clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

JLC and OTC agree: Comp Picks are slowing down free agency for mid-level veteran players

New, comments

In search of the Holy Grail of free agency... comp picks!

New York Giants v Washington Redskins Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Jason La Canfora

JLC doesn’t have the greatest record of accuracy at breaking rumors, but he’s not a complete idiot; he may have an itchy Twitter finger, but he can write good sports stories when he’s doing traditional journalism.

He wrote a pretty good one recently.

The NFL has gone comp pick crazy. It’s all the rage.

No longer the domain of the most forward-thinking or smartest organizations, teams are becoming increasingly obsessive about hoarding as many of the picks as possible. And now, in the dog days of free agency, with the big deals long ago signed and an abyss between now and the draft, veterans sitting on the open market are facing some bleak decisions.

Players who were cut by another team do not apply, and, once we reach a point two weeks after the draft, free agents signed beyond that do not count against a team’s equation, either.

Which explains the abyss even many veteran free agents – established starters, even – find themselves in now.

Let me put the fine point on what JLC is saying here. A problem has developed for quality players who are seen as second-tier free agents — guys who can add value to the roster, but who won’t be signed to big-dollar contracts. The problem is that, after the first wave of free agency passes (that is, about 6 - 10 days into the new league year), the focus of teams shifts to the second-priority players.

Increasingly, teams are prioritizing re-signing their own players or players cut from other teams, and there is increasing interest in mutually beneficial trades.

The reason, according to player’s agents that LaCanfora talked to, is that teams are paying more and more attention to the value of compensatory picks, and they are offering only vet minimum deals to the second tier players, who, in the past, would have commanded more money. The option — for the player and the relevant teams — is to wait until the deadline has passed for signing qualifying compensatory free agents, because after the deadline, there is no effect on comp picks.

”All anyone wants to offer now is a minimum-salary benefit deal,” said an agent representing one of the more prominent veterans still on the market. “It’s the same thing from every team – we don’t want to pay more now, and lose a comp pick.”

Another agent said: “The guy who is getting squeezed is the second-tier veteran player. The teams know how cheap the draft picks are, and they can use the comp pick formula for leverage, too, and they know it’s a gamble for the player to wait until after the draft when they don’t count against the formula, because that need might not still be there.”

A third agent said: “Comp picks have become a much bigger factor in free agency. Totally. I hear it much more now than ever before.”

No one is blaming the teams. The agents get it. Leverage is leverage and the rules are the rules.

This is a result of teams getting smarter, but it’s also an issue because the deadline for signing qualifying compensatory free agents is the second Tuesday after the draft, which, this year, is 7 May.

For a long time, the deadline was the 1st of June; it was changed just a couple of years ago. But there’s an argument that it should be changed again to a date before the draft — say, around April 1st.

Bottom line is the first wave of free agency is already basically wrapped up before the league year officially begins. And what used to be a third wave of free agency in June exists no longer, with teams able to declare certain releases as post-June 1 cuts for salary cap purposes. And the earning potential of that second wave is being further constricted by the rise of the comp pick, with seven rounds of the youngest, cheapest labor in the NFL only weeks from being selected.

If Jason La Canfora and the agents he talked to are right, then the current system, and the increasing value teams are putting on compensatory picks, are combining to put the squeeze on second-tier veteran free agents.

That obviously isn’t attractive from the point of view of affected players, but it’s also not ideal from the standpoint of the team front offices either. They would probably be happier if they could sign veteran players to plug holes and build depth ahead of the draft, putting themselves in position to focus more on selecting the best player available and less on drafting for need, without having to concern themselves with the loss of compensatory picks in the process. Right now, they have conflicting priorities in the weeks leading up to the draft.

OverTheCap

Nick Korte, at OverTheCap (OTC), read the JLC article and wondered if La Canfora was right in his assessment. Being numbers-guys, OTC did a quantitative analysis to assess whether the anecdotal evidence presented in the CBS Sports article was based in reality.

They made some interesting findings.

In the first metric, we can see that CFA signings are indeed down this year from their pace in the past two seasons. However, in 2015 and 2016 the pace was even slower than it is today in 2019, and that came before comp picks were tradeable, a cited aggravating factor in the slowdown of unrestricted free agency. But on the other hand, it’s instructive to look at the cancellation charts to see where those CFAs are signing. 52 of those 122 CFAs (42%) were signed by just seven teams: the Bills, Jets, Browns, Raiders, Lions, Saints and Cardinals.

This is where the next two columns come in handy as to see where evidence of a slowdown is really coming into play. A total of 15 teams, almost half the league, would either lose a comp pick or have one demoted if they signed a CFA as of now. Furthermore, 9 teams would lose more than a 7th rounder if they signed a CFA at this point. Among the biggest risks would be canceling out a 3rd rounder for the Ravens and Steelers, a 4th rounder for the Rams, Chargers and Eagles, and a 5th rounder for the Bears and Dolphins.

And in addition to those 15 teams, there are others like the Bengals, Chiefs, Cowboys and Bucs that are even on CFAs lost and gained. Those teams may want to hold off now in hopes that another team can sign some of their CFAs in order to open up higher level comp picks (3rd and 4th rounder for the Bucs, a 4th for the Chiefs, and a 5th for the Bengals and Cowboys). The Packers and Falcons are also potentially even in CFAs lost and gained as of now, too. So you could argue that there are 21 teams that have some interest in holding off of CFAs.

The first thing to notice is that OverTheCap, in their discussion of the results, ignored the potential 4th rounder that the Redskins have at risk. I’m not sure why, but I sent a Tweet to Nick Korte to ask him.

My own thought about that relates to my observation over the years that the writers at OTC, like many individuals and entities related indirectly to the NFL, simply don’t like the Redskins, either because of Dan Snyder or because of the name, and will either ignore the team or be passively critical of the Redskins. I’m used to it, but I still notice it.

Be that as it may, the more important thing to notice about the OTC analysis is that they agreed with the agents quoted in JLC’s article.

Nick Korte gave his analysis of what’s going on:

My own speculation on why things may be different this year is that more of the teams in the middle of valuing comp picks are becoming more mindful of obtaining them, thus creating a bit of a collective action problem. Teams like the Ravens, Patriots, and the former Ted Thompson Packers long prioritized them, but there were still a majority of teams that did not. This remained true even when a second wave of teams like the Steelers, Bengals, Broncos, Seahawks, 49ers and Rams joined their ranks. But now it may be the case where the majority and minority has flipped, especially when we seems like the Bears and Redskins who traditionally have not cared for comp picks show up on the list. That may be the tipping point that has been felt by NFL observers in this regard.

Wait a minute... there’s a Redskins reference. Maybe he doesn’t hate us after all.

Anyway, there seems to be compelling evidence that the phenomenon under discussion is real; agents have spoken out about it, and independent quantitative analysis backs up the claims.

This begs the question of whether we should care. Should the NFL take any action?

Nick Korte, a pretty smart guy, seems to think they should, and offers a number of options that the NFL could consider.

Suggestion 1

Significantly move up the deadline for unrestricted free agents to become compensatory free agents. This change has recent precedent when the NFL Management Council moved up the date from June 1 to the second Tuesday after the draft in 2015. The difference in time here helped to lessen front offices from having to execute transactions during the beginning of the dead part of the NFL offseason.

But when it comes to compensatory picks, most teams have decided long before early to mid May whether or not signing any given CFA is worth cancelling out a comp pick. This is reinforced with the fact that most of the high profile free agents agreeing in principle to contracts before free agency even officially started, and the remainder signing very soon after.

So a simple way to codify this reality is to move up this date closer to this time year. Something like April 1, two weeks after the start of the new league year, or even 10 days after would allow for a well defined second wave of free agency that could not only help such players sign contracts, but also keep NFL observers paying attention to important league news.

Personally, I like this suggestion. I think it should be adopted. The particular date of the new cutoff isn’t critical, but April 1st appeals to me as a good guideline. Otherwise, I’d probably say 21 days after the start of the new league year.

Suggestion 2

Raise the threshold needed for CFAs to qualify for the compensatory formula. As I understand the formula today, that threshold is for a CFA to be ranked within the top half of the league as a whole that has spent at least 10 weeks on a roster during the regular season, with that ranking based upon Average Per Year (APY) as the dominant factor, snap counts as secondary, and postseason honors as a very small factor. As it stands now, an APY of approximately $1 million is needed to qualify, unless that player logs a high level of snaps. That’s not too far above the minimum salary benefit amount of $895,000 for players with 4-6 accrued seasons, and players are naturally reluctant to have to settle for such a deal at this time of year.

If the Management Council raised the threshold to, say, the top third of the league, the APY needed to qualify this year would be something close to about $2.3 million APY. That’s just a shade above the lowest restricted free agent tender of $2.1 million. This would provide more negotiating room for mid to lower level UFAs to strike deals with teams that have comp picks on the line.

I am positively disposed towards this suggestion as well, and this isn’t an “either, or” choice. Both suggestions 1 & 2 can be implemented. While I would prioritize #1, I think this second idea has merit as well. It would have the effect of reducing the number of qualifying compensatory free agents each off-season.

For an example we can all relate to quickly and easily, if this adjustment to the Comp Pick system had been in place this off-season, then Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (who signed a veteran minimum contract of just over a million dollars for one season) would not count towards the comp pick calculation, and the Redskins would currently be expected to qualify for both a 4th and a 6th round pick instead of just the 4th.

Suggestion 3

Exempt 7th round CFAs signed from canceling out higher valued CFAs lost. This would be a pretty significant change from the very strict rule of the compensatory formula that a CFA signed must always cancel out a CFA lost, even if the difference in value is extreme. But it makes more sense on an intuitive level. For example, many Bucs fans and observers have felt perplexed that signing punter Bradley Pinion to a $2.75 million APY contract (valued in the 7th round) could end up costing Tampa Bay a 3rd round comp pick for losing Kwon Alexander to a monster $13.5 million APY contract.

In this change, teams could still be eligible to get 7th round comp picks for such CFAs that they lose. (Though it should be noted that these days, 7th round comp picks often miss the 32 pick limit, and in 2016 all 7th rounders missed that cut.) But now, teams could sign someone to a deal for up to around $3 million APY without risking losing a comp pick valued higher than a 7th rounder.

I’m more ambivalent about this idea. The net effect is roughly the same as the second suggestion, but it doesn’t seem as ‘neat’, and requires an actual system change, as opposed to merely modifying parameters, as Suggestions 1 & 2 require.

I’m not opposed to this idea — it would also have eliminated DRC from the Redskins comp pick calculation this off-season — I just don’t like it as much as Suggestion 2.

Suggestion 4

Make it more difficult to obtain 3rd and/or 4th round selections. As it stands now, the 2020 NFL Draft would award ten 3rd round comp picks and six 4th round comp picks, exactly half of the total amount. This comes close to the record set in 2017 of eleven 3rd round comp picks and six 4th round comp picks. In contrast, for 2020 there are only two 5th rounders and four 6th rounders on the comp pick board. It’s clear that teams are valuing the higher picks more, so perhaps some disincentive could be placed on those rounds.

I don’t like this suggestion at all. Basically, this is a simple de-valuation of comp picks.

For a lot of reasons that I don’t want to enumerate in this already-too-long article, I really like the current Comp Pick system, and I think the delicate balance of “getting it right” has already been struck. I don’t think that this sort of devaluation of the picks is the answer.

Suggestion 5

Abolish compensatory picks. This would of course be the most radical option. It would also be the most difficult, as it would require a change to Art. 6, §2(a) of the Collective Bargaining Agreement where comp picks are clearly spelled out. The owners and the union will likely have bigger priorities when the time to negotiate a new CBA comes around, and if so it may mean that comp picks are something that just lingers as part of the NFL. But if you’re part of the group that argues that compensatory picks do not accomplish their supposed goal of compensating teams that have lost talent in free agency, then it’s clear that abandoning them would end this incentive once and for all.

Just, no.

I would argue with all my passion against this. I don’t think Nick Korte is recommending it; I believe he’s just including it for completeness’ sake.

The Redskins’ and NFCE current comp pick situation

The Redskins currently appear to qualify for a 4th round pick in the 2020 draft, according to OverTheCap.

There’s a very real chance that Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, like Orlando Scandrick last year, will not make the team. If he is cut in the preseason, he would drop off the chart, and the Redskins would qualify for the 6th round pick that he is currently cancelling out.

In addition, my understanding of the system is that a player has to be under contract for at least ten games to qualify for the formula. If that’s right, then the Redskins could find it convenient to release DRC prior to week 10 in an effort to re-gain the potentially lost 6th rounder. It would be the equivalent of a mid-season trade.

Of course, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. There’s nothing to say that Ty Nsekhe or Ha Ha Clinton-Dix wouldn’t be cut at the end of pre-season or prior to Week 10. If either of them is released, and nothing else in the Redskins’ comp pick situation changed, then the 4th rounder that the Redskins currently expect for Jamison Crowder would disappear. Oops.

Eagles

With 3rd & 4th round picks on the line for Nick Foles and Golden Tate, Howie Roseman will take care to preserve those two picks. This week, he traded for Jordan Howard to bolster the Eagles’ running game, avoiding the need to sign a veteran running back, potentially conserving a 2020 pick.

Giants

The Giants’ third rounder in return for Landon Collins joining the Redskins on a 6-year contract looks secure. They appear to have three low-round picks, as well, any of which could be affected by a free agent move between now and 7 May.

I doubt whether the loss of a possible 7th round pick would stop Dave Gettleman from signing a player he felt he had to have, but at this point, I would expect him to sit on his hands until after the draft, and sign a player or two after the QCFA deadline if he needs the depth.

Cowboys

The Cowboys comp pick situation may be the most fluid in the division, as 4 of the qualifying players on the chart are low-dollar depth players who may not make the team — either the two players signed by Dallas, or the two players that left for other teams.

Dallas likely isn’t thinking too much about comp picks in their roster planning right now. They have huge fish to fry, both now and next year.

The immediate problem for the ‘Boys is Demarcus Lawrence, who was hit with the franchise tag for the second consecutive year. He is scheduled to make $20.5m this season, and doesn’t seem happy about it. Reports out of Dallas regarding long-term contract negotiations have not sounded positive.

As of right now, the Cowboys have a long list of key players facing free agency when the 2019 season comes to an end:

This is, in a sense, only the “tip of the iceberg”. According to OTC, the Cowboys currently are expected to have an incredible 38 players hit free agency at the end of this season, including those listed above.

By contrast, the Redskins have 31, the Giants 31, and the Eagles 28, and none of the three is facing as many huge FA decisions as the Cowboys are.