It is one of the most frustrating moments for an NFL fan. “Why isn’t my team signing free agents? Jerry Jones said we were going ‘all-in’!”. 

This has been one of the craziest legal tampering periods in league history. Big-name quarterbacks like Kirk Cousins and Russell Wilson are on the move, the class of free agent running backs in 2024 is historic while defensive linemen and edge rushers are flying off the shelves. 

Yet a team like the Dallas Cowboys has signed zero incoming players. In fact, the one free agent of their own they have signed in long-snapper Trent Sieg. Meanwhile, their division rival Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Commanders are running wild – including signing multiple players away from the Cowboys!

What many fans might not realize about NFL free agency is that there is often a hidden force at work here. And that hidden force is fairly powerful once you begin to understand how it works. What I’m talking about here are compensatory picks. Let’s discuss what those are and how they affect teams like the Cowboys’ ability to go after the remaining free agents left.




What Are NFL Compensatory Picks?

The short and sweet is that the NFL has implemented a system to help “balance” free agency. And at its core that system is simple: if you lose more qualified free agents than you bring in, you get compensatory picks in the following draft. 

For example, the 49ers let Jimmy Garoppolo walk last year along with some other free agents without signing many incoming free agents. For Jimmy G, they were rewarded with a fourth-round comp pick. 

The full methodology of how the compensatory picks are formulated is a little more complicated and that explanation can be found here. For this article, these are the basics you need to know.

  • Comp picks are based on free agents you sign vs. ones that leave
    • e.g. you let five qualified guys leave and sign three then you would get two comp picks
  • The comp picks “cancel out” based on how the contracts align
    • e.g. if you let a $20 mil player, a $10 mil player, and a $5 mil player leave and then sign a $10 mil player, the $10 mil players cancel each other out.
  • You can get a maximum of four picks for players (and a fifth is possible for coaches or executives leaving)
    • e.g. if you let six players leave without signing any, you get four picks.
  • The definition of “qualified free agents” is a little more complex but the short and sweet is that any player paid in the top ~35% of their position will qualify. With the number of rookie deals out there, virtually any contract with multiple years or decent guaranteed money will qualify. 
  • Players who are released or traded do not count against the formula
    • e.g. the Dolphins signing Jonnu Smith and Jordan Poyer do not count against the formula because they were not free agents, they were released.
  • The highest comp pick you can get back is a third and they range from rounds three to seven.

Teams take these picks quite seriously. To the point where it affects their decisions in free agency. Let’s stick with the Cowboys as an example.




Dallas Cowboys Free Agency: 2024

Obviously, the salary cap matters for the Cowboys but let’s look at the comp picks. As it stands, the Cowboys have now lost three qualified free agents. Part of the formula includes how they perform in 2024 so we don’t know for sure yet, but our estimation based on the formula suggests that these players will likely return picks ranging from the 4th to 6th round in the 2025 draft.

The Cowboys have a number of free agents still in limbo that could also potentially earn contracts that return compensatory picks. Namely, Tyron Smith and Stephon Gilmore. And that’s the problem - the Cowboys do not know their fate so they can’t yet project what their picks will be. And therefore, don’t know what it will cost them to sign incoming free agents. 

The Trade-Off

This is where it is important for us as fans to try to understand the situation. As it stands right now, any incoming free agent signing would cancel one of those three picks. Or worse, it could cancel one of the picks you might get back for Tyron Smith if he does leave. 

So, when you see a team sign Darnell Mooney to three years for $39 million, you have to understand that, for the Cowboys, the cost isn’t just three years and $39 million. The cost actually could end up being that contract AND a fourth-round compensatory pick. 

The Cowboys need to ask themselves “would I trade a fourth-round pick just for the rights to sign this guy?”. In many cases, the answer to that is no. You don’t want to look back like the Bears did in 2022 and realize they canceled out a fourth round comp pick for Allen Robinson by signing Byron Pringle (who was cut after one year anyway). 

On the flip side, the moment that Tyron Smith and Stephon Gilmore have signed, the Cowboys will now have five outgoing qualified free agents. They are now free to sign someone that would cancel out one of those picks knowing that four is the max anyway. 

It’s tough to have patience in situations like this but it’s reassuring to know that the team is trying to maximize their value here. The teams that play it smart come out on top in the long run. And free agency is just getting started so don’t be surprised when the Cowboys and other teams do end up getting involved in the market. At the right time, of course.