The NFL guards the formula as though it was the recipe for the secret sauce on a Big Mac, or maybe a better analogy would be that it's such a secret because the league doesn't want the public to see exactly what goes into this particular brand of sausage.
The mystery meat in question is the compensatory draft pick, and good luck figuring out that recipe. Here is the way it's "explained" on NFL.com:
"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. The number of picks a team receives equals the net loss of compensatory free agents up to a maximum of four. The 32 compensatory choices will supplement the 224 choices in the seven rounds of the draft.
"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 team is covered by this formula."
For those people who might prefer plain language, here are some of the basic rules that affect the awarding of compensatory draft picks:
Players lost because they were cut do not count in the formula. Players signed and then released before midseason don't count. Players earning minimum salaries don't count. One signing cancels out one loss, and the value of the contract signed by the lost player has a significant impact upon the round in which the compensatory pick is awarded.
There are only 32 compensatory picks awarded each year, regardless of the amount of player movement during the preceding free agency period, and also remember that the compensatory picks awarded this year are based on the UFA losses/signings from the 2013 offseason.
Making this specific to the Steelers, here is their chart of UFAs lost/signed from 2013:
LOST: WR Mike Wallace, CB Keenan Lewis, RB Rashard Mendenhall, FS Will Allen, SS Ryan Mundy
SIGNED: QB Bruce Gradkowski
Projections for this year's compensatory selections generally have the Steelers being awarded one in the third round and one in the fifth round, and that makes sense based on the size of the contracts signed by Wallace and Lewis and the roles they played on their new teams. But that doesn't consider Mendenhall, who started 15 games for the Arizona Cardinals, or Mundy, who signed for a low amount but played 667 snaps last season for the New York Giants.
"That formula is so complicated. I don't know," said General Manager Kevin Colbert. "I think we'll get a significant pick because of the significant loss that we had with Mike Wallace, and we really didn't offset that (with a signing)."
Colbert, in Orlando this week for the NFL Owners' Meetings, said knowing the possibility of getting a couple of decent compensatory picks in this upcoming draft was a factor in trading a 2014 third-round pick to the Cleveland Browns in order to draft Shamarko Thomas in the fourth round last year.
"That was our mind-set when we traded the pick away last year," said Colbert, "but until we get it, I'm still a little nervous."
Colbert can figure on being nervous for another day, maybe two, before the league announces the compensatory picks for this 2014 draft. Unless they don't.
"Yeah, again, it's a real complicated formula based on net free agents lost vs. net free agents gained, the money that was spent and then all their production put together," said Colbert. "We try to predict it but – actually we've gotten more then I've predicted in the past. We'll find out, I guess, Tuesday or Wednesday. I don't know when."
The following is a year-by-year breakdown of how many compensatory draft picks the Steelers were awarded and how they used those picks:
1995: 1 pick; Seventh round, PK Cole Ford
1996: 2 picks; Fourth round WR Jahine Arnold; Sixth round QB Spence Fischer
1997: 2 picks: Third round OLB Mike Vrabel; Sixth round DE Rod Manuel
1998: 3 picks: Fourth round FB Carlos King; Sixth round LB Ryan Olson; Seventh round NT Angel Rubio
1999: 2 picks: Third round RB Amos Zereoue; Fifth round WR Malcolm Johnson
2000: 2 picks: Fifth round QB Tee Martin; Sixth round TE Jason Gavadza
2006: 3 picks: Fourth round OT Willie Colon; Fourth round DE Orien Harris; Fifth round TE Charles Davis
2007: 2 picks: Fourth round DE Ryan McBean; Fifth round CB William Gay
2009: 1 pick: Fifth round FB Frank Summers
2010: 1 pick: Fifth round CB Crezdon Butler
2012: 3 picks: Seventh round TE David Paulson; Seventh round CB Terrence Frederick; Seventh round OT Kelvin Beachum
2013: 1 pick: Sixth round ILB Vince Williams