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Why the Saints Fail at Acquiring Compensatory Draft Picks

Compensatory picks offer more compensation than the Saints realize, and organizations like the Patriots can serve as a model for the Saints’ front office to rethink their modus operandi.

Super Bowl LIII - MVP & Winning Coach Press Conference Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

The year is 2019 and once again, the Saints have failed to earn any compensatory picks. As fellow CSC writer Chris Dunnells pointed out, the Saints sadly sit at the very bottom of the league having earned only 10 compensatory picks since 1994. The Ravens have earned the most with 50. The Cowboys and Packers tie for second with 42, while the consistently dominant Patriots sit third with 39.

Every year, a couple weeks before the start of free agency, the NFL announces which teams will receive compensatory picks for that year’s draft. I knew they existed, but I really didn’t know what they were or how they were rewarded.

This video helps make the system a little easier to understand.

NFL Draft compensatory picks, explained

This trick is how the smartest NFL teams gain an extra edge in the draft.

Posted by SB Nation on Thursday, April 28, 2016

In fact, the actual methodology used for determining compensatory picks is a secret. We do know a few aspects of those determining factors, however. The NFL Management Council awards the picks, which have only been fully trade-able since 2017, to teams who lost more or better compensatory free agents than they acquired the previous season.

Only Unrestricted Free Agents whose contracts either expired or were voided count in the equation. The secret formula used to derive each UFA’s compensatory draft pick value is based on salary, playing time, and postseason honors. The comp picks fall between rounds three and seven and no team can earn more than four comp picks in one season.

If you don’t think comp picks are that valuable because they haven’t produced many stars, please give me a chance to show you how the Saints have been wasting a valuable opportunity to acquire draft capital that they could have been using to bolster their roster and better manage their salary cap.

Draft picks, in general, can be just as valuable as veterans simply because their contracts can be controlled for around five years before they are mandated a sizeable raise. In my opinion, the Saints actually won the Brandin Cooks trade because they upgraded from a fourth to a third round pick and were able to draft Ryan Ramczyk, who is a top rated tackle still playing on a rookie pay scale through 2021.

Third rounders, in particular, are extremely valuable because the quality of the player is still very high, but their rookie contract scale is much lower than a first or second rounder. Jimmy Graham, Brian Westbrook, Cliff Avril, T.Y. Hilton, Navarro Bowman, Frank Gore, Jason Witten, Russell Wilson, Steve Smith, and Alvin Kamara were all picked in the third round.

Jared Allen was a fourth rounder. Richard Sherman was a fifth rounder. Antonio Brown was a sixth rounder. Shannon Sharpe was a seventh rounder. You get the idea. The draft is one big lottery and the more tickets you have, the more chances you have to strike gold with a quality player.

That’s why successful organizations like the Patriots have been trading back in the draft for more picks, letting their unrestricted free agents leave, and choosing to spend their money on lower cost players that have been released by their previous organizations instead of splurging on their high priced free agents.

If the comp pick formula is actually a secret, Bill Belichick knows exactly how to employ it to his advantage; and this is where the Saints have failed in their roster management year after year as they employ a go for broke, Drew Brees is gonna die next year so let’s trade up in the draft and overspend in free agency strategy.

Last year, the Patriots said goodbye to four quality starters. If we just looked at their names, we may have thought Belichick was letting a lot of talent walk out of the building, but when we look at the draft picks the team acquired by letting these guys go, the move looks like a stroke of genius.

Nate Solder has been a shell of himself on the Giants yet raked in a third round comp pick for the Patriots. Malcolm Butler struggled in his new role as number one cornerback on the Titans and also netted a third round pick. Letting Dion Lewis walk brought back a sixth rounder and Cameron Fleming’s exit earned the franchise a seventh rounder.

Does Mickey Loomis understand that compensatory picks even exist? Doesn’t he realize there are multiple ways of acquiring talent outside of limiting draft picks by constantly trading up and overspending in free agency while letting their quality home grown draft picks leave the building only to get better outside of it?

When the Broncos traded for Brock Osweiler and his bloated contract, they also received a second round pick. They had no intention of keeping Osweiler. In essence, they paid Osweiler’s huge salary out of their enormous cap space to acquire the second round pick. It’s a beautiful example of a front office using its’ cap space as a way to acquire draft capital instead of using draft capital to acquire veteran talent.

But the Saints can’t do that because they never have cap space. In fact, they are routinely at the bottom of the league every year in available salary cap space. So every year they restructure contracts and kick the can down the road, or they cut players who were too expensive because the Saints overpaid them with no competitive incentive to do so. Some examples of such players off the top of my head are Jairus Byrd, Coby Fleener, and Kurt Coleman.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Patriots traded two of their best players Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins in consecutive seasons for second and third round picks respectively. With no plans to extend either player, Belichick acquired quality draft capital a year earlier by trading the players instead of trying to earn comp picks by letting them leave in free agency.

The Patriots also employ a smart tactic by including club-options as the final year in some players’ contracts. This allows the team to let the player leave in free agency, therefore netting them a comp pick instead of cutting them, which earns no pick at all.

I’m sorry I just went on a Patriots love fest. I promise I hate them just like you, but damnit, I envy their shrewdness and undeniable ability to consistently acquire draft capital, maintain higher than average salary cap space, and know when to let players go; even the really good ones.

Now that I know what the hell compensatory draft picks are, I can’t stop obsessing over how the Saints have consistently failed to operate within the system they share with 31 other franchises. Belichick can’t be the only general manager who’s figured this out.

Don’t forget that before the comp picks became trade-able in 2017, they were still capable of making lasting impacts on a team’s roster.

In 2000, Belichick used a compensatory sixth round pick on a quarterback out of Michigan named Tom Brady. In 2006, Loomis and the Saints selected a wide receiver out of Hofstra named Marques Colston with a compensatory seventh round pick. I think we all know how those two careers turned out.