Cooking the NFL Draft with a Special Sauce

May 1, 2014 by Jenny Vrentas

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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