The Twitter-verse was quick to decide a winner in yesterday’s trade of linebacker Barkevious Mingo from the Browns to the Patriots, with the new potential outcomes for the former sixth overall pick ranging from Pro Bowler to Hall of Famer. Bill Belichick has certainly earned the benefit of the doubt when it comes to wringing out every last bit of talent from an unheralded player, but the New England head coach might be playing an entirely different game altogether: mastering the NFL’s compensatory pick system.
While the league has never disclosed the formula that it uses when calculating which clubs receive compensatory selections, the basics of the process are known. Essentially, comp picks are granted to teams that lose more compensatory players than they sign during the free agent period. Each club can receive a maximum of four comp selections, and while the specifics of the method aren’t made public, analysts such as Nick Korte of Over the Cap have reverse-engineered the exercise to reveal that average salary and play time are key factors.
The Patriots, among other teams, have taken advantage of this arrangement for years by staying out of the big-ticket free agent market. As Bill Barnwell of Grantland explained last January:
By [not signing expensive free agents] and having other teams target their free agents, the Patriots come in line for various compensatory picks from the NFL’s obtuse, black-box system. These picks aren’t tradable (ed. note: comp picks will be tradable beginning in 2017), and no team can receive anything higher than a third-rounder as part of the league’s system, but their value can add up over time. The Patriots have made 25 compensatory selections during Belichick’s time with the team, and the estimated value of those picks — based on their draft slot alone — is roughly between the value of having the first overall pick and the second overall pick. All for not signing free agents.
But Belichick and the rest of the New England front office have also been targeting another ripe area of the NFL’s structure: the trade market, and more specifically, the trade market for players nearing the end of their contracts. Mingo is the latest example, but over the past several years, the Patriots have looked to acquire players who were close to reaching the free agent market, presumably in the hopes that yet another compensatory pick might come their way.
In 2012, the Pats shipped a fourth-round pick to the Buccaneers for a (at the time) disappointing former first-rounder cornerback in Aqib Talib, who had earlier that year been suspended four games for violating the NFL’s PED policy. Given that they also received a seventh-round pick in the swap, the Patriots gave up roughly 3.7 points of approximate value in order to acquire Talib, according to Chase Stuart of Football Perspective’s draft value chart.
17 months later, Talib hit free agency and signed a hefty contract with the Broncos that averaged $9.5MM per season. New England, in turn, netted a third-round compensatory pick, which ended up being the 97th overall selection. That pick, per Stuart’s valuation, was worth 5.5 points of AV, meaning it was roughly 67% more valuable than the package the Patriots originally sent to Tampa Bay for Talib. Without even factoring in the 13 points of AV that Talib posted while in New England, the Pats were able to leverage the comp pick system to their benefit by simply exuding patience and fiscal restraint.
Belichick and the Patriots pulled another heist in October 2014, when they traded a sixth-round pick to the Titans in exchange for linebacker Akeem Ayers and a seventh-round pick. The difference in draft selections ended up being negligible (208 vs. 219), so the Pats only surrendered 0.3 points of AV in the deal. Ayers put up 3 points of AV down the stretch run in New England, and then signed a two-year pact with the Rams in the spring of 2015.
As such, the Patriots are currently projected to pick up the final 2017 compensatory pick, a sixth-rounder that will help defray the original cost of acquiring Ayers. So, at the end of the day, New England will have essentially gotten Ayers’ 2014 production for free. While it’s not quite the massive success that was that Talib trade, it’s a small move that added talent to New England roster at zero cost.
Not every trade with an eye towards a future compensatory pick has worked out for the Patriots. Less than a week after acquiring Ayers in 2014, New England dealt for fellow linebacker Jonathan Casillas, sending a fifth-round pick to the Bucs in exchange for Casillas and a sixth-rounder. While the deal itself was a win — the Pats sacrificed only 0.4 points of AV while Casillas posted 2 AV once coming to New England — the club didn’t reap a comp pick because Casillas’ new deal with the Giants wasn’t costly enough. It’s a similar story for defensive lineman Akiem Hicks, whom the Pats traded for last year — New England won’t get a comp selection thanks to the league’s complicated cancellation charts.
So, back to Mingo: clearly, the former LSU Tiger never lived up to his draft billing. He’s largely become a special teams player, and he’s posted only seven total sacks during his entire career, including none last season (although he did grade as Pro Football Focus’ No. 14 3-4 OLB in 2014). But Mingo wouldn’t have to do all that much to allow the Patriots to get a comp pick in 2018.
Next spring, for example, the last compensatory selection is expected to be awarded to the Steelers for losing Antwon Blake, who signed for less than $2MM annually with the Titans. Mingo wouldn’t have to be a superstar during the upcoming season to get $2MM on the open market. With his draft pedigree, Mingo would probably land a respectable deal if he shows any semblance of competence over the next few months.
Let’s take a look at the possible net gain (or loss) in AV for the Patriots based on a potential comp pick. I used mid-range values for the compensatory picks, and an early playoff pick for the 2017 fifth-rounder sent to Cleveland.
Obviously, it’s extremely unlikely that Mingo would net the Patriots a third-round comp pick; in 2017, those selections are projected to go to the clubs that lost Brock Osweiler, Olivier Vernon, Josh Norman, and others who crossed the $11MM annual salary barrier. It’s hard to imagine Mingo reaching that level even if he somehow posted a breakout campaign, but New England can still defray its cost in acquiring Mingo (and benefit from his 2016 production) if its able to leverage him into a mid-round compensatory pick.
Along with Belichick, Tom Brady‘s presence in the Patriots organization is the single largest contributor to the club’s run of success. But the little things — making smart draft-day swaps, capitalizing on the compensatory system by staying out of free agency, and acquiring players with an eye towards the comp selection process — have also played a significant role in New England’s triumphs over the past 15 years, and the rest of the NFL could stand to take a page out of the Patriots’ book.
Compensatory pick research by Nick Korte of Over the Cap was extremely helpful in the creation of this post. Photos courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.