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How Dallas Cowboys Can Use 2015 Free Agency To Get Four Extra Draft Picks In 2016

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If the Cowboys play their cards right in free agency, they may secure some extra compensatory draft picks next year.

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

In June 2013 we wrote that the Cowboys could get up to four compensatory draft picks in the seventh round of the 2014 draft. In March 2014, the NFL announced that the Cowboys would get three compensatory draft picks in the seventh round of the 2014 draft.

In June 2014, we wrote that the Cowboys will not get any compensatory picks in the 2015 NFL draft, and fully expect the league to confirm exactly that when they announce the compensatory picks for the 2015 draft in March.

And that's not because I or anybody else on the BTB staff has any prophetic abilities, not at all. Instead, armed with a calculator and a very basic understanding of how compensatory picks are allocated, almost anybody can make an educated guess as to how many comp picks a team gets. And with that knowledge, it shouldn't really be too hard to figure out a way to improve your chances of getting a few comp picks.

In principle, compensatory draft picks are awarded to teams losing more or better compensatory free agents than they acquired, so you'd think that over time the give and take between teams would even out, but that's not the case. At all.

Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome likes to celebrate himself as "The Wizard Of Compensatory Picks," and while that may be a bit rich, his track record is not without merit. Here are the top six and bottom six teams in the league in terms of comp picks awarded between 1994 and 2014:

Top Six Bottom Six
Team Comp Picks Team Comp Picks
Ravens 41 Jets 13
Cowboys 33 Redskins 12
Packers 33 Saints 10
Eagles 30 Broncos 9
Titans/Oilers 30 Texans 9
Rams 30 Browns 6

Houston has only been in the league since 2002, so their numbers are not comparable to the other teams, and the Ravens also didn't exist until 1996, which makes their total even more impressive. Overall though it's clear that some teams are doing a much better job at securing comp picks than others.

The number of comp picks a team receives equals the net loss of compensatory free agents up to a maximum of four per team. Importantly, not every free agent lost or acquired automatically qualifies as a compensatory free agent.

Players who do not qualify as compensatory free agents: players who have been cut (i.e. DeMarcus Ware last year), restricted or exclusive rights free agents that were not tendered, players whose contract value is below about $1 million per year, and players signed after June 1 won’t impact the number of comp picks for their former or new team.

In layman's terms, this is how the allocation of comp picks works:

  • Comp picks are awarded to teams that have lost more compensatory free agents than they signed in the previous year, up to a maximum of four.
  • Each signed player cancels out a player lost. A player signed cancels out a player lost with either the same or next lower contract value. When there is no player lost with a lower contract, the player lost with the next higher contract is canceled out.
  • The round in which the comp pick is awarded is determined to a large degree by the contract value of the player lost, with some adjustments for playing time and postseason honors.

The first step in maximizing your chances at a comp pick is figuring out how many compensatory free agents you'll have. The Cowboys have 23 free agents this year, which sounds like a lot, but again, not every free agent is a compensatory free agent.

Three players (C. Lawrence, Leary, Weems) are exclusive rights free agents and won't count as comp free agents. Four more players (Beasley, Dunbar, C. Jones, S. Moore) are restricted free agents. Interestingly, they are all undrafted, so if the Cowboys slap them with an original-round tender, another team could sign them without giving up anything in return. I'm going to assume that's not going to happen, and that each one of theses RFAs is either signed or cut by the Cowboys, which means none of the four will count as a comp free agent.

Of the sixteen unrestricted free agents, I believe that five (Selvie, Hayden, Clutts, Anderson, Hills) will not sign a contract anywhere for more than $1 million, so they are out as potential compensatory free agents. That leaves 11 UFAs, and this is where it gets tricky, because now we need to make an assumption about who stays and who goes.

I'm going to assume that the Cowboys will re-sign Dez Bryant, Rolando McClain, Doug Free, and Justin Durant. I also think they are going to re-sign DeMarco Murray, but for the sake of this argument we'll assume the Cowboys don't re-sign him. That leaves us with a maximum of seven players who could potentially qualify as compensatory free agents. To understand the value each of these players represents in terms of comp picks, we need to estimate the value of the contract they are likely to sign as free agents.

Nobody knows what the exact cutoff points are in the annual value of a contract that determine which draft round a compensatory draft pick is awarded for. But going off of a table I put together in 2013, and combining it with an estimate by OverTheCap.com, this could be the annual contract value required or each round:

  • 3rd-round pick: $8 million or more
  • 4th-round pick: $5.5 million
  • 5th-round pick: $4.2 million
  • 6th-round pick: $2.5 million
  • 7th-round pick: $1 million

And now for the really tough part: figuring out the value of the Cowboys' remaining seven UFAs. I'll freely admit that the values below are nothing more than a stab in the dark, but what I tried to do was find a free agent contract from previous years that I felt fit the circumstances of each Cowboys UFA, and extrapolate an estimated annual contract value from there - as well as a corresponding compensatory pick.

Player POS Est. Annual Contract Comparable contract Potential Comp Pick
DeMarco Murray RB 7.6 Matt Forte (CHI '12), 4 years$, 30.4 million 4th
Bruce Carter ILB 4.0 Wesley Woodyard (TEN), 4 year, $16 million 6th
Jermey Parnell RT 2.75 M. Bernadeau (DAL) 4 years, $11 million 7th
Henry Melton DT 2.0 Jay Ratliff (CHI), 2 years, $4 million 7th
Anthony Spencer DE 2.0 Jeremy Mincey (DAL), 2 years, $4.5 million 7th
Dwayne Harris WR 1.2 C.J. Spillman (DAL), 1 year, $1.2 million 7th
CJ Spillman S 1.2 C.J. Spillman (DAL), 1 year, $1.2 million 7th

Again, I could be way off on these contracts. Murray could get more than $8 million per year and get the Cowboys a comp pick in the 3rd round. Carter and Parnell may be too optimistic and may not hit the $2.5 million threshold, reducing their value to that of a 7th-round comp pick. Somebody may pay a lot more for Melton and Spencer than what I estimated - or the Cowboys may re-sign both of them, just like they could every other player on this list.

But even with those caveats, it's clear that Murray is probably the only player who could command a mid-round pick, while all others probably will only generate a late-round pick.

In this scenario with seven compensatory free agents, the Cowboys could now go out and sign three unrestricted free agents and still be left with four comp picks in the 2016 draft.

The Cowboys could also decide to keep Murray, Melton, and Spencer or any other three players on the list above. If they do that, they are left with four compensatory free agents, and every one of their own free agent signings would eat away at their comp pick total. Here's how they can avoid that:

  • Sign a player who was cut for salary cap or other reasons, because if a player is cut, he doesn't count as a compensatory free agent. Larry Fitzgerald and Adrian Peterson headline a long list of veterans who'll likely end up as cap casualties this year.
  • Look for restricted free agents who weren't tendered by their team, as signing them won't count against your comp total. Terrell McClain was such a signing last year.
  • Sign players to contracts below $1 million. The Cowboys did that last year with Brandon Weeden and he doesn't count as a compensatory free agent.
  • Wait until after June 1 to sign free agents. Two years ago, the Cowboy signed George Selvie in late July.
  • Sign players after final roster cuts in September. The Cowboys had some success with these signings, getting Brian Waters in 2013 and Laurent Robinson in 2011. Neither counted as a compensatory free agent.

None of this is particularly sexy, and the Cowboys won't show up on any of the regular "Top Free Agency Winners" lists two days after free agency starts. Yet in free agency, as in almost all walks of life, a simple reality (best encapsulated by a quote attributed to legendary basketball coach John Wooden) holds true:

"Never mistake activity for achievement"

In the NFL, the draft is where depth is built. When you fail to draft sufficient depth, you must address this via free agency. When you draft successfully, you create a surplus of talent that will in turn further generate additional draft picks. Used well, those draft picks generate even more talent and even more depth, and before you know it you're on a virtuous cycle.

But that requires patience. Lots of patience. Patience that many GMs on short contracts may not have.

For the Cowboys, there's a good chance they can get a few comp picks in 2016. All they need is to be judicious in free agency and for the newly minted NFL Executive of the Year to sit still and be patient.

Can Jerry Jones do that?