When the Seattle Seahawks signed Unrestricted Free Agent special-teamer Sean Morey to a three-year contract last week, ESPN.com blogger Mike Sando noticed that the Seahawks might have cost themselves a compensatory draft pick in 2011 while also giving the rival Arizona Cardinals a comp pick for the loss of Morey.
Based on speculation by ESPN.com reporter John Clayton, Sando said Morey might cost the Seahawks a sixth-round comp pick that they could have gotten for losing Cory Redding to the Baltimore Ravens. Clayton's speculation might be a bit optimistic. Redding signed for $2.5 million per season, not the $3 million that Clayton reported, so he would be on the borderline for a sixth- or seventh-round pick, depending on his playing time in 2010. (Clayton's speculation that the Seahawks could get a fourth-round comp pick for Nate Burleson might be optimistic, too. Burleson's $5 million-per-year contract would put him on the borderline for a fourth- or fifth-round pick, depending on playing time.)
It's true that Morey could cost the Seahawks a comp pick if their list of qualifying players lost (Burleson and Redding) and signed (Morey) does not change, but is it really a poor decision for a team to forgo what might be a late seventh-round draft pick in order to sign a former Pro Bowl special-teamer? Even if Redding ends up with a sixth-round value in the comp picks formula, how likely is it that a late sixth-round draft choice will be more than a special-teams contributor, anyway? Yes, a team could strike gold with a late sixth-round choice, but it's also possible that the player taken with that pick won't even make the team. Morey, on the other hand, is a known commodity. The Seahawks very well might have taken potential comp picks into account and decided that Morey would be worth more than the comp pick they might get for losing Redding.
The Seahawks' situation might not be the best example of a team costing itself a comp pick because of a poor decision in free agency, but it does raise the issue of whether teams should factor comp picks into their personnel decisions. Sando noted that "the Cardinals' decision to sign UFA fullback Jason Wright might have cost the team a 2010 third- or fourth-round compensatory choice for losing Antonio Smith." Based on the fact that Baltimore received a third-rounder for Dominique Foxworth, the Cardinals surely would have gotten a third-rounder for Smith.
After this year's comp picks were awarded, Darren Urban, who blogs for the Cardinals' official Web site, responded to one fan's criticism of the team's front office by saying, "If you are managing your free agency based on hoping for a certain comp pick, you aren’t running your football team correctly." I would agree with Urban, to some extent. In fact, I would argue that it wasn't the Cardinals' decision to sign Wright in free agency that cost them a third-round comp pick, rather it was their decision to keep the third-string running back on their roster past Week 9. When they signed Wright in March 2009, they couldn't have known if, for example, they would be able to draft Beanie Wells a month later, or if Wells or Tim Hightower would get hurt early in the season and force Wright to get more playing time. But by Week 9, the Cardinals had Wells and Hightower carrying the load at running back and Wright contributing very little on offense while playing a fair amount on special teams. If they had waived Wright at that point in the season, he would not have counted in the comp picks equation, and the Cardinals would have received that third-round comp pick for losing Smith. Instead, they kept Wright all season. After Week 9, including the playoffs, he had only nine touches for 53 yards on offense, although he did play more than half of the snaps on special teams. Is that type of production from a six-year veteran worth a late third-round draft pick? I don't think it is. Wright is unlikely to develop into anything more than the player he is right now, but a player drafted in the third round is reasonably likely to develop into someone who can contribute more than Wright will – possibly much more. And if the Cardinals had waived Wright and either Wells or Hightower had gotten injured later in the season, the Cardinals could have simply re-signed Wright if no other team had claimed him or signed him by then.
The Cardinals might argue that they were in the hunt for a playoff spot, a division title or even a championship, and getting rid of a trusted veteran who provides depth at running back and contributes on special teams wouldn't help them achieve their ultimate goal. Whether that's a good enough reason to forgo a third-round comp pick is debatable, but it at least can be taken into consideration when judging the Cardinals' decision.
Clearly, releasing a player in midseason just to get a high comp pick the next year is not the best move for every team. The Dallas Cowboys, for example, were not going to release Igor Olshansky, Keith Brooking or Gerald Sensabaugh in Week 9 just to make sure that they would get a fourth-round comp pick for losing Chris Canty. Having a solid defensive starter during a playoff run is more important than obtaining a late fourth-round draft choice the following year.
There are times, though, when a team probably should make comp picks a factor in their personnel decisions. The Oakland Raiders, for example, had a 2-6 record when they went into their bye in Week 9 last season. During the previous offseason, they had lost only one free agent who could qualify for the comp pick equation: Jake Grove, whose contract almost certainly would (and did) give him a fourth-round value. They had signed three players who might have qualified, but after releasing Jeff Garcia and Lorenzo Neal before the season, they only one remaining on the team was Khalif Barnes, an offensive tackle who was signed to a one-year contract. Before the Raiders' bye week, Barnes filled in – not very well, by most accounts – as the starter at right tackle for two games while Cornell Green was out with a calf injury. After Week 9, Barnes was inactive for every game except the season finale, when he didn't even play. In retrospect, the Raiders certainly would have been better off releasing Barnes during their bye week. Barnes was under contract for only eight more games, Green was returning to the lineup, the season already was a lost cause, and the Raiders had two other backup tackles who either had started ahead of Barnes earlier in the season (Erik Pears) or would replace Barnes as the backup tackle who was activated for games after the bye (Langston Walker). If the Raiders had taken their potential comp pick into account, there would have been little reason for them to keep Barnes for the rest of the season, but that's what they did. So instead of receiving the 131st pick of the draft as compensation for losing Grove, they received the 251st pick as compensation for the difference in net value after losing Grove and signing Barnes. The Raiders fell 120 spots in the draft by keeping Barnes, who never played another snap for the rest of the season.
As I mentioned, I think Urban is mostly correct when he says that teams shouldn't manage their free agency just to get comp picks. Every team's goal during the offseason should be to acquire better players through any means possible, which would include signing Unrestricted Free Agents. If signing a quality starter would cost a team a potential fourth-round comp pick, so be it. However, it would be foolish for teams not to include comp picks in the decision-making process and even more foolish for teams to be unaware of their potential comp picks. If a team that stands to gain a high comp pick the following season is looking at signing either a UFA who would qualify for the comp picks equation or a player who was released by his former team and therefore would not qualify, the released player likely would be the better choice if the players were considered relatively equal – especially if the players under consideration would be mere backups. Potential comp picks are an even more important factor when the player being signed has a value that is far less than that of the player that was lost, such as in the case of the Cardinals and Raiders. In those cases, the team should be able to recognize that the low-value player could end up costing a high comp pick. That's why it would be wise for teams to monitor their potential comp picks during the regular season and consider making personnel moves before Week 10 to ensure that they aren't unnecessarily costing themselves a high draft pick by keeping a player who won't even contribute. A team could always decide that it wants to keep a certain player even if he might be worth less than the potential comp pick it will be forgoing, but any team that never takes potential comp picks into consideration is likely to end up costing itself valuable draft picks without even knowing it.