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How Cowboys Can Use 2017 Free Agency To Get Four Extra Draft Picks In 2018

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

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL began giving out compensatory draft picks in 1994, but for a long time, very few people outside the NFL offices understood how compensatory draft picks are awarded each year. Not even the NFL teams themselves had a clear understanding of how the process worked.

In 2010, Bengals president Mike Brown explained how it had taken the Bengals a while to figure out how the system worked.

"Over the whole history of compensatory choices, we went many years without any and being slow to figure things out. We finally did and in recent years we’ve been the recipient of them."

The Ravens appear to have been one of the few teams ahead of the curve in figuring out the comp pick formula, but they weren't interested in sharing their findings with the other teams, Ozzie Newsome told SI.com in 2014.

"Not to go into a whole lot of detail," says Newsome, the Ravens GM, "because I don’t care [to have] 31 other clubs understand how we go about getting compensatory picks."

But that was then, and this is now. Thanks in part to the enterprising work of blogger AdamJT13, whose work was picked up and spread by the likes of OverTheCap.com and others, we have a fairly good grasp of how the comp pick system works.

Today, 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 2016:

Top Six Bottom Six
Team Comp Picks Team Comp Picks
Ravens 47 Broncos
16
Cowboys 37 Jets
13
Packers 37 Texans
12
Patriots
33 Redskins
12
Rams 31 Saints
10
Steelers
31 Browns 9

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 a few years ago), restricted or exclusive rights free agents that were not tendered (Benson Mayowa last year), players whose contract value is below about $1 million per year, and players signed after May 9 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. And that starts with the 22 free agents the Cowboys have heading into the 2017 season (many other sites erroneously list only 21 free agents). Here's the full list:

Player Pos. Av. Contract value Type Player Pos. Av. Contract value Type
Brandon Carr CB $10,020,000 UFA Terrell McClain DT $1,016,667 UFA
Rolando McClain ILB $4,000,000 UFA Justin Durant ILB $965,000 UFA
Morris Claiborne CB $3,000,000 UFA Joshua Thomas CB $760,000 UFA
Ron Leary G $2,553,000 UFA Terrance Williams WR $724,243 UFA
Barry Church SS $2,206,750 UFA Kellen Moore QB $710,000 UFA
Mark Sanchez QB $2,000,000 UFA J.J. Wilcox FS $702,767 UFA
Andrew Gachkar OLB $1,750,000 UFA Ryan Davis DE $675,000 RFA
Darren McFadden RB $1,500,000 UFA Jonathan Cooper LG $600,000 UFA
Lance Dunbar RB $1,250,000 UFA Brice Butler WR $556,875 UFA
Jack Crawford DE $1,100,000 UFA David Irving DT $480,000 ERFA
Gavin Escobar TE $1,052,623 UFA Richard Ash DT $450,000 ERFA

22 free agents sounds like a lot, but again, not every free agent is a compensatory free agent.

Two players (David Irving, Richard Ash) are exclusive rights free agents and won't count as comp free agents. Ryan Davis is a restricted free agent, but because he was undrafted, a special provision applies: even if the Cowboys were to slap him with an original-round tender (which they won't), another team could sign Davis without giving up anything in return. Each of these players will either be re-signed or cut by the Cowboys, which means none of the three will count as a comp free agent.

Of the 19 unrestricted free agents left, I believe that five will not sign a contract anywhere for more than $1 million, so they are out as potential compensatory free agents: Rolando McClain (suspended for at least another year), Justin Durant (likely will retire if he doesn't hang on another year in Dallas), Jonathan Cooper (unless the Cowboys re-sign him, the Patriots, Browns, and Cowboys will have passed on him in one year), as well as Joshua Thomas and Kellen Moore.

That leaves 14 unrestricted free agents, and this is where it gets tricky, because now we need to make an assumption about who stays and who goes.

  • At corner, I think they'll re-sign Brandon Carr and let Claiborne walk. The team likes Carr, the leadership he brings, and the fact that he doesn't miss games. The days where Carr could command top-tier money are over, so the Cowboys would get a mid-priced veteran CB and let Claiborne hit free agency.
  • At safety, they'll have to choose between Barry Church and J.J Wilcox, especially with Kavon Frazier waiting in the wings and Jeff Heath signed to an extension last year. The rational choice here is to invest in the young guy and let the older guy walk. And while I'm not sure that's how the Cowboys will actually approach this, for this exercise I'm keeping Wilcox over Church.
  • At running back, I believe the Cowboys are going to let both Darren McFadden and Lance Dunbar test the free agency waters. That doesn't preclude the team from eventually re-signing them, but the front office will be looking for bargain deals from both to make that happen. If they can get more than they are currently making from another team, they're both gone.
  • At wide receiver, Terrance Williams is gone, and the Cowboys may try to re-sign Brice Butler.
  • On the defensive line, they'll try hard to re-sign Terrell McClain, even if I'm not so sure they'll want to match his asking price. Jack Crawford will be allowed to test free agency, just like last year, and may get re-signed eventually.
  • The remaining four free agents (Ronald Leary, Gavin Escobar, Mark Sanchez, Andrew Gachkar) will all leave.

The scenario above leaves us with a maximum of 10 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 this year's estimate by OverTheCap.com, this could be the annual contract value required or each round:

  • 3rd-round pick: $9.0 million or more
  • 4th-round pick: $6.0 million
  • 5th-round pick: $4.5 million
  • 6th-round pick: $3.0 million
  • 7th-round pick: $1.5 million

And now for the tricky: figuring out the value of the Cowboys' remaining 10 UFAs. For three players (Leary, Williams, and Church) Spotrac already provided an estimate of what their next contract could look like. Three more players (Claiborne, Dunbar, Sanchez) were playing on one-year deals, and I don't see why they should get significantly more this year than they did last year, so I'm sticking with their deals from 2016, though I'm downgrading Sanchez a little. For Jack Crawford, who was playing on a one-year deal also, started 11 games and notched 3.5 sacks, I see a pay raise coming. For the three remaining players (McFadden, Escobar, Gachkar), I stayed close to home and used last year's contracts for Alfred Morris, James Hanna, and Kyle Wilber as a template.

In all cases I'll freely admit that the contract values are nothing more than a stab in the dark, but if we go with the assumptions above, this what the value of each potential free agent could be:

Player POS Est. Annual Contract Comparable contract Potential Comp Pick
Ron Leary G 9.1 per Spotrac 3rd/4th
Terrance Williams WR 8.3 per Spotrac 4th
Barry Church SS 4.5 per Spotrac 5th/6th
Morris Claiborne CB 3.0 Morris Claiborne (DAL), 1 year, $3 million 6th
Jack Crawford DE 3.0 Nick Fairley (LA), 1 year1, $3.0 million
6th
Gavin Escobar TE 2.75 James Hanna (DAL), 3 years, $8.25 million 7th
Darren McFadden RB 1.75 Alfred Morris (DAL), 2 years, $3.5 million 7th
Mark Sanchez QB 1.75 Nick Foles, Matt Moore, Scott Tolzien 7th
Andrew Gachkar OLB 1.63 Kyle Wilber (DAL), 2 years, $3.25 million 7th
Lance Dunbar RB 1.25 Lance Dunbar (DAL), 1 year, $1.25 million 7th

Again, I could be way off on these contracts. Claiborne could get more than $3 million, Crawford could get less, and the Cowboys might choose to re-sign any of these players, which in principle, they would like to do.

Stephen Jones said he'd like to re-sign Carr, Claiborne, Church and Wilcox. He also said he'd like to bring back receivers Terrance Williams and Brice Butler, both of whom are also unrestricted free agents.

"All those are guys we'd like to sign," Stephen Jones said. "You got to make it all work. And sometimes as we all know, you don't get to sign them all back. That doesn't mean you don't try."

But even with those caveats, the comp pick shelf looks well-stocked for the Cowboys in 2018. In this scenario with 10 free agents, the Cowboys could now go out and sign six unrestricted free agents and still be left with four comp picks in the 2018 draft.

The challenge for the Cowboys front office now is to find a way to successfully navigate free agency while making sure they are left with quality comp picks, and not just the cheap, 7th-round kind. 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. QB Josh McCown is one such player, others like RB Adrian Peterson or CB Darelle Revis 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 for the Cowboys, as was Benson Mayowa last season.
  • Sign players to contracts of around $1 million or lower. The Cowboys did that last year with OG Joe Looney, and he didn't count as a compensatory free agent.
  • Wait until after May 9 to sign free agents. Because free agents signed after that date don’t count toward the determination of compensatory draft picks. Last year they signed Justin Durant in mid-July as a non-compensatory free agent.
  • Sign players after final roster cuts in September. The Cowboys had some success with these signings, getting Laurent Robinson in 2011, Brian Waters in 2013, and David Irving in 2015. None of them 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 up to four comp picks in 2018, and not the cheap kind. All they need is to be judicious in free agency. And it looks like they are preparing to be just that.