With all due respect to trades and the waiver wire, there are two primary ways to build a football team: through the draft and through free agency. As John Elway has illustrated, sometimes you can do both at the same time.
Sometimes the moves you don’t make are the best ones. There’s value in bringing in free agents. There’s also value in letting players go at the opportune time. This can be seen through compensatory draft picks.
On Friday, the Denver Broncos were awarded four compensatory selections for the 2017 NFL Draft, which was tied for the most in the NFL. Having let seven players, including Brock Osweiler, Malik Jackson and Danny Trevathan walk, they added a third, fifth and two seventh-round selections to their draft arsenal, giving them 10 picks total.
This strategy is nothing new for Elway. In 2016, he landed three compensatory picks after letting Julius Thomas, Orlando Franklin and Terrance Knighton walk the previous offseason. The losses of those three did not prevent the Broncos from winning Super Bowl 50. The year prior to that, they got another four picks.
11 picks in three years, and each year he got at least one pick in the fourth round or better. That’s the most in the NFL over that span.
In fact, the Broncos have accumulated more compensatory picks under Elway than they did under all former Broncos general managers combined (granted, it was only implemented in 1994).
Elway isn’t alone in his accumulation of compensatory picks. In fact, many great teams do it. Since 1994, the top 10 teams in terms of picks awarded have won 14 Super Bowls. As a corollary, the 15 teams that have had less than 20 picks, have only hoisted the Lombardi Trophy twice in that span. (h/t Pro Football Talk)
Now, compensatory draft picks are only a weapon if you use them wisely. The New England Patriots, who rank fourth in picks awarded, have won five Super Bowls. The best of their picks? In the 2000 NFL Draft, with the 199th overall pick, they selected quarterback Tom Brady out of Michigan. They were awarded four picks that year, the players they lost in 1999? Linebacker Todd Collins, punter Tom Tupa, defensive tackle Mark Wheeler and offensive lineman Dave Wohlabaugh. Not a bad trade, eh?
This begs the question, how has Elway done with the picks? Well, Trevor Siemian, Max Garcia, Taurean Nixon, Devontae Booker, Justin Simmons and Will Parks are all still on the team. The only one he really missed on was safety Josh Furman. While none of these players are Tom Brady (yet), it’s a pretty good loot. Six of seven ain’t bad, especially when you consider he was playing with house money.
Now, as the compensatory picks can be traded for the first time leading up to the 2017 NFL Draft, Elway will have even more options. He has more draft capital to move up if he sees the opportunity to land a stud muffin. He also simply has more picks, if he wants to replenish the depth of the organization.
Only time will tell if Elway can use these selections to build the Broncos back up into a Super Bowl champion, but history suggests he might be on the right path.