The current iteration of the Patriots dynasty began on March 11, 2014. That day, the Denver Broncos signed away New England Pro Bowl cornerback Aqib Talib—an aggressive move by the Denver offensive juggernaut that had just beaten the Patriots in the AFC championship game. But the Patriots countered by signing cornerback Darrelle Revis, who had just been released by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, to a one-year, $12 million contract. Talib remained a Pro Bowler for Denver, but Revis was a first-team All-Pro in 2014, and the Patriots went on to beat the Seahawks in the Super Bowl. It was the first of three Super Bowls the Patriots have won in the past five years, marking perhaps the best stretch in NFL history.
Swapping a Pro Bowler for an all-time great paid obvious on-field dividends, but it also had a less obvious off-field benefit: By letting Talib walk and including a team option in Revis’s contract (one that the Patriots ultimately declined), the team was able to add two picks through the NFL’s compensatory system. Bill Belichick’s mastery of that process is one of the little-known advantages he’s used to prolong the longest dynasty the NFL has ever seen.
Officially, there are seven rounds in the NFL draft, the 2019 edition of which kicks off Thursday evening. In reality, there are eight. In addition to the picks that teams are allotted in each of the seven rounds, there are 32 additional picks sprinkled in between Round 3 and Round 7 for teams that lose key players in free agency and don’t sign someone of similar value. The Super Bowl–champion Patriots have the most picks in the 2019 draft—12 overall, including six in the top 101—in part because of the compensatory system, which gave them two third-rounders, a sixth-rounder, and a seventh-rounder this year.
A few teams, including the Ravens and the once free agent–averse Packers, understood how to work this system immediately after it was introduced, allowing players to leave while getting coveted picks back for them. The Patriots, however, were late to this process. Teams can get a maximum of four compensatory picks per draft, and from 2007 to 2014, the Patriots maxed out just once and added one third- and one fourth-rounder in that span. But from 2015 to 2019, they maxed out twice and added four third-rounders. NFL analyst Warren Sharp said in a March blog post that he calculated that the Patriots had added more value from compensatory picks than any other team in the league from 2015 to 2019. Measuring those draft picks with draft value points on Chase Stuart’s draft value chart, which quantifies draft picks to evaluate fair trades, the Patriots created roughly 28.5 points of value through compensatory picks from 2015 to 2019—equivalent to the no. 3 overall pick.
The compensatory-pick system is just the latest advantage Belichick has learned to exploit to stay ahead of the rest of the league. His strategy has shaped the Patriots’ approach to free agency and how it relates to the draft, and it all started with letting Talib go, signing Revis, and getting those two third-rounders.
Manufacturing Draft Picks
To understand how the Patriots use the system, it’s important to understand how compensatory picks work. They were introduced in 1994, one year after the NFL implemented its current free agency system, to preserve competitive balance by compensating teams who lost players in free agency but didn’t dip into the market themselves. The compensatory formula is a mix of the salary the player signs for, his playing time, and his postseason performance. The exact way the league calculates it isn’t known, but the code has mostly been cracked by salary-tracking website Over the Cap.
Here’s how the process goes in a vacuum:
2015 NFL draft: Team A drafts Player X
2015-2018: Player X plays for Team A
2019 free agency: Team B signs Player X in free agency
2020 NFL draft: Team A is awarded a compensatory draft pick
For example, the Eagles will likely get a third-round compensatory pick in 2020 because they lost Nick Foles to Jacksonville last month. He was paid on the higher end of the free-agent spectrum and will play quite a bit, barring injury, so he’s a good bet to deliver the top compensatory pick (no. 97 overall) to the Eagles.
But of course, nothing happens in a vacuum. Compensatory picks are about net losses, so if the league determines that Team A lost Player X in free agency but paid Player Y similar money in the same free-agency period, those players cancel each other out, and the team gets nothing. Over the Cap has a compensation-pick-cancelation chart that shows which signings cancel each other out. For example, the Chiefs lost right tackle Mitch Morse to Buffalo on a four-year, $44.5 million contract in free agency last month, putting them in line for a third-rounder. But they signed safety Tyrann Mathieu to a three-year, $42 million deal, which will likely cancel out the pick. Meanwhile, the Houston Texans lost Mathieu to the Chiefs and didn’t sign any players of similar significance, so they are in line for a third-rounder in 2020. It’s not an exact science, but Over the Cap gets it right most of the time.
Let’s return to the Patriots example with Talib and Revis. In 2013, the Patriots signed Talib to a one-year, $4.9 million contract. Talib earned a Pro Bowl nod, and when his contract was up, he signed a six-year, $57 million deal with the Broncos—one of the biggest contracts of the offseason. That made the Patriots eligible for a third-round compensatory pick. The day after Talib signed, the Buccaneers released cornerback Darrelle Revis, making him a free agent. New England signed Revis to a one-year, $12 million deal. Normally, the Revis addition would have canceled out losing Talib, and the Patriots wouldn’t have gotten a third-round pick as compensation. But there is a major loophole: Players who are released by their previous team don’t factor into the formula for compensatory picks. The following season, Talib made the Pro Bowl, but Revis was named a first-team All-Pro. Not only did the Patriots upgrade from a great cornerback to an elite one and win the Super Bowl in the process, but they also received a third-round pick for their hardships.
This sequence by itself would be an exceptional example of the Patriots winning on the margins, but the team didn’t stop there. The second year of Revis’s deal was a team option for $20 million. In 2015, that was upper-echelon quarterback money, and there was no chance the Patriots ever intended to pay Revis $20 million. What’s more likely is that the Pats threw the option in to take advantage of a massive loophole. While players who get released from their deals don’t count toward the compensatory-pick formula, players who have an option declined by the team do. So New England let Revis return to the New York Jets, and for doing so was awarded the no. 97 overall pick in the 2016 NFL draft—one year after securing the no. 97 pick for Talib’s departure.
Since then, other teams have tried to replicate the Patriots’ success in adding draft capital by voiding an option year. Unsurprisingly, the first team to notice was Denver. In 2016, the Broncos signed Russell Okung to what was reported as a five-year, $53 million contract, but that had just one year guaranteed. Okung, who negotiated without an agent, was off the team one year later when Denver declined to exercise the remaining four years and $48 million on his deal. Okung signed a deal with the Chargers, and the Broncos were awarded the 99th overall pick in the 2018 draft for a player they essentially cut.
While teams haven’t consistently replicated what New England and Denver did, the number of players who sign deals that are essentially a series of one-year agreements is increasing each season. Rather than offering a four-year contract that is unlikely to last that long anyway, teams designate those third and fourth seasons as “options,” according to Mike Ginnitti, managing editor of contract-tracking website Spotrac.
“All they have to do is in the contract language say they’re options, and they can decline those options, the salary cap is still spread out so they still get all the structure, but then because they technically didn’t release the player out of an active contract, they also get the compensatory pick,” Ginnitti said in an interview last month.
ESPN’s Adam Schefter said the NFL is a copycat league both on the field and in the front office. Schefter said he had never heard of teams inserting team options into contracts to preserve compensatory-pick flexibility until a couple of years ago, but now sees it on the rise.
“Some teams noticed and now it gets more and more spread,” Schefter said last month. “Just like the RPO in football, you saw one or two teams, and then all of a sudden everyone is using the RPO. Everyone catches on and does these things.”
A Well-Oiled Machine
The Patriots don’t build through the draft so much as they repair and replace. New England relentlessly seeks every small edge to do so—most famously by constantly trading down and accumulating more picks. The logic is simple: The draft is unpredictable, like throwing darts, so rather than bet on their dart-throwing accuracy, the Patriots prefer to throw a lot of darts. This has always been New England’s M.O., though the team couldn’t always apply that methodology to compensatory picks, which the league had historically barred from being traded. That changed in 2017, when the NFL began allowing teams to swap these extra picks. Now the Patriots can theoretically convert a player leaving in free agency into a third-round pick that can then be traded for multiple picks. It’s like that guy who started with a red paper clip and made 14 trades until he had a two-story farmhouse, but instead Bill Belichick is starting with a two-story farmhouse and trading until he has a million red paper clips.
In April 2015, New England used the third-rounder (no. 97 overall) that the team got for Aqib Talib to draft … defensive end Geneo Grissom, who had tackles and one quarterback hit in four seasons with the team. Whiff. But four picks later, with the no. 101 pick New England got from Tampa Bay in exchange for longtime guard Logan Mankins, the Patriots drafted defensive end Trey Flowers, who was the sixth-highest-graded defender by Pro Football Focus last year. The Patriots may have swung and missed on the compensatory selection, but without the extra pick at no. 97, they likely would’ve taken just Grissom and missed out on drafting Flowers. Throw enough darts, and you eventually hit a bull’s-eye.
Fast-forward to the 2018 offseason. The Patriots let left tackle Nate Solder hit free agency, and he signed with the Giants for what was then the largest deal in NFL history for an offensive tackle. That put the Patriots in position to acquire a 2019 compensatory third-round pick if they didn’t sign a big free agent. So rather than burn the pick by signing a tackle, the Patriots flipped a 2018 third-rounder (no. 95 overall) to San Francisco for Trent Brown and a fifth-rounder (no. 143 overall). Brown played well, and the Patriots won the Super Bowl. The tackle then signed an even bigger deal with Oakland than Solder signed in New York, putting New England in line for another third-round pick in 2020. The Patriots committed $11.2 million of their cap to Solder in 2017 and $1.9 million of their cap to Brown in 2018. To put that in perspective, Solder will cost the Giants $17 million in 2019 and Brown will cost the Raiders $15.3 million against the cap, while the player likely to step in at tackle in New England, 2018 first-rounder Isaiah Wynn, costs $2.6 million. So the Patriots paid two left tackles far less than their next teams did, let them walk when their contracts ran out, picked up two extra third-rounders, made two Super Bowls, and won one. Five years ago, Belichick might have traded Solder for a midround pick a year before his contract ended, as he did with Mankins. But thanks to compensatory selections, Belichick could keep Solder for the extra year, let him get paid by a rival, and get a pick anyway. Rather than pay for production in free agency, the Patriots are having the league pay them.
New England has done the same thing on defense. In 2018, free agent Malcolm Butler signed a large contract with the Titans as part of Tennessee’s quest to become the Appalachian Patriots. That netted New England a third-rounder in this year’s draft. In March, New England let Trey Flowers go to Detroit on a big contract, all but assuring New England another third-rounder in 2020 as long as it didn’t sign a big free agent this offseason.
Of course, the Patriots need to replace these players, and they’ve increasingly turned to pick-swap trades to do so. In acquiring Brown, the Patriots moved back 48 spots in the draft, going from no. 95 to no. 143. After the Patriots let Butler go, they responded by moving down 14 spots, from a sixth-rounder (no. 205) to a seventh-rounder (no. 219), to acquire cornerback Jason McCourty from Cleveland. He cost essentially nothing, as the Browns were planning to release McCourty. But by swapping the picks, the Patriots gave the Browns some slight value. And because McCourty didn’t fit into the comp-pick formula, the Patriots picked up a sixth-round compensatory pick for running back Dion Lewis this year. The same cycle is playing out this year. Instead of signing a defensive lineman who would count against next year’s comp picks to replace Flowers, the Patriots traded a 2020 fifth-rounder for defensive end Michael Bennett and a seventh-rounder.
Not only did the Patriots replace all of the players who left last offseason adequately enough to win the Super Bowl, but they are due all the picks from those players when the draft kicks off this week. New England has two compensatory third-rounders this year, no. 97 and no. 101—the same draft slots they used to draft Grissom and Flowers in 2015. In 2020, they are likely set for two more third-rounders with Brown and Flowers gone. If there were any questions about what the value of two third-round picks is, remember that Antonio Brown was just dealt for a third- and a fifth-rounder after the best six-year receiving stretch in NFL history. And if there were any doubts about sixth- or seventh-round picks returning value, look at McCourty, a former sixth-round pick acquired in a pick swap for no. 219 overall, who made the pivotal play of Super Bowl LIII.
But this isn’t all great from a player’s perspective. As Deadspin’s Dom Cosentino wrote this month, the increasing obsession with compensatory picks has made it tough for veterans who are facing a frozen market. While teams benefit from declining the option on a player rather than cutting them, players who have options declined would count against their next team’s comp-pick formula, making it harder for them to find a job. Teams don’t want to light a draft pick on fire in order to sign them. So productive veterans like defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and others could remain unsigned until May 7, when they won’t affect teams’ 2020 formula. It’s just the latest squeeze on the NFL’s middle class.
But from the team side, it’s become an easy way to add draft capital, and the Patriots have masterfully created a compensatory-pick conveyor belt. It used to be that New England traded away its stars before they peaked because it was better to lose a player too soon than to part with him too late. But now that the Patriots are getting picks for the players who are leaving in free agency, New England doesn’t have to choose between too soon or too late. When the Patriots let players go now, the timing is just right.