without a compensatory pick of 115-173-0, .399. Consider the records of these 12 losing teams in 2014 without a 2015 compensatory pick to those who are receiving them: Tampa Bay (2-14-0), Tennessee (2-14-0), Jacksonville (3-13-0), Oakland (3-13-0), New York Jets (4-12-0), Washington (4-12-0), Chicago (5-11-0), Atlanta (6-10-0), New York Giants (6-10-0), Cleveland (7-9-0), Minnesota (7-9-0) and New Orleans (7-9-0). Parity be damned.

In fact, only six teams who played .500 ball or better in 2014 will not receive a compensatory pick in 2015: Buffalo (9-7-0), Dallas (12-4-0), Detroit (11-5-0), Miami (8-8-0), Philadelphia (10-6-0) and San Diego (9-7-0), whereas the only teams coming off losing records who will receive compensatory picks are the Panthers and the Rams.

Bert Bell and Pete Rozelle must be rolling over in their graves, and certainly fans following teams that are inept or just down on their lucks must be in shear agony knowing that teams with winning records are receiving the overwhelming benefit of the compensatory draft system.

Unbelievably, it is even worse than that. Among the teams receiving compensatory picks, the teams with the better records tend to receive a greater number of compensatory picks. Three teams will receive four compensatory picks in 2015: Denver (12-4-0), Kansas City (9-7-0) and Seattle (12-4-0) with a cumulative record of 33-15-0, .687. That tops the combined records of the teams with one, two or three picks by a wide margin. The teams with two compensatory picks also had a better combined record than teams receiving one pick. Only the teams with three picks fell out of line in that regard. The two teams with three compensatory picks are Baltimore (10-6-0) and Houston (9-7-0), with an overall record of 19-13, .594. Five teams received two compensatory picks: Carolina (7-8-1), Cincinnati (10-5-1), Green Bay (12-4-0), New England (12-4-0) and San Francisco (8-8-0), cumulatively 49-29-2, .625. Arizona (11-5-0), Indianapolis (11-5-0), Pittsburgh (11-5-0) and St. Louis (6-10-0) received one compensatory pick each and finished last season 39-25-0, .609. Once again, compare those figures to the 18 teams receiving no compensatory picks: 115-173-0, .399.

Does this really matter? The NFL owners are getting what they want. Teams aren't held ransom by their free agents. If Bill Belichick, Ozzie Newsome and other like-minded decision makers determine that their free agents aren't worth what they are asking, their teams don't need to worry much about losing those players, safe in the knowledge that they will be saving significant dollars under the salary cap while garnering extra picks in the draft. This is the NFL version of Michael Lewis' Moneyball at its finest.

But wait, compensatory picks are only awarded after rounds three through seven, so they can't be worth that much anyway, can they? And they are only awarded to teams that lost more players through free agency than they signed the prior year. So everything should balance out from one year to the next shouldn't it? Overall, you would expect the effects would be negligible. Well think again. Let's see what happened last year.

You'd expect that teams that lost more free agents than they signed and that only received late round draft picks in recompense would do appreciable worse the next year. It didn't work out that way in 2014.

Nine teams improved their records by two games or more from 2013 to 2014 with seven of those nine having received two or more compensatory picks last year. Houston improved its record by seven games and went from 2-14-0 in 2013 to 9-7-0 in 2014 after receiving three compensatory picks in 2014. The Cowboys with three compensatory picks and the Lions with two, each improved their records by four wins. The Packers improved by 3.5 games after receiving two compensatory picks. The Steelers improved by three games after receiving three compensatory picks. The Ravens and Falcons each had two more victories after receiving three and two compensatory picks, respectively.

Remember, those improved records were achieve AFTER those teams supposedly lost so much talent that they needed to be aided by the award of compensatory draft picks. Those added picks must surely have done a great job. Or perhaps the talent that was lost wasn't worth recompensing at all. Perhaps they were just sound business decisions that did not warrant any additional awards of assistance.

The only teams that improved by two or more games from 2013 to 2014 without the aid of a compensatory pick were the Browns and the Bills, who each gained three victories over the prior year.

Conversely, eight teams had records that were two or more games worse in 2014 than in 2013. Of those eight, only two had compensatory picks last year. The 49ers and the Jets were the only teams that had compensatory picks in 2014 that finished two or more games worse than the year before--and both those teams had coaching troubles that made their seasons go south early on. The 49ers knew they were in trouble before the season began when it became readily apparent the the front office and coach Jim Harbaugh did not see eye to eye. In New York, it was a wonder, and it became a serious blunder, when the team brought Rex Ryan back for another try. If not for those two teams, the worst change in the number of victories from 2013 to 2014 for any team with a compensatory draft pick was one with the Rams dropping from 7-9 to 6-10 after losing quarterback Sam Bradford to injury even before the season began and the Giants doing the same as coach Tom Coughlin and quarterback Eli Manning appear to have lost much of their magic.

Now I'll be the first to admit that there are many factors that cause team records to fluctuate from year to year. Young teams develop. Older teams regress. Injuries are always a factor. The influx of new talent through standard draft picks always helps. Coaching changes often bring positive effects just as records can go downhill when a front office or coach wears out their welcome. Nevertheless, it is unmistakable that teams that received compensatory draft picks in 2014 were much more likely to improve their records over the 2013 season than teams who did not. And there is the rub. If teams with better records receive the bulk of the compensatory draft picks and the teams that receive compensatory draft picks are more likely to improve their records than teams that do not, what is the point of awarding compensatory draft picks in the first place and what is the long-term effect on league parity and the draft itself which was once considered the greatest contributor to the league's prosperity.

There is yet even another manner in which compensatory draft picks harm bad teams. Under the current system, compensatory draft picks devalue each regular draft choice that comes after it. Consider for a moment how the originators of the draft intended it to work. The worst teams would get the top selections in each round of the draft. If compensatory draft picks were not awarded, the team with the worst record would expect to have the 1st, 33rd, 65th, 97th, 129th, 161st, 193rd picks in a draft of 224 players. But the compensatory draft picks awarded at the tale ends of rounds three through six now mean that barring trades and ties between teams, the worst team would still get the 1st, 33rd and 65th choices, but later picks would be moved back increasingly with the addition of each compensatory pick to the 100th (rather the 97th), 137th (versus 129th), 177th (instead of 161st) and 218th (not the 193rd). In fact, the worst teams seventh round pick is now moved 25 spots (nearly a full round of selections) past where it might otherwise have been. To place the importance of that fact into perspective, prior to the introduction to compensatory draft picks, the worst team in the league could have taken a Tom Brady (who was the 199th selection in his draft) with their first pick in the seventh round (193rd choice) with six draft picks to spare. This year, the worst team's first pick in the seventh round would be 19 choices too late to get Brady. Moreover, unless the worst team is in on the compensatory draft booty, other teams also gain an additional advantage, to the worst team's deficit, from the additional compensatory picks awarded at the end of seventh round.

Has all these caused teams to actually alter their strategy in terms of evaluating and signing their own free agents. It is hard to tell, but the Baltimore Ravens are said to have a pretty savvy front office and by my quick and dirty accounting they have had about 10 compensatory picks in the past 5 years and 19 in the past 10, compared to only one for the Redskins and Saints and two for the Bills, Vikings, Jaguars, Chargers and Dolphins. Does that help explain why teams like the Ravens have consistently good records while the records of other teams fluctuate widely.

Take a look at the data below. Think about it in terms of the benefits the Draft has provided the NFL and its fans throughout by attempting to maintain league parity. It's nice to see, and everyone can appreciate when, teams put together several good years in a row through great play, good coaching and sound front office practices. No one But it does no one any good when it becomes increasingly hard for fans of downtrodden teams to have hope for improvement when more successful teams are provided with unnecessary benefits that keep poor teams down longer than necessary. Throughout its history, the NFL Draft has been thought of as a great equalizer. That is increasingly becoming more ancient myth than current fact. The compensatory draft system needs to be fixed.

2015 NFL Compensatory Draft Picks
Third Round
Team Record Pick Player Value
New England Patriots12-4-0 (0.750)3397112.00
Kansas City Chiefs9-7-0 (0.563)3498108.00
Cincinnati Bengals10-5-1 (0.656)3599104.00
Fourth Round
Team Record Pick Player Value
San Francisco 49ers8-8-0 (0.500)3313240.00
Denver Broncos12-4-0 (0.750)3413339.50
Seattle Seahawks12-4-0 (0.750)3513439.00
Cincinnati Bengals10-5-1 (0.656)3613538.50
Baltimore Ravens10-6-0 (0.625)3713638.00
Fifth Round
Team Record Pick Player Value
Carolina Panthers7-8-1 (0.469)3316924.80
Seattle Seahawks12-4-0 (0.750)3417024.40
Baltimore Ravens10-6-0 (0.625)3517124.00
Kansas City Chiefs9-7-0 (0.563)3617223.60
Kansas City Chiefs9-7-0 (0.563)3717323.20
Carolina Panthers7-8-1 (0.469)3817422.80
Houston Texans9-7-0 (0.563)3917522.40
Baltimore Ravens10-6-0 (0.625)4017622.00
Sixth Round
Team Record Pick Player Value
Seattle Seahawks12-4-0 (0.750)332098.80
Green Bay Packers12-4-0 (0.750)342108.40
Houston Texans9-7-0 (0.563)352118.00
Pittsburgh Steelers11-5-0 (0.688)362127.60
Green Bay Packers12-4-0 (0.750)372137.20
Seattle Seahawks12-4-0 (0.750)382146.80
St. Louis Rams6-10-0 (0.375)392156.40
Houston Texans9-7-0 (0.563)402166.00
Kansas City Chiefs9-7-0 (0.563)412175.60
Seventh Round
Team Record Pick Player Value
Denver Broncos12-4-0 (0.750)332500.70
Denver Broncos12-4-0 (0.750)342510.65
Denver Broncos12-4-0 (0.750)352520.60
New England Patriots12-4-0 (0.750)362530.55
San Francisco 49ers8-8-0 (0.500)372540.50
Indianapolis Colts11-5-0 (0.688)382550.45
Arizona Cardinals11-5-0 (0.688)392560.40

2015 NFL Compensatory Draft Picks by Team
Team Record Compensatory
Round Pick Player Value
Arizona Cardinals11-5-0 (0.688)1739256.40
Baltimore Ravens10-6-0 (0.625)343713638.00
Carolina Panthers7-8-1 (0.469)253316924.80
Cincinnati Bengals10-5-1 (0.656)233599104.00
Denver Broncos12-4-0 (0.750)443413339.50
Green Bay Packers12-4-0 (0.750)26342108.40
Houston Texans9-7-0 (0.563)353817522.40
Indianapolis Colts11-5-0 (0.688)1738255.45
Kansas City Chiefs9-7-0 (0.563)433498108.00
New England Patriots12-4-0 (0.750)233397112.00
Pittsburgh Steelers11-5-0 (0.688)16362127.60
San Francisco 49ers8-8-0 (0.500)243313240.00
Seattle Seahawks12-4-0 (0.750)443513439.00
St. Louis Rams6-10-0 (0.375)16392156.40
2015 NFL Teams Without Compensatory Draft Picks
Team Record Compensatory
Round Pick Player Value
Atlanta Falcons6-10-0 (0.375)          
Buffalo Bills9-7-0 (0.563)          
Chicago Bears5-11-0 (0.313)          
Cleveland Browns7-9-0 (0.438)          
Dallas Cowboys12-4-0 (0.750)          
Detroit Lions11-5-0 (0.688)          
Jacksonville Jaguars3-13-0 (0.188)          
Miami Dolphins8-8-0 (0.500)          
Minnesota Vikings7-9-0 (0.438)          
New Orleans Saints7-9-0 (0.438)          
New York Giants6-10-0 (0.375)          
New York Jets4-12-0 (0.250)          
Oakland Raiders3-13-0 (0.188)          
Philadelphia Eagles10-6-0 (0.625)          
San Diego Chargers9-7-0 (0.563)          
Tampa Bay Buccaneers2-14-0 (0.125)          
Tennessee Titans2-14-0 (0.125)          
Washington Redskins4-12-0 (0.250)          

Cumulative Records of Teams with 2015 Compensatory Draft Picks
Total for Teams with
Compensatory Picks
Total for Teams without
Compensatory Picks

Effects of Compensatory Draft Picks
Bills61000.3750   9700.5633.00  
Browns41200.2500   7900.4383.00  
Vikings51010.3440   7900.4381.50  
Cardinals10600.6250   11500.6881.010.40
Redskins31300.1880   41200.2501.00  
Colts11500.6880   11500.6880.010.45
Eagles10600.6250   10600.6250.00  
Chargers9700.5630   9700.5630.00  
Dolphins8800.5000   8800.5000.00  
Broncos13300.8130   12400.750-1.0441.45
Seahawks13300.8130   12400.750-1.0479.00
Raiders41200.2500   31300.188-1.00  
Jaguars41200.2500   31300.188-1.00  
Chiefs11500.6880   9700.563-2.04160.40
Buccaneers41200.2500   21400.125-2.00  
Bears8800.5000   51100.313-3.00  
Saints11500.6880   7900.438-4.00  
Panthers12400.7500   7810.469-4.5247.60
Titans7900.4380   21400.125-5.00