Compensatory picks matter

Buried in the reams of copy that comprise the collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and its players -- Section 2 of Article XVI, in fact -- is a 195-word fat paragraph that has undeniably impacted the league over the past decade and a half.

No, not as much as the more ballyhooed sections governing free agency, franchise players, arbitration, players' rights on medical care, and guidelines for discipline, for sure. But the agreement covering the annual draft, and the number of choices to be permitted, permits the league to award compensatory selections. And although those extra picks (32 in the 2010 draft) haven't had a profound cumulative effect since first being doled out in 1994, they have been anything but incidental.

They may not have dramatically altered the course of NFL history, but they likely have made a difference in the careers, and the career paths, of some players.

"I don't know any [general manager or coach] who doesn't start figuring out in the spring how many compensatory picks his team is going to get," said San Francisco coach Mike Singletary last month. "You might not understand the formula the league uses, but you still try to count it. Those picks mean something."

Compensatory picks provide extra opportunities to add prospective players. And even in the upcoming season, with no salary cap, they are a chance to bring in younger (i.e. cheaper) labor.

The NFL has awarded 32 compensatory choices, distributed among 19 clubs, for the 2010 draft. As usual, all of the selections come after the conclusion of the third round, beginning with the 96th pick overall. In a '10 draft regarded as especially deep in the middle rounds, the additional choices, with New England receiving a league-high four of them, could be worth more than usual.

Not that they don't have some degree of value in most years.

"There are a lot of players in the league who got a chance with their [original] team because they were compensatory picks," said New Orleans wide receiver Marques Colston, a compensatory pick in the seventh round of the 2006 draft. "They might have been taken anyway, but those extra picks had some role in the decision."

Indeed, the compensatory choices not only keep a few prospects from dropping lower in the draft order, but allow some franchises an opportunity to gamble on players. For the most part, though, compensatory selections are taken seriously, and with good reason.

"On the roster, next to my name, it says, 'third round,'" said Pittsburgh wide receiver Hines Ward, originally chosen with a compensatory pick in 1998. "It doesn't say, 'third round, compensatory pick,' right? So it really doesn't matter."

It matters, however, to the clubs that receive compensatory choices. Even though the picks cannot, by rule, be traded, they make a difference. Fans may not realize the importance of the compensatory choices, but they have become increasingly significant.

Approximately four dozen one-time compensatory choices started four of more games in 2009. The roster of players who entered the NFL as compensatory choices includes quarterbacks Tom Brady of New England (sixth round, 2000) and Seattle's Matt Hasselbeck (Green Bay, sixth round 1998), and standouts such as Colts safety Antoine Bethea (sixth round, 2006), Seattle linebacker Leroy Hill (third round, 2005), Miami safety Yeremiah Bell (sixth round, 2003), and Chicago tailback Chester Taylor (Baltimore, sixth round in 2002).

Super Bowl XLIV included five starters who were once compensatory choices.

Compensatory selections were first granted by the league in 1994, and were essentially awarded to teams that had suffered net losses in free agency. The formula for awarding the picks, developed by the NFL management council, is Byzantine, to be sure. But there are clubs that devise at least part of their free-agency/draft approaches based on the compensatory selections they will receive.

A recent and well-conceived column on Drafthistory.com opined that compensatory picks, in part because they reduced the value of the choices below them, often went to the NFL's stronger teams, and thus hurt less-powerful franchises. That appears to be the case this season, with 26 of the 32 extra choices awarded to teams with nonlosing records for 2009, and a cumulative winning mark of .538 for all 19 compensated clubs.

But over the past five years, only 58.2 percent of compensatory picks (92 of 158) were awarded to teams with nonlosing records.

New England, which is a regular beneficiary of the rule and has received three or more compensatory picks in three of the past four drafts, currently has the most overall selections in 2010, with 12. Even though the Patriots' four extra picks cannot be dealt, the possession of the compensatory picks enters into the equation when coach Bill Belichick and the Patriots' personnel staff begin wheeling and dealing, moving up and down the draft board.

Said Belichick, succinctly, on the day the compensatory picks were awarded last month at the annual NFL meetings in Orlando, Fla.: "They matter."

Given the history of the compensatory choices, odds are that the 32 additional picks in the 2010 draft will matter as well.

Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.