By Len Pasquarelli
Senior NFL Writer
The Sports Xchange
Strapped as usual by injuries at linebacker in 2010, the Indianapolis Colts turned to rookie Kavell Conner, and the former Clemson standout responded with 57 tackles and one forced fumble in 12 appearances that included nine starts.
Not altogether surprising numbers, since the Colts have long subscribed to a "next man up" philosophy and developed depth with mid-round draft choices and even undrafted talent, with Conner just the latest otherwise nondescript player to live up to a credo begun during the Tony Dungy Era.
Then again, without the NFL's compensatory draft choice policy -- a system that awarded the Colts the extra seventh-round selection used to choose Conner with the 240th overall pick -- the linebacker might well have been the next man out.
"You look forward to those (compensatory) picks," Colts owner Jim Irsay agreed at last week's league meeting in New Orleans, before the additional selections were meted out by NFL officials. "They can prove useful."
Ironically, the Colts were one of nine clubs to not receive at least one compensatory pick in the 2011 draft -- there are 32 choices spread among 23 franchises, with all of the selections coming after the 96th overall selection -- but Indianapolis certainly has demonstrated a knack historically for making compensatory picks work. In five of the past six drafts, the Colts unearthed at least one solid player with a compensatory pick, with Conner joining a group that, among others, includes wide receiver Pierre Garcon, linebacker Clint Session, and safety Antoine Bethea.
The Giants will have two comp picks in the sixth round of this year's draft from the free agent losses of QB David Carr and DT Fred Robbins after the 2009 season.
As a prime example locally of the potential value of the extra picks, last year's featured back Ahmad Bradshaw was a comp pick at the end of the seventh round in 2007.
The rule regarding compensatory choices is buried in the reams of copy that comprise the recently expired collective bargaining agreement, Section 2 of Article XVI, but is a 195-word fat paragraph that has impacted the league and several key players since it was instituted.
No, not as much as more ballyhooed sections governing free agency, franchise players, arbitration, players' rights on medical care, and guidelines for discipline, for sure. But the agreement covering the draft permits the NFL to award compensatory choices to teams sustaining a net loss in free agency. And while those choices may not have had a huge cumulative effect since the picks were first parceled out in 1994, they have been anything but incidental.
"I'm pretty sure I'd still be playing (in the NFL), even without the compensatory (pick)," said Ward, a former third-rounder. "But it might not necessarily be for the Steelers. So, obviously, it would have had an effect on my personal history. And it might have meant a different history for the Steelers. So, yeah, the compensatory was pretty good to me ... and, hopefully, to them, too."
Like the Colts, the Steelers ironically are one of the teams not awarded a compensatory pick last Friday, when the NFL revealed the additional choices. But both franchises have exercised past choices wisely. Pittsburgh has accumulated 22 compensatory choices, the ninth-most, since the league began to award them in '94; Indianapolis has collected 16 extra picks.
In all, nine NFL teams have received more than 20 compensatory draft picks through the years.
"It's not necessarily like 'found money,' because you've got to suffer a (free agency) loss to get them," said Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome, whose Ravens have been granted a league-most 31 compensatory choices, including two this year, in 18 years. "But every little bit helps."
Since '94, there have now been 555 compensatory choices awarded. Carolina, which owns the top overall selection, has the most in the league in 2011, with three. Seven other franchises have two extra picks each.
The Panthers hold the highest compensatory pick, at the end of the third round. There are two extra selections each in the fourth and fifth rounds, six in the sixth, and 21 in the seventh.
For the Panthers, who had received only 10 compensatory picks in the 17 previous years of the program, the additional choices aren't quite a windfall. After all, the club lost star defensive end Julius Peppers and serviceable quarterback A.J. Feeley in free agency last spring, and those departures contributed significantly to the Byzantine and little-understood formula that league employs for awarding selections. But the extra picks, acknowledged first-year coach Ron Rivera, should contribute to the Panthers' rebuilding.
"It's not gravy," said Rivera, before the league, which delayed the announcement until after the league meeting had concluded, made the awards. "But since they're out there, sure you hope you get some. It's a chance to get a guy who might help your team, and not have to maybe fight for him as (an undrafted) free agent. It's an opportunity for you and the player."
An opportunity that has been pretty good to both parties.
The numbers on how many compensatory choices earn roster spots as rookies has varied wildly the past several seasons. But in 2010, more than four dozen onetime compensatory choices started at least three games each. Super Bowl XLV included four starters who entered the NFL as compensatory picks; there were five such starters in Super Bowl XLIV. Part of the sustained success in New England, where the Patriots received three or more compensatory choices in three of the past four springs (remarkably, none this year), have been compensatory selections.
"When they hand me my (Super Bowl) ring," said Green Bay guard Josh Sitton, a fourth-round compensatory choice in 2008, "it's not going to say 'compensatory' on it. It doesn't matter how you get there, just that you do."
The extra picks have permitted the Pats and coach Bill Belichick, one of the most renowned wheelers-and-dealers during the draft, great flexibility. There are teams who in the past have devised at least part of their free agency planning, who they might or might not sign/re-sign, on the compensatory ramifications of their actions. And compensatory choices, surprisingly, have gone just about as frequently to club with winning records as losing ones. In 2009, for instance, all but six compensatory picks were granted to franchises with non-losing marks from the 2008 campaign.
"There are guys in the league whose teams had compensatory picks and just decided to take a shot at a player because of the extra choice," acknowledged New Orleans wide receiver Marques Colston, a seventh-round compensatory choice in 2006. "The extra picks definitely play a role."
Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.