Commentary

Dealing with compensation issues

Expect free-agent market to tighten as teams weigh cost of losing compensatory picks

Originally Published: March 29, 2010
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Last week, the league office announced the distribution of 32 compensatory picks to 19 teams that annually serve as a partial compensation for the loss of unrestricted free agents the previous year.

The Titans received four choices, including a third-rounder. The Bengals received a No. 3 and a No. 4. The NFL Management Council uses a secret formula to determine what teams receive based on salary, playing time and postseason honors.

With 2010 free agency hitting a lull, unsigned veterans should beware of teams looking ahead to next season. To date, only 35 unrestricted free agents have moved to new teams, and 16 teams have suffered net losses of unrestricted free agents qualifying them for draft-choice compensation in 2011. I predict those teams that study the compensatory pool are going to pull themselves out of the bidding for unrestricted free agents because it could cost them draft choices in 2011.

For example, the Seattle Seahawks lost wide receiver Nate Burleson to a $5 million-a-year contract to the Detroit Lions and defensive end Cory Redding to a $3 million-a-year deal to the Baltimore Ravens. You can project that the Seahawks could qualify for a No. 4 and No. 6 in 2011.

That puts them in an interesting position. They are looking to sign one of two unrestricted free-agent guards -- Ben Hamilton of the Denver Broncos or Chester Pitts of the Houston Texans. If they do that, they could risk losing one of those potential compensatory picks, most likely the sixth. Is Hamilton or Pitts worth a sixth-rounder? The Seahawks will have to make that decision.

Expect other teams to be extra selective for those reasons. The Carolina Panthers probably won't risk losing a No. 3 for Julius Peppers or a No. 6 for quarterback A.J. Feeley by signing a free agent. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a No. 3 for wide receiver Antonio Bryant. The Green Bay Packers could get a third-rounder for defensive end Aaron Kampman. The New York Giants could get two sixth-round picks for defensive tackle Fred Robbins and quarterback David Carr.

While the pace of free agency has been fast and furious thus far, movement is going to grind to a halt. Only 136 unrestricted free agents remain and that includes about seven or eight who have retired. From March 29 to June 1 last year, only 29 unrestricted players moved to new teams, making me think there may be only 50 or 60 who will move to new teams from this free-agent class, a free-agency low.

With time to think, general managers and coaches who have suffered net losses in free agents may shy away from the market if it's going to cost them in the 2011 draft.

From the inbox

Q: Innocent or not, Ben Roethlisberger has tarnished the Steelers' image. For this reason, why not consider trading him? How about this proposed idea? Send Ben to Seattle for their sixth overall pick and then trade your second-round pick along with a fifth-rounder (the Steelers have three, two are compensatory, as you know) for Donovan McNabb. This scenario would leave the Steelers with a veteran QB along with a high draft pick to build for the future.

Fasi from Chicago

A: The Steelers aren't ready to get rid of Roethlisberger now, but they are tiring of his off-the-field issues. They aren't interested in picking up an older quarterback. All of the involved parties are waiting to see if Roethlisberger is going to be charged for his alleged sexual assault on a 20-year-old woman. If there is no charge, Roethlisberger will have a chance to fix some of the problems he caused with the Steelers and the league. He will meet with commissioner Roger Goodell, who could threaten a suspension if he doesn't act more responsibly off the field or suggest counseling. The Steelers could do the same. Roethlisberger's days in Pittsburgh aren't ending yet, but he is clearly putting himself in a position in which he might not finish his contract as a Steeler unless he changes.

Q: Not much has been talked about of the Super Bowl losers, the Colts, this offseason. What do you think they do in the draft this year? Personally, I think they need to fix their subpar run defense that has plagued them the last few years, and draft a big, run-stuffing DT or two. They also need offensive line help to give Peyton Manning more time and open better holes for Joseph Addai and Donald Brown.

Brian in New York

A: They tried to draft run-stuffing defensive linemen last year, but they didn't get as much out of them as they had hoped. I think they need offensive line help. Without Howard Mudd, who retired as the offensive line coach, the Colts will try to go to a bigger offensive line. For that to happen, they are going to have to use the draft. Sure, some of their most recent draft choices haven't worked out, but they have to get better at left tackle and maybe one or two spots in the middle of the line. In the Super Bowl and the playoffs, when they needed to get a yard or two in critical situations running the football, the Colts struggled.

Q: I do not understand why Sam Bradford and Jimmy Clausen are categorically ranked as the top two quarterbacks in the draft. Bradford is coming off a shoulder injury and didn't play a complete senior season, while Clausen is coming out of the same system that produced Brady Quinn (who has been an NFL disappointment). To me, these two quarterbacks are so highly considered because of the "flaws" which many see in other players like Tim Tebow or Colt McCoy. However, some of the better quarterbacks who currently play in the NFL were projects coming into the league. Aaron Rodgers was highly doubted yet had a superb season last year, Peyton Manning took some time to develop, and Philip Rivers has an ugly looking delivery. What would you say?

Justin in Gainesville, Fla.

A: You are right in the sense that Bradford and Clausen rate higher this year because the other quarterbacks rate lower. Many quarterbacks in the NFL have to recover from surgeries or injuries, so everyone might be overestimating how much these injuries will drag down their value. Many teams are starting to think this is a two-quarterback draft for impact. Bradford is the franchise quarterback from this year's draft. Clausen is the quarterback most ready to play. I still believe teams and draftniks tend to be exacting in what they want from first-round quarterbacks. I still remember the criticism of Matt Ryan before he came into the league and became an instant star. Bradford may take some time, but he might have been the first pick in 2009 had he not decided to return for his senior year in college. This doesn't look like a great quarterback draft, but that doesn't change the fact that teams without top quarterbacks better improve. It has raised the stock of Bradford and Clausen. Maybe that's not fair, but it's the reality of the NFL nowadays.

Q: I have a question regarding NFL jersey numbers. Why do RBs, WRs, TEs, and maybe even QBs need a different range of numbers? With teams running Wildcat plays or lining up RBs out wide, why can't there just be a set of numbers for the line players and one set for everyone else?

Cal in Daly City, Calif.

A: Simple answer: the NFL demands uniformity in uniform numbers. The league wants numbers that are easy for the fans to follow and doesn't want things to be confusing on the field. The system can't be perfect. The NFL realized there was a problem with the linebackers and defensive ends because of the 3-4 defense. It put defensive linemen in the 50 to 79 range and 90 to 99. The linebackers are now 50 to 59 and 90 to 99.

Q: With the new overtime rules, the problems really haven't been solved. The answer to this is so easy. I have been telling my buddy for years the way to stop all complaining is after the fourth quarter instead of a coin toss just continue the game like you do when the third quarter ends. If you have the ball third down and 2 at your 20, then that's how overtime starts. Now, you have no coin toss to decide the game, and if you don't get the ball, it's because you didn't stop them not because you lost the toss. It also would change the way teams might play the game.

Philip in Buffalo, N.Y.

A: The only problem I see with that one is questions about field position. That works if you are pinned back at your 20, but what if you are at midfield with no timeouts and 30 seconds left. Being able to carry the current field position into overtime would be like getting extra timeouts. The team at midfield lets the clock run out in regulation -- boring -- and then gets fresh timeouts and a chance to move to one first down to set up the field goal to win -- boring.

Q: As a Colts fan I'm concerned about the rest of the AFC South as much as I am my team. With all the hype surrounding Tim Tebow and the Jags, I've been thinking that we haven't seen the Wildcat much in this division, so how do you think Tim Tebow and Jones-Drew would do in the Wildcat?

Michael in Grandview, Ind.

A: The questions about Tim Tebow as a thrower shouldn't cause any fear in the AFC South if he enters the division. Plus, as you saw last season, the Wildcat may work against the Colts as it did in the Miami game, but that doesn't mean the Colts are at a disadvantage. Running teams may get yards against the Colts' defense, but it keeps the score close enough for Peyton Manning to win the game in the fourth quarter. Plus, I don't think the Jaguars will draft Tebow.

Q: I'm wondering how the Eagles can turn their defense around. Isn't it a crime they haven't had a great linebacker since the turn of the millennium? Carlos Emmons and Jeremiah Trotter (version 1.0) have been the best LBs in the past decade. Stewart Bradley has lots of potential, but he's coming off an injury. Now that this is Sean McDermott's team, I'm hoping he values the position more than Jim Johnson (no disrespect to the defensive mastermind Johnson). I think the Eagles essentially feel like a good offense is how you build a good defense, and their bend-but-don't break style only seems to work when they have a lead. I know stats say they had a good defense last year, but they piled those stats against bad teams. Is there any hope for my Eagles and their defense this year?

Zachary in West Chester, Pa.

A: Last year was a major trauma. McDermott did well under the circumstances replacing the late Jim Johnson, but the transition wasn't easy. The biggest problem came when the Eagles faced great quarterbacks. They need to tighten up their defense in those games, but I think they will. I'm sure there are going to be more personnel efforts to upgrade the defensive line for the pass rush along with getting more help in the secondary. Losing Brian Dawkins also was tough because of his leadership, but you knew that was going to happen because of his age. There is nothing wrong with the Eagles' scheme. It works. I think they might need more leadership from the veterans, and that might have been part of the problem last year. Overall, though, I don't think the Eagles are too far away from being a pretty good defense.

Q: I was wondering if you could tell me why the Steelers did not bring Darnell Stapleton back to fight for a roster spot. I am not a fan of his, but with all the issues on the offensive line for the Steelers, it is hard to understand why they do not want to see him compete for his old job.

Greg in Fort Wayne, Ind.

A: Like a lot of teams, they didn't want to give a tender offer to Stapleton, a former undrafted player whose salary would have more than doubled with a tender of $1,101,000. Don't be surprised, though, if he is given a chance to return if he's willing to sign for around $500,000. He didn't play all that poorly.

Q: You mentioned Troy Smith won't go to Cleveland, which I can completely understand, but can you tell me why it seems nobody is going to grab him as a quality backup or a potential starter? It seems everyone has forgotten that he played well for the Ravens in 2007 and was going to be the Ravens' starter in 2008 before having tonsillitis and having to have surgery, which gave Joe Flacco a chance to excel. Smith seemed to me to be able to play in the league, even with his height disadvantage, which I'm sure is one of the factors in this. What do you believe is the issue here?

Jon in Columbus, Ohio

A: The problem facing Troy Smith is he hasn't proved to enough people he is a quality backup or a potential starter. He's like a lot of quarterbacks drafted after the second round. He doesn't get a chance to play and grow. It's players such as Troy Smith who should have the NFL considering a developmental league with quality coaches. Smith has talent; he needs experience. His only chance is probably going to come if the Ravens release him and he gets a chance to sign for a low salary someplace else. But even that isn't a guarantee he will have a true chance to do well.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer