The original idea behind compensatory picks was to help maintain parity in the NFL: The league has never wanted wealthy teams in big markets to be able to buy up all the top talent and leave the small-market teams struggling, so the compensatory pick formula gives additional picks to teams that have lost high-priced free agents to other teams.
But in the years since the NFL started awarding compensatory picks, they’ve actually helped the best teams stay on top. That’s never been more true than this year, when the two Super Bowl participants, the Patriots and Rams, were the only teams that received two third-round compensatory picks. Compensatory picks will help the best teams get better.
The NFL, with its salary cap and revenue sharing, doesn’t have the same issues with big-market teams out-bidding small-market teams that have been problems in other sports leagues. So compensatory picks don’t go to the have-nots as compensation for losing key players to the haves.
Instead, compensatory picks go to the teams that were already good, and had such an abundance of good players that some of them signed high-priced contracts elsewhere. Teams like the Patriots and Rams.
Also benefiting the best teams is the fact that their success gives job security to their decision makers, and a front office that is secure in its job is willing to play the long game and wait out free agency this year to get compensatory picks next year. On bad teams, the G.M. knows he’s on thin ice and might lose his job without a winning season, so he needs to sign free agents who can help this year, not wait for compensatory picks next year. It’s no coincidence that the Ravens, who had the league’s longest-tenured G.M. in Ozzie Newsome, are also the team that has acquired the most compensatory picks. Newsome knew he had job security, which made him feel comfortable building for the future with compensatory picks, which in turn perpetuated his job security.
So while compensatory picks were implemented for the sake of parity in theory, in practice they’ve had the opposite effect: Compensatory picks help the top teams stay on top.