ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Beyond the big-ticket items like, say, managing the salary cap and finding players to power a championship team, few things give your average NFL decision-maker a dull ache between the eyebrows quite like trying to predict how many compensatory draft picks will be awarded to his team each year.
In short, they almost never get as many of the added picks as they think they deserve when the league crunches the numbers. Or as Denver Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway has said, “We always have a number in mind, and then you see if they agree with your number, but I’m not sure anybody really feels like they have it locked down."
But as the Broncos go through their offseason work in the coming weeks, including next week’s scouting combine, they could well be looking at receiving at least three compensatory picks this time around. And when the Broncos took their own swing at the math, that seems to be the total they’re working with as well.
“We’re going to have eight or nine picks in the draft next year," is how Elway put it last month.
Tracking their picks, it looks like, after a seventh-round pick was shipped to the New York Giants for Brandon McManus, the Broncos have six picks at the moment in the 2015 NFL draft -- one pick in the first (28th overall), second, third and sixth rounds to go with two fifth-round picks.
It’s important to remember compensatory picks awarded for the 2015 draft are a result of free agents lost, and signed, from the previous season. So, the Broncos' spending spree from a year ago has significant bearing on how things will go. But DeMarcus Ware was released by the Dallas Cowboys, much like Peyton Manning was released in 2012, and those players do not count in the compensatory math because the player wasn’t "lost" in free agency but rather forcibly sent into the market by his former team.
The NFL has always kept the compensatory equation behind the curtain, but in talking to many general managers and salary-cap experts from around the league, they say the biggest factors are the contracts signed by the free agents a team acquired, in terms of average dollars per year, compared to the contracts of those free agents a team lost.
Playing time also figures in heavily, as do postseason awards, etc.
Given all that, if the Broncos have six picks in the draft at the moment and Elway believes they will have "eight or nine" by the time the draft rolls around, he’s working off a template of at least two or three compensatory picks.
Because Ware’s contract isn’t in the math -- he was released by the Cowboys last March 11 -- cornerback Aqib Talib’s deal, at an average of $9.5 million per year, is the biggest acquisition in terms of compensatory comparisons. Wide receiver Eric Decker ($7.25 million per year average) and defensive back Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie ($7 million per year average) were the Broncos’ biggest losses.
In my simpleton compensatory math, wobbly at times to be sure, Rodgers-Cromartie played in one more game this past regular season than Talib did at the same position, but Talib made the Pro Bowl. Those two are largely a wash in the gain/loss of compensatory picks, or at least that profile has been a wash in previous seasons, with a slight lean toward Talib being a bigger gain than Rodgers-Cromartie was a loss.
Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, safety T.J. Ward and center Will Montgomery, all starters, would largely constitute the remainder of the "gains" in free agency. And when it comes to the Broncos' "losses" when the picks get awarded, Decker, guard Zane Beadles, running back Knowshon Moreno, defensive end Robert Ayers and defensive end Shaun Phillips will be the key contracts.
Especially Beadles’ ($6 million per year average) and Decker’s ($7.25 million per year) contracts because both were 16-game starters and both signed deals elsewhere that were larger, on average, than Ward’s ($5.625 million per year) and Sanders’ ($5 million per year) contracts. After those two, Ayers’ five-sack season for the Giants will likely help land the Broncos a compensatory pick as well -- he played 12 games -- while Phillips played 11 games for the Titans to go with five games for the Colts. Moreno played in three games for the Dolphins before elbow and knee (ACL) troubles ended his season.
I surveyed a smattering of folks in front offices around the league in recent weeks about what it all could mean for the Broncos when the extra picks are formally awarded in March. The highest number offered, after just a quick discussion, was four picks and the lowest was two.
In looking at similar lists over the years, I think it all looks like three compensatory picks for the Broncos, with the caveat being that I usually now subtract one as the sort of never-get-it-right penalty. So, three picks on just the numbers, two if tradition holds true that teams simply always get fewer than they think they deserve.