Compensatory picks are a reward for smart teams
When the NFL implemented compensatory draft picks in 1994, the idea was that the extra picks would lend a hand to the teams that got out-spent in free agency, which was then new in the league: Compensatory picks go to teams that lose more in free agency than they gain, and so the picks were envisioned as a safeguard against the rich raiding the rosters of the poor.
It hasn’t worked out that way, however. In a league with revenue sharing and a salary cap, there’s not much of a distinction between the rich and the poor.
Instead, compensatory picks have turned out to reward smart teams. The teams that have been wise about not over-spending in free agency and keeping themselves in good salary cap shape are the ones that keep getting lots of compensatory picks, while the teams that overspend in free agency are the ones that don’t receive compensatory picks.
As a result, the consistently good teams tend to be the teams that consistently get a lot of compensatory picks. And the teams that consistently try to spend themselves out of last place are the ones that don’t get a lot of compensatory picks.
The list of teams that have received the most compensatory picks since 1994 is pretty similar to the list of the best teams in football since 1994: The Ravens have received the most compensatory picks, and they’ve won two Super Bowls. The Packers have received the second-most, and they’ve also won two Super Bowls. The Patriots are fourth, and they’ve won five Super Bowls. The 10 teams that have had the most compensatory picks have won most of the Super Bowls since 1994, with a total of 14 titles for those 10 teams.
At the other end of the spectrum, the teams that don’t receive a lot of compensatory picks tend to be bad teams: There are 14 teams that have received fewer than 20 compensatory picks since the system started in 1994, and those 14 teams have won a combined two Super Bowls.
Compensatory picks help teams stock their roster with low-cost depth, which is helpful, but the real reason teams with a lot of compensatory picks do well is that teams with a lot of compensatory picks are good at managing their salary caps. A system that was supposed to reward the poor at the expense of the rich has actually rewarded the smart at the expense of the dumb.