Striking A Balance Between Free Agents And Comp Picks

In today’s Orange Overview, Nick has addressed the error he made in determining the compensatory pick formula as it pertained to Russell Okung. I did want to address comp picks for a minute because, while it’s disappointing the Broncos didn’t get the two third-round picks we thought they might get, that we need to remember about striking a balance between addressing immediate needs and acquiring comp picks.

I think most of us would agree that we don’t want the Broncos operating like the Packers tend to do, in which Ted Thompson seems uninterested in signing any UFA because he’s stubborn about acquiring comp picks, even when the Packers don’t have a lot of UFAs of their own that Thompson isn’t prioritizing for extensions.

What we do want to model, though, is how Ozzie Newsome has modeled his approach with the Ravens. Newsome does prioritize which pending UFAs of his own to extend, but he is willing to explore UFA if he finds the right player that can provide an immediate upgrade. Thus, while Newsome likes to accumulate comp picks, he won’t do it for the sake of it.

This is the approach John Elway has taken with the Broncos. He understands that it’s not possible to extend every pending UFA, so he prioritizes who to extend and uses the franchise tag if he thinks somebody is worth it. From there, he’ll consider what the team’s immediate needs are and determine what UFAs from other teams are worth pursuing or if it’s better to look at street free agents or the draft.

The past two years, the Broncos have been fortunate to have UFA classes in which multiple players were coveted by other teams to some degree. In 2014, Julius Thomas and Orlando Franklin received sizable contracts, while Rahim Moore and Nate Irving received deals that were high enough to figure into the comp pick formula. Last year, Brock Osweiler and Malik Jackson received large contracts, while Danny Trevathan, Ryan Harris, Vernon Davis and Evan Mathis all received deals that generated enough to figure into the formula, too.

As a result, Elway was in a position to explore free agency and sign more UFAs without hurting the Broncos that much in the comp pick standings. It’s true that the Russell Okung deal ultimately cost the Broncos a third-round comp pick, but in the end, the Broncos still got four picks because so many UFAs got deals from other teams. I don’t think Elway was concerned about Okung upsetting the comp pick formula as he was about ensuring that he was signed to a deal that fell in line with what Okung was worth at the time, but allowed him to get out of the deal early if Okung didn’t live up to expectations.

We know the story behind Okung’s season: He lived up to the $8M he earned this season as a good, but not great, offensive lineman but did not reach a level that warranted paying him like a top left tackle, which the Broncos would have had to pay him for the next two seasons had they exercised their team option. But because of the way the deal was structured, Elway was able to get out of the deal with minimal cap implications and zero cash implications, thus protecting the Broncos in the long term.

Now, if Okung had proven to be worth top money for left tackles, I don’t think anyone would be concerning themselves about a lost comp pick. But that means you need to keep in mind how that situation unfolded in the first place. It went like this:

* Elway originally wanted to extend Brock Osweiler but he chose to sign with the Texans (meaning Elway wasn’t thinking about the potential comp pick for Osweiler to begin with)
* Elway originally wanted to get Ryan Clady to take a salary reduction, likely with a chance to earn money back through incentives, but couldn’t come to terms.
* Okung personally contacted the Broncos, not the other way around.

In other words, a possible third-round comp pick for Osweiler was nowhere near Elway’s mind when he entered the offseason. Once Osweiler left and Clady wouldn’t come to terms on a different contract, and Okung came along with a desire to play for the Broncos, Elway had his mind made up: Forget a possible comp pick and let’s see if Okung can be the long-term solution at left tackle, but make sure the deal protects the Broncos in case he isn’t.

As we enter the 2017 NFL season, we will have to keep in mind that the Broncos may not be in a position to net high compensatory picks this time around. While some may think the likes of Okung will get contracts in line with the top left tackles, I suspect he is more likely to get a deal that pays him $9M to $10M APY because he isn’t a top player at the position. The offensive linemen who are more likely to get rewarded are those who are considered the best O-linemen overall, regardless of position. That means Okung might be worth a fourth-round comp pick, but it will likely be cancelled out by the Broncos signing another O-lineman.

Next up is Sylvester Williams. After Earl Mitchell got a dealing from the Niners at $4M APY, I suspect Williams will be looking for between $5M and $6M APY because he’s several years younger. That might net a fifth-round comp pick, but that all depends on contract length and what the Broncos do in free agency themselves.

From there, you have a few players that might net a sixth- or seventh-round comp pick, but nothing is guaranteed (DeMarcus Ware, Vance Walker, Justin Forsett, Kayvon Webster) and players who aren’t going to get deals that will fetch a comp pick at all (Jordan Norwood, Billy Winn, Dekoda Watson, Thomas Gafford). This means you might not see the Broncos accumulate a lot of comp picks.

But that falls more in line with the approach Newsome takes. What has really prevented Newsome from extending certain players is cap issues, thanks largely to the deal Joe Flacco got. (A brief note on Flacco: While it’s true the Super Bowl win gave him extra leverage, chances are Flacco would have commanded a big contract even without the Super Bowl win because teams covet starting QBs so much.) Were it not for cap issues, Newsome is more likely to keep pending UFAs or explore free agency a bit more.

So we have to remember the importance of striking a balance between accumulating compensatory picks and addressing immediate needs through free agency. The things you really need to focus on to ensure a good long-term picture is to watch your cap space and make sure you structure deals so you can get out of them early in case things don’t work. That way, even if you have a bad signing, you at least minimize its effects to the short term. The perfect example is Donald Stephenson, who definitely got a bad contract, but at least it only impacted the Broncos in the short term (out $6M) and not the long term (can be safely cut by the fifth day of the 2017 league year with just a $2M dead money charge). Compare the Stephenson deal to, for example, the deal the Texans gave Osweiler and you know what happens if you aren’t mindful of the long-term picture.

Only time will tell how much the Broncos will have to pay for offensive linemen in free agency. While it’s possible left tackles will pull in massive deals that are more than what the players are worth, it’s also possible the market isn’t there for that position because it’s considered a weak crop, while teams show a greater willingness to spend at right tackle and guard because the quality of players is better and the available left tackles have to take lower-cost deals. That’s what happened last season when, for example, the Raiders gave Kelechi Osemele a sizable deal to play guard and, though he could have played left tackle, they were still able to get Donald Penn re-signed to a short term, lower-cost deal, even though there weren’t that many great left tackle options available. It would not surprise me to see a similar trend in which right tackle Billy Wagner, guard Kevin Zeitler and others at those positions get the bigger contracts while the likes of Okung, Andrew Whitworth, Matt Kalil and Kelvin Beachum have to take lower-cost deals because of the red flags associated with them.

Regardless, let’s not worry too much about lost compensatory picks. The best approach is to strike a balance between accumulating the comp picks versus addressing immediate needs in free agency.

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Bob Morris

I'm a sports writer in real life, though I've always focused on smaller communities, but that hasn't stopped me from learning more about some of the ins and outs of the NFL. You can follow me on Twitter @BobMorrisSports if you can put up with updates on the high school sports teams I cover.