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It's Going To Rain Compensatory Draft Picks For Dallas Cowboys In 2016 - And Not The Cheap Kind Either

If the Cowboys play their cards right in free agency this year, they'll likely get four extra draft picks in 2016.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Back in January of this year, I wrote an article titled "How the Cowboys can use 2015 free agency to get four extra draft picks in 2016." In that article, I spelled out how with a judicious approach to free agency and some patience, the Cowboys could get up to four compensatory draft picks. I also included a little table of players that I thought might leave in free agency.

Here's that original list of players, as well as the contract value I thought each would command as a free agent: DeMarco Murray ($7.6 million per year), Bruce Carter ($4.0 M), Jermey Parnell ($2.75 M), Henry Melton ($2.0 M), Anthony Spencer ($2.0 M), Dwayne Harris ($1.2 M), C.J. Spillman ($1.2 M).

So far, I was pretty close on the players, but criminally low on the contract values. I thought at the time that the Cowboys would retain DeMarco Murray (many did not and were picking Todd Gurley or Melvin Gordon for the Cowboys in every mock draft), but apart from that, the only truly unexpected departure so far has been Justin Durant.

At the time, the Cowboys had 23 free agents and it was perfectly clear to all outside observers that a large number of those free agents would not be re-signed. The recent lamentations across Cowboys Nation about the exodus of free agents from Dallas are, for the most part, nothing but an emotional reaction to the latest news; with proper reflection, what's happening now could have been seen from miles away.

But back to the compensatory draft picks that may be coming the Cowboys' way. In principle, compensatory draft picks are awarded to teams losing more or better compensatory free agents than they acquire. 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 (e.g. DeMarcus Ware last year), restricted or exclusive rights free agents that were not tendered (CB Sterling Moore), players whose contract value is below about $1 million per year (recently acquired LB Keith Rivers), 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.

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, this could be the annual contract value required or each round, though salary cap inflation may push the thresholds a bit higher next year:

  • 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

Using those thresholds, here's a look at what type of comp picks the Cowboys could expect for the UFAs they lost this week.

UFAs lost
Pos Player New Team Years Contract
Comp. pick
Comp. Pick
RB DeMarco Murray Eagles 5 $42 million $8.4 million Yes 3rd
RT Jermey Parnell Jaguars 5 $32 million $6.4 million Yes 4th
LB Bruce Carter Bucs 4 $17.1 million $4.3 million Yes 5th
DT Henry Melton Bucs 1 $3.75 million $3.75 million Yes 6th
LB Justin Durant Falcons 3 $10.8 million $3.6 million Yes 6th
WR Dwayne Harris Giants 5 $17.5 million $3.5 million Yes 6th
UFAs signed
Pos Player Old Team Years Contract
Comp. free
Comp. Pick
WR Dez Bryant Cowboys
1 $12.8 million $12.8 million No - -
OT Doug Free Cowboys 3 $15 million 5 million No - -
Tom Hornsey
Cowboys 2 $1 million $0.5 million No - -
LB Keith Rivers Bills 1 $0.825 million $0.825 million No - -
FB Jed Collins Lions 1
$0.745 million $0.745 million No - -

Keep in mind that every compensatory free agent signed cancels out a compensatory free agent lost. But so far, the Cowboys haven't signed any compensatory free agents, and have lost six of their own. So right now, the Cowboys would stand to receive four comp picks (the maximum), with a good chance of getting one pick each in rounds 3 through 6. However, the comp picks for Murray and Carter could end up a round lower, depending on where exactly the thresholds for each round will be in 2016.

Right now, the Cowboys could go out and sign two unrestricted free agents to contracts of up to $4 million dollars each per year and still be left with four high comp picks in the 2016 draft.

If they want to sign players beyond that, and still want to maintain four comp picks in 2014, here's how they can go about that:

  • Sign players who were cut for salary cap or other reasons, because if a player is cut, he doesn't count as a compensatory free agent. Tampa Bay DE Michael Johnson is the latest on a list of cap casualties that includes WR Percy Harvin, DT Randy Starks, RB Reggie Bush, RB Pierre Thomas and many others.
  • 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; Sterling Moore could be such a signing by another team this year.
  • Sign players to contracts below $1 million. The Cowboys already signed three guys to such contracts, and none them will 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.

Heading into free agency, the Cowboys had sixteen unrestricted free agents who could have qualified as compensatory free agents. I believe that five of those (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. Of the remaining 11 UFAs, Dez Bryant and Doug Free have re-signed with the Cowboys (and don't count against the Cowboys' comp pick total),  and six players have signed with other teams.

That leaves three UFAs: Rolando McClain, Anthony Spencer, and C.J. Spillman. Re-signing those three would not cut into the Cowboys' potential comp pick total for 2016, so that may be something the Cowboys will treat with heightened priority.

It's not sexy, and the Cowboys probably aren't going to win any awards for their free agency activities this year. But keep in mind that last year for example, NFL.comBleacher ReportSI.comSporting News, and Yahoo Sports all declared the Tampa Bay Buccaneers the winners of free agency after the team signed Michael Johnson, Anthony Collins, and Josh McCown among others. The Buccaneers promptly went on to win just two games the entire season, and all three players have since been released.

If the Cowboys play their cards right, they'll likely get four extra picks in 2016, which will help them do what successful teams do: build your roster through the draft and plug holes in free agency, not vice versa.

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