Patrick Semansky/AP
Patrick Semansky/AP

Cooking the NFL Draft with a Special Sauce

Since compensatory picks were instituted in 1994, the Baltimore Ravens have received a leauge-high 41. No matter how many good players walk in free agency, this is where general manager Ozzie Newsome is willing to gamble

By
Jenny Vrentas
· More from Jenny·

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — At this time of year, there are two things that Ozzie Newsome can never get enough of: Cornerbacks, and draft picks.

The latter isn’t just a wish. It’s an organizational philosophy of the Baltimore Ravens, requiring a conscious choice to exercise restraint during the annual free agency gold rush. Since the NFL instituted compensatory picks in 1994 to pay teams back for losses in free agency, the Ravens have been awarded 41—the most in the league. The team, by the way, didn’t exist until 1996.  

“Not to go into a whole lot of detail,” says Newsome, the Ravens GM, “because I don’t care [to have] 31 other clubs understand how we go about getting compensatory picks.” 

The team has a proprietary formula—a “special sauce,” assistant GM Eric DeCosta calls it—that factors in potential compensatory picks to the free agency cost-benefit analysis. The length of a draft pick’s contract, his salary compared to a veteran, are among the variables that count. Consider that DeCosta says the Ravens “base our offseason on acquiring as many draft picks as we can.” He didn’t say they base their draft on acquiring as many picks as they can, he said they base their offseason on doing so. 

In this year’s draft, the Ravens will pick four extra times as a result of net losses in 2013 free agency: a third-rounder (No. 99), two fourth-rounders (Nos. 134, 138) and a fifth-rounder (No. 175). The league has its own complex formula for awarding these picks—salary, playing time and postseason honors are factors, and not every free agent lost or gained counts—but each team basically receives one compensatory pick for each net loss in free agency, up to a maximum of four. 

You don’t have to know the specifics of the Ravens’ formula to realize they came out ahead in this calculation. Three of their four compensatory picks this year were awarded for players the Ravens didn’t have an intention of re-signing last spring, at the least not at the prices they fetched elsewhere: Dannell Ellerbe, Paul Kruger and Ed Reed. The fourth was for Cary Williams, and while the Ravens would have liked to keep him—Newsome can never have too many cornerbacks—they were able to move forward with a pair of above-average starters at the position, Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith.

“We take some stress,” GM Ozzie Newsome says of free agency. “We lose a lot of good players, but we maintain the patience.”

Knowing these compensatory picks were coming allowed the Ravens, in turn, to be active in the trade market. Compensatory picks can’t be traded, but they gave Newsome a cushion to offer standard 2014 draft picks in exchange for key roster additions: Fourth and fifth-round picks for starting left tackle Eugene Monroe last fall, and a sixth-rounder for probable starting center Jeremy Zuttah in March. 

“We take some stress—a lot of stress—during free agency,” Newsome says. “There are a lot of good players that sign with other teams, and we lose a lot of good players, but we maintain the patience. And we’ll try to sort through other areas to get players.”

This offseason, on the rebound from their first postseason whiff in six years, the Ravens again stuck to the blueprint. They re-signed some of their own core players (Monroe, LB Daryl Smith, TE Dennis Pitta and WR Jacoby Jones) but also let several walk (DE Arthur Jones, RT Michael Oher and CB Corey Graham). They added receiver Steve Smith and tight end Owen Daniels, but since both players had been cut by their previous teams, they don’t count in the league’s compensatory picks formula. Nor do players signed after June 1, which helped the Ravens last year, when they filled a void at inside linebacker by signing Daryl Smith on June 5.

The team explored other areas of need in free agency, such as running back, where depth was lacking even before the assault charge against Ray Rice that could result in his being disciplined by the league. Newsome said the Ravens were “in on some backs,” but haven’t been able to get one yet, which means the price wasn’t right. They can address this and other thin spots on their roster—tackle, safety and cornerback—with their eight picks next week, including No. 17 overall. Since the four comp picks aren’t tradeable, they likely won’t move up in the first round, but Newsome said he’s already fielded some calls from teams looking to trade up into Baltimore’s slot.

    GM Ozzie Newsome (l.) and Ravens coach John Harbaugh bracket Ravens tackle Eugene Monroe as he talks about his new five-year contract on March 12. (Patrick Semansky/AP)
GM Ozzie Newsome (l.) and coach John Harbaugh bracket Ravens tackle Eugene Monroe as he talks about his new five-year contract on March 12. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

 The premium the Ravens place on compensatory draft picks doesn’t mean they always hit on them, in the way they did with Tony Pashos or Le’Ron McClain, comp picks in the 2000s who became full-time starters. The range in which compensatory picks are awarded, the third through seventh rounds, is a crapshoot. Of the eight compensatory picks the Ravens have made since 2011, six are still on the team and two are currently in line for key roles next season: Rick Wagner (fifth round, 2013) at right tackle, and Chykie Brown (fifth round, 2011) at nickel cornerback.

The idea behind amassing picks, and especially compensatory picks, is to improve the odds. The Ravens didn’t necessarily have the same philosophy in the late 1990s, DeCosta says, but it has developed over time and been influenced by studying teams around the league.

“We look at the draft as, in some respects, a luck-driven process. The more picks you have, the more chances you have to get a good player,” DeCosta says. “When we look at teams that draft well, it’s not necessarily that they’re drafting better than anybody else, it seems to be that they have more picks. There’s definitely a correlation between the amount of picks and drafting good players.”

The Packers, also known for building through the draft, have had the second-most compensatory picks since 1994, tied with Dallas at 33. Jets general manager John Idzik, since his hiring in 2013, seems to be instilling a similar philosophy in his organization. He also earned the maximum four compensatory picks for the 2014 draft, giving his team 12 total picks to work with—the fruits of his deliberate hand in free agency. The compensatory draft pick system, Idzik says, “is always in your mind.”  

Next week, the Ravens will work the odds as they try to stud their roster with quality young players. And here’s betting that at least one pick will be a cornerback.

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15 comments
SnarlyYow
SnarlyYow

There's certainly some truth in that the Ravens have not drafted as well the last few years as they did in the 2000s. That's undeniable. But the Ravens always drew value from deep within the draft. Yes, the Ray Lewis' and Terrell Suggs' were stalwarts of the team. But it's always been the Will Demps' and Adalius Thomas' that have set the Ravens above everyone else. Any idiot can draft talent in the first two rounds, the reason you don't pay just any idiot is because you need someone to point out obscure sixth rounders that turn into starters. Ozzie's Formula is all about getting those late rounders, cheap guys that can start today so you can pay other guys you need to pay. The Ravens' record speaks for itself, just like Green Bay and Pittsburgh and the Giants.

jack1970
jack1970

In last 5 drafts Ravens have netted zero pro bowlers. There are plenty of teams that have drafted much better than Ravens in past 5 years. That poor drafting record will catch up to them once Flacco's contract truly kicks in and affording FAs to replace bad picks wont be so easy. This draft is a big one for Ravens. They need an impact player badly. 

Jason1988
Jason1988

"They re-signed some of their own core players (Monroe, LB Daryl Smith, TE Dennis Pitta and WR Jacoby Jones) but also let several walk (DE Arthur Jones, RT Michael Oher and CB Corey Graham)."


Notice that 3 out of the 4 "core" players weren't drafted by the Ravens. Then notice that all of the "walkers" were indeed drafted by Ozzie. They have a great formula for obtaining draft picks, but that formula doesn't seem to carry over into drafting quality talent. 

jack1970
jack1970

@SnarlyYow  Above everyone else? Come on now. They are good at it but they are not above teams like Pats, Steelers, Giants, GB and other elite teams when it comes to spotting late round or UDFA talent. Off the top of my head James Harrison trumps anything A.Thomas or Demps did combined. 

rastaman
rastaman

@Jason1988 Jason--

you are missing the point...other teams are paying the Ravens for the players that they are drafting each year....that in itself is proof that the Ravens are drafting well...the market is paying money (over 6m per year for Arthur Jones and over 6M per year for Michael Oher...the Ravens are drafting quality talent and other teams are paying for it in free agency...if you check the record, you will see that the Ravens are losing more players EACH season over the last five years than any other team in the entire NFL....look it up....explicit in that data is the implication that the Ravens are drafting players that other teams want to PAY for....(that's how you get comp picks, other teams pay for your players).....Also, considering the Ravens record (playoffs five of six seasons), and considering that they don't spend on free-agents, the other implication is that they must be drafting well....how can you succeed if you are not signing UFAs and not drafting well?  Doesn't make sense, right?    And, Corey Graham was not drafted by the Ravens, fyi....

eddie767
eddie767

@Jason1988  Notice how they said the draft is luck driven? So, you win some you lose some, but the more picks you have the better luck you might have. No one is perfect, but any team would like to have the Ravens success, especially with lower rnd picks. 

jack1970
jack1970

@rastaman @Jason1988  Michael Oher isnt quality talent, PFF had him rated as one of the worst RT in the NFL. Arthur Jones was a nice player but he  was grossly overpaid. I also have another stat over past 5 years. Ravens have drafted 0 pro bowlers in that time frame. So saying they draft well because comp picks, because Ozzie isn't reality at all. They have had some woeful drafts recently to say the least. Ozzie's draft prowess took second fiddle to his remarkable and well timed FA signings that basically won Ravens a SB: Boldin, Graham, J.Jones and Pollard all made huge contributions to that title. Boldin carried passing game and Jacoby Jones made a slew of massive plays. The ability to sign FAs to make up for poor drafts came from not having to pay a Qb a big contract. Flacco's contract means that avenue is about to get much, much tougher. Ozzie will need to draft far better than he has recently. 

Jason1988
Jason1988

Just because teams overpay in free agency doesn't mean they are good players. Yeah, Paul Kruger was fantastic last season. 

Jason1988
Jason1988

The draft is not luck driven, though. It's skill driven with some luck thrown in, like everything else in life save for playing slots. 

savage1752
savage1752

@jack1970 @rastaman @Jason1988  Pro bowlers is a completely irrelevant argument jack. Who are the teams that seem to produce the most pro bowlers each season? KC and Dallas. Yes, KC has made remarkable strides towards being a quality team, but dallas is doing the same thing every year. Having very talented individual players that can't perform as a unit. The bottom line is winning, not pro bowlers. the Ravens found a way to do it last year for whatever reason, which is great and even though they missed the playoffs (due to a 3 ways tie break scenario) that was the first time since 07 they've missed them. Summary: Pro bowlers don't necessarily mean draft success or wins

BallRush
BallRush

@Jason1988  No Jason, you miss the point entirely.  Don't be a GM, ever. You need to study rastaman's words carefully.  I'll give you a 3 point summary that you can use as a cheat sheet:


1) The more others pay for Baltimore's free agents, the higher the compensatory draft pick that Baltimore gets.


2)  Baltimore loses free agents that will get them high picks because they acquire good players via draft or cheaply through free agency.


3) The probability of a good draft increases with the number of picks you have.


You are saying Ozzie drafts badly, we all get your point.  The facts don't support that relative to the other 31 teams... but go ahead and keep repeating it.

Otto-Gee
Otto-Gee

@rastaman @Jason1988

They exploited that market all the way to an 8 and 8 season a year after winning the Super Bowl.  Wow that is some serious special sauce. 

I wonder what SI would call trading Anquan Boldin for a 7th round pick?  Extra Crispy?

Truth is, Ravens have lost their knack for drafting lately and instead have turned to FA buyers... some "special" sauce.

Jason1988
Jason1988

My head is just fine. And the point you took from this article doesn't correspond with the one I took. Both are probably correct. 

rastaman
rastaman

@Jason1988 You are arguing against yourself.  The Ravens are exploiting a market that annually overpays for their players.     That's the point of the article.   Cleveland's stupidity for overpaying Kruger (who had 2 sacks in the Super Bowl for the Ravens) or Miami overpaying for Ellerbe or New Orleans overpaying Ben Grubbs or Houston overpaying for Reed or Corey Graham getting 5M per year after being a backup in Baltimore is BALTIMORE'S gain....They are taking advantage of an irrational market.   That's the point the author is trying to make...Stop banging your head against the wall.

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