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How Do NFL Compensatory Picks Work?

Imagine this: you’re part of Patriots’ management, and it’s early in 2020. You’ve just learned that Tom Brady is leaving for the Bucs. You’re witnessing, first-hand, the power of unrestricted free agency – there’s really not a lot you can do or say to make Brady stay, and there’s really no way you’ll be able to compensate for his loss.

The League recognizes the problems that having a star player leave can impose on your team. While they can’t just give you a new Brady, they’ve created a mechanism that attempts to act as a sort of consolation prize – compensatory picks.

What are compensatory picks?

Compensatory picks are draft picks that occur after the normal draft picks in rounds 3-7. There are a total of 32 compensatory picks in a draft – a team may receive a maximum of four compensatory picks per draft.

Who gets compensatory picks?

The formula for who gets compensatory picks is pretty complex, so we’ll stick to the basics. When a team has an unrestricted free agent (UFA)  who signs to another team, the League will look at the other players that team receives. If the UFA who leaves is a high-caliber player, and the team doesn’t receive a player of approximately equal caliber, they may be entitled to a compensatory pick.

To illustrate this, we’ve created a table showing where a given player needs to fall among players in the League to qualify the team they’re leaving for a compensatory pick: 

% of players  Compensatory pick 
Top 5% 3rd-round pick
Below top 5% – top 10% 4th-round pick
Below top 10% – top 15% 5th-round pick
Below top 15% – top 25% 6th-round pick
Below top 25% – top 35% 7th-round pick
Below top 35% No compensatory picks


Obviously, Tom Brady is in the top 5% of players in the League, so his departure entitled the Pats to a 3rd-round compensatory pick. 

The League does have a formula they use to determine what percentage a player falls into – it’s pretty comprehensive, and you can read it in the NFLPA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) for 2020 (under Appendix V: Compensatory Draft System).

Compensatory pick cancellation

Before determining whether or not your club gets a compensatory pick for losing a player, the League first looks at whether or not you’ve received a UFA of equal or greater value. In other words, if the Pats had lost Brady but gained another top 5% UFA player, they would not get a compensatory pick.

Compensatory picks can be traded

Since 2017, compensatory picks can be traded in the same way that regular draft picks can be. This added flexibility makes compensatory picks even more useful than they used to be – and considering Brady himself was a 6th-round compensatory pick, they were pretty useful to begin with. 

Additional compensatory pick rules

What we’ve discussed so far covers most of what you need to know about compensatory picks, but there are a couple of niche scenarios you might come across that mess with the rules as they’ve been laid out above:

The 10 Accrued Seasons rule

You might have a player who has been with you for over a decade – a UFA who decides to leave, and who falls in the top 5% or 10% of players. The 10 Accrued Seasons rule prevents you from getting a full value compensatory pick from that player.

The rule is simple: if a UFA who has 10 or more Accrued Seasons leaves for another team, they can only net you, at best, a Round 5 compensatory pick, even if the player is strong enough that you’d normally get a Round 3 or 4 pick.

The exception to this exception is quarterbacks, for whom you can still get full value (that’s why Brady netted the Pats a Round 3 compensatory pick).

The Total Points rule

To figure out what percentage each player falls into, the League assigns players points based on the formula described in the CBA. We mentioned that each UFA a team receives cancels out a UFA of equal or greater value. A team who gains no compensatory picks because their UFAs cancel each other out can still gain a compensatory pick at the end of round 7’s compensatory draft if the total point value of players they lost is 300 (or more) greater than the total point value of players they receive.

Less than 32 picks awarded

When less than 32 compensatory picks can be awarded, an eighth-round of drafting begins – teams pick in the same order as they have for the rest of the draft (starting with the worst, and ending with the Super Bowl winner) until a total of 32 compensatory picks + eighth-round picks have been made.

The information we just went over on compensatory NFL picks covers just about everything you need to know on the subject. While the picks might not be quite as valuable as the players that a club loses, it’s a nice mechanism to make that loss feel a bit less painful.