Brandon Beane was hired to be the General Manager of the Buffalo Bills in May of 2017. At Beane’s introductory press conference, he was very candid in explaining what his approach would be in rebuilding the Buffalo Bills’ roster. “I’m going to build through the draft, first and foremost. You have to draft well and sign those guys,” explained Beane. This was the approach that had generally been used in Carolina, where Beane was employed for the previous nineteen years. Beane was also mentored by current Carolina Panthers General Manager, Marty Hurney. Beane has given a lot of credit to Hurney in playing an extensive role in his development as a person and a professional in NFL management. Beane stated “(Marty Hurney) taught me the cap. We did CBA stuff. He let me do behind-the-scenes scouting, watching tape, whether it was college or pro or free agents and just be another sounding board with him along the way.”
A narrative around the Buffalo-area since the hiring of Brandon Beane is that he is likely very fond of the compensatory draft picks the NFL awards to teams that are eligible to receive them. Since 2003, the year after Marty Hurney became the General Manager of the Carolina Panthers and thus could manage the Panthers’ roster with compensatory selections in mind, the Carolina Panthers have been awarded fifteen compensatory selections, compared to Buffalo’s seven. In regards to the compensatory pick formula, Beane has been on record saying “I wouldn’t be doing my job if I don’t pay attention to (the compensatory pick formula)… I’m very aware of, when I walked in, how the formula works. I believe you use it when you can, but not in throwing a worse team out there as well.”
The NFL free agency period is unique, relative to the other major sports leagues in the United States, as the NFL’s is the only league whose free agency signing period opens before the league’s player draft is held. This allows NFL teams to draft specific needs that were not already filled in free agency.
In the nearly one hundred year history of the NFL, free agency has seen many changes. Initially the NFL made use of Major League Baseball’s reserve system, “whereby every player who signs a contract with an NFL club is bound to play for that club, and no other, for the term of the contract plus one additional year at the option of the club.” The player and club were free to negotiate a new contract before the club exercised their option, but if no agreement was made between the two parties, the player would be subject to a pay cut of ten percent from the previous year when the club exercised its option. R.C. Owens was the first player to change teams via free agency in 1963, which prompted NFL owners and Commissioner Pete Rozelle to establish the “Rozelle Rule” that same year. This rule required a team signing a free agent to compensate the player’s former team, and granted Commissioner Rozelle the final authority to determine what the compensation would be if the two teams could not come to an agreement. The “Rozelle Rule” was struck down in 1976 by Mackey v. National Football League, where it was determined by the 8th Circuit that the rule was an unreasonable restraint of trade. The final change on the road to modern day NFL free agency as we know it was called “Plan B” free agency, which “allowed owners to protect 37 of their players…with the right of first refusal.” “Plan B” was also struck down in 1992 by McNeil v. National Football League, which leads to the current state of NFL free agency.
With compensatory draft picks and the formula under which they are obtained potentially being in the minds of the Buffalo Bills front office members, it would be prudent to investigate deeper into what these picks actually are. The NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement is vague in describing these compensatory draft picks, stating the picks are “an additional Draft choice awarded to a Club… (that is) losing certain Unrestricted Free Agents.” The CBA is even less clear in defining exactly how they are obtained, only stating “The rules and procedures regarding Compensatory Draft Selections previously agreed upon by the NFL and the NFLPA shall remain in effect, subsequent to any future changes as to which the parties may agree.” Over the years, as the formula has become more predictable by fans and analysts alike, the NFL has released information to help the average NFL fan understand what compensatory picks are, while still not revealing the exact formula. An NFL Communications release in regards to 2016 compensatory selections stated “Under the rules for compensatory draft selections, a team losing more or better compensatory free agents than it acquires in the previous year is eligible to receive compensatory draft picks…Compensatory free agents are determined by a formula based on salary, playing time and postseason honors. The formula was developed by the NFL Management Council. Not every free agent lost or signed by a club is covered by this formula.”
While the “exact” formula is one of the best kept secrets in the NFL, it has not stopped individuals from observing and putting together a pretty good outline of this compensatory process. The most in-depth investigation was done by a blogger named “AdamJT13”. What this person was able to determine was that the classification of “more or better compensatory free agents” was not a label that was given arbitrarily based on a player’s perceived talent, or lack thereof, as this would be a violation of the Private Association Law that governs the NFL. “AdamJT13” determined that the salary section of the formula was “the average annual value of the contract the player signed with his new team”, playing time was “determined by offensive & defensive snaps played”, and “postseason honors are determined by Pro Bowl appearances.” The unrestricted free agent leaving must have also been on an expiring contract and left their old team “against that team’s will,” meaning that the player could not have been cut, the player could not have been a restricted free agent not tendered a qualifying offer by their team, nor any other method a team would use to determine the player’s services were no longer needed.
While that is only the most superficial layer of the mysterious compensatory pick formula, the most important takeaway should be that “any team that has more (compensatory free agents) lost than (compensatory free agents) gained will then be eligible for compensatory picks”. For an example with the Bills in mind, the recent signing of Vontae Davis would not impact their potential to acquire compensatory selections for the 2019 NFL Draft, as Davis was released during week ten of the 2017 NFL season. The same stands true for recent signee Chris Ivory, as Ivory was released from Jacksonville with term remaining on his contract. This could be very interesting for a Buffalo Bills team that has eighteen pending free agents, including Linebacker Preston Brown, Wide Receiver Jordan Matthews, and Cornerback EJ Gaines, who could all be in line for lucrative contracts on the unrestricted free agent market.
At the NFL Scouting Combine just days ago, Buffalo Bills General Manager Brandon Beane when asked about the number of picks he had compiled for the upcoming 2018 NFL Draft responded “I do like my picks, you nailed that.” It will be intriguing, to say the least, to see how the Buffalo Bills proceed when free agency opens at 4:00 p.m. on March 14th.
Photo Courtesy: Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News
My name is Joe Notartomas and I am a 2019 graduate from the University at Buffalo School of Law, with a particular interest in Corporate and Sports Law. I grew up in Southwest Florida, and before law school, earned my Bachelor's Degree from the University of Florida in 2014. Thanks for reading. - Joe