A Look at NFL compensatory selection awards

It’s time for the NFL to make improvements to the way it awards compensatory selections.

The NFL isn’t the only big sports league that employs this strategy; it’s a case of good idea, lousy execution. The MLB also gives teams extra draft money for players they lose to free agency or qualifying offers, and the league can take away draft money from teams that exceed the luxury tax thresholds.

The rationale behind these compensatory draft awards is that the league should provide greater draft capital to smaller market teams in order to maintain competitive balance as they might not have the resources or ability to sign players in free agency.

But in reality, the NFL operates differently, or at least that isn’t how things have played out recently.

The compensating formula has been effectively used by teams like the Los Angeles Rams in their team building. Leonard Floyd, Eric Weddle, Ndamukong Suh, Bobby Wagner, and other players with expiring contracts are just a few examples of how LA prefers to sign players who have been dismissed over those who reach free agency. The Rams are able to hire the best talent available thanks to owner Stan Kroenke’s huge riches and the allure of the Los Angeles market. As a result, the team now has an all-star roster and a Super Bowl ring for 2021.

The Rams take advantage of the system’s openly visible rules since it is unbiased and equally fair. Do the rules need to be altered if the formula frequently rewards major market teams with unlimited funds?

And the Rams are not the only ones; this is not meant to paint them as villains. Why do the compensatory draft picks seem to be continually given to the top teams in the NFL if the goal is to restore competitive balance?

Compensation Awards for 2022

based on 2021 free agency spending

The following teams were awarded multiple compensatory choices ahead of the 2022 NFL Draft, with the notation of their record in 2020.

Of the 31 total picks outlined above, a solid majority went to teams that won at least 8 games (18 or 58%). If you count the Chargers at 7-9, who also have the Los Angeles market to recruit top talent, the percentage jumps to 75%.

The Lions were awarded 3 compensatory selections for the 2021 draft, but where were the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Cincinnati Bengals, the Houston Texans, or the Minnesota Vikings? These are all smaller market teams that you’d expect the compensatory formula to benefit as a means of restoring competitive balance, but they are notably absent from the list.

2023 Compensatory Awards**

Based on free agency spending in 2022

The following teams are projected to earn multiple compensatory choices ahead of the 2023 NFL Draft, with the notation of their record in 2021.

Arizona Cardinals: 3rd round, 5th round, 6th round (3); 11-6

Dallas Cowboys: 4th round, 2 6th round (3); 12-5

New England Patriots: 3rd round, 6th round (2); 10-7

New York Giants: 5th round, 7th round (2); 4-13

Kansas City Chiefs: 2 6th round (2); 12-5

Las Vegas Raiders: 5th round, 2 7th round (3); 10-7

Los Angeles Rams: 2 5th round, 6th round, 7th round (4); 12-5

Minnesota Vikings: 2 6th round (2); 8-9

San Francisco 49ers: 5th round, 6th round, 7th round (3); 10-7

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 5th round, 7th round (2); 13-4

Washington Commanders: 3rd round, 6th round (2); 7-10

28 projected compensatory selections are listed above, with 24 picks (86%) slated to go to teams that won at least 8 games this past season.

What’s changed?

Savvy teams understand the benefit of gaming the compensatory selection formula, and for the most part these additional draft picks are being distributed to already well-run organizations.

While these draft choices are intended to level the playing field and restore competitive balance, in recent years they have only widened the gap between the have’s and have not’s. Teams like the Rams and Cowboys use their large markets and deep pockets to attract the best talent – and year in and year out they stretch the salary cap to its maximum constraints.

Meanwhile the organizations at the bottom of the barrel seem to stay there, and the Jaguars, Lions, and Texans are still swirling the drain.

Is the system fixable?

The NFL has awarded compensatory picks since 1994, though the idea of approaching free agency with the intention of maximizing future draft capital seems to be new. The disparity in outcomes is probably not enough to warrant ending the practice altogether, but changes need to be made in order to strike a balance.

Should the NFL begin accounting for a team’s win/loss record in the compensatory formula? The draft is mostly a crapshoot even for the most adept organizations, so why not give the worst teams more darts to throw?

One of the most exciting aspects of professional football is the parity that occurs year in and year out. Each season comes with a renewed sense of optimism, even for teams that had no shot at contention a year ago.

The way to grow the game is to ensure this parity continues to take place, and perhaps even throw gasoline on the fire. Giving the bad teams a nudge could help them turnaround their roster build quicker – and it would make the NFL more competitive overall.