The Patriots traded linebacker Jamie Collins to the Browns for a conditional draft pick, which is a 2017 third-round compensatory selection.
And what exactly is that? The NFL has a system of compensatory draft picks that helps teams that lose talent in free agency, like if Collins had played out the rest of this year and then signed with another team in the offseason.
It’s based on a complicated formula that the NFL doesn’t explain, but revolves mostly around playing time. If the players you lose play more snaps than the players you gain, the higher your compensatory picks become. The highest pick you can gain in the system is a third-rounder, and it comes at the end of the round (after the 96th pick).
You can also get compensatory picks in the fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh rounds. Tom Brady was drafted with a compensatory pick in the sixth round of the 2000 draft.
But the return isn’t immediate. Had the Patriots let Collins walk away in free agency in the spring of 2017, they wouldn’t have received compensatory picks until the 2018 draft.
The Patriots also would have had to dance delicately around free agency next spring. Compensatory picks are not awarded on a one-to-one basis. Instead, the NFL looks at the sum of players you lost and the sum of players you gained, and then awards compensatory picks.
In the 2016 draft, the Patriots were awarded four compensatory picks: A third-rounder (96th overall) and three sixth-rounders (208th, 214th and 221st overall). The Patriots had lost cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, running back Shane Vereen, defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and linebacker Akeem Ayers in the 2015 free agency period, while only signing defensive end Jabaal Sheard.