Contract Year Fantasy Players

Heading into the 2012 season Joe Flacco and the Ravens engaged in a game of contract chicken: Flacco wanted Baltimore to pay him franchise quarterback money, while the Ravens wanted Flacco to prove he was worth it. In the ultimate win-win situation, the Ravens got their Super Bowl rings on the back of Flacco’s near-perfect postseason; Flacco, in turn, will see his bank account swell by $120 million over the next six years.

With that lesson fresh at hand look for myriad NFL teams to use money as a motivator—happy to trade a few million extra dollars for a performance that brings the Lombardi trophy and a victory parade to town. Or, in some cases, teams will settle for using financial motivation to squeeze elusive production from players who haven’t quite lived up to expectations. And players, of course, want to put their best work on film in order to capitalize on one of their limited opportunities to cash in on their talents.

Fantasy owners have long looked to contract year players for an extra statistical boost as well. Let’s break down the more prominent players hoping to “pull a Flacco” so you can take advantage accordingly.

QUARTERBACKS

Everything the Bears did this offseason—replacing defensive-minded Lovie Smith with quarterback whisperer Marc Trestman, adding tight end Martellus Bennett, upgrading their offensive line—is geared towards getting the most out of Jay Cutler. The Bears also opted not to renew Cutler’s contract, instead following the Flacco route in hopes that Cutler will finally deliver stats that resemble his Denver days. Cutler knows he needs to win to get paid, and he’ll need to perform to get wins. Early ADP data indicates fantasy owners aren’t buying into Cutler being up for the challenge—which in turn provides an opportunity who see everything the Bears have done to ensure Cutler’s success.

The numbers weren’t bad for Josh Freeman last year—4,065 passing yards and 27 touchdowns, both ranking him among the top 10 in each category. But nine interceptions and just two touchdowns over the final three games had the Bucs drafting Mike Glennon in the third round and delaying talks of a new deal for Freeman. To aid in his contract quest Freeman will have the same array of talent—wide receivers Vincent Jackson and fellow contract-year player Mike Williams, running back Doug Martin—that helped him produce last year’s numbers, along with the return of All Pro guard Davin Joseph, who missed last season with a knee injury. All Freeman needs to do to outperform his current ADP is hold serve, but since you have to believe that isn’t enough to warrant big money the prospect of additional motivation makes Freeman an intriguing sleeper candidate.

Michael Vick isn’t playing for much of a long-term deal, but if he’s able to demonstrate a grasp of Chip Kelly’s offense he could very likely secure a two- or three-year front-loaded deal to stick around in Philly—or garner a salary boost with another team looking to run the read option. But he’ll have to beat out Nick Foles first.

Perhaps the most likely candidate to go Flacco is Matt Ryan, but all indications are that the Falcons will lock him up prior to the start of the season. Performance hasn’t been an issue with Ryan, especially in the regular season, so the contract year carrot wouldn’t necessarily be a reason to expect an uptick in numbers anyway.

RUNNING BACKS

What’s the opposite of pulling a Flacco? How about leading the NFL in rushing, then staging a fruitless 38-day holdout before returning to camp and laying mostly eggs in six games before a foot injury brings the season to a premature conclusion? That was 2012 in a nutshell for Maurice Jones-Drew. The Jaguars have already said they don’t intend to address MoJo’s contract situation any time soon; meanwhile, with a new regime calling the shots the team is getting younger—to the point that a 28-year-old running back with seven seasons of wear might not be the focal point of their rebuilding efforts. Jones-Drew isn’t yet recovered from last year’s foot injury, and while he’s expected to be good to go for training camp he’s missing out on valuable time working with the new offense. There are also reports he’s not in shape, and he may or may not have been involved in an off-the-field incident as well. So Jones-Drew is most likely auditioning for a new team, but even if he does go off the market for a running back knocking on the door of 30 won’t be lucrative. But hey, on the bright side, he’s said he won’t hold out this time around.

2013 provides a battle for the ages in Oakland. On one side you have the powerful financial incentives of a potential new contract; on the other you have Darren McFadden, who has managed to find injured reserve in each of his five NFL seasons and missed an average of 4.6 games per year. While the Raiders have turned their offense over to unproven quarterback Matt Flynn, they’ve also scrapped the zone-blocking scheme that helped scuttle McFadden’s numbers last year and will look to him as their primary offensive weapon. Moreover, Oakland’s roster makeover has freed up plenty of cap room to sign a back who’ll turn 26 in training camp—especially if he figures out how to stay healthy and finally deliver on his enormous potential. Put another way: if McFadden can’t figure out how to do it this year, odds are he’ll never get it.

Last year’s contract push didn’t exactly work out for Rashard Mendenhall, but in his defense he was coming off a torn ACL that limited him to six games and 182 yards in Pittsburgh. That bought Mendenhall a show-me one-year deal in Arizona, where he’ll be reunited with former Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians—the man who called the plays during Mendenhall’s two 1,000-yard seasons. Mendenhall will turn 26 later this month, so he’s not too old as far as running backs go. And if he’s able to demonstrate his knee is healthy, the Cardinals—or another team—might be willing to throw some money his way on a three- or four-year deal. There’s little to lose for Mendenhall—and with an ADP of RB33, late in the eighth round, there’s little to lose for fantasy owners willing to bank on Mendy’s reunion tour in the desert.

Others of note: Ben Tate wouldn’t mind a few more carries in relief of Arian Foster to allow him to pad his resume heading into free agency… If Chris Ivory gets hurt again and Mike Goodson’s off-the-field issues keep him off the field, Joe McKnight would be the beneficiary—with free agency looming for him as well… Should Darren McFadden make his annual trip to IR, Marcel Reece would stand to pick up carries—a welcome opportunity with his Oakland contract expiring at the end of 2013.

WIDE RECEIVERS

The Giants have not one but two starting receivers heading into contract years; Victor Cruz has been the most vocal about wanting a new deal, but Hakeem Nicks has been staying away from offseason activities as well. At least Nicks was a first-round pick and compensated as such; Cruz came out of nowhere and has been dramatically outperforming his initial deal. The way things are shaping up neither Cruz nor Hicks will be auditioning for a new contract, choosing instead to rely on their existing body of work and holding out until they get paid. It’s a different twist on the contract year scenarios discussed above, but it does require fantasy owners to get familiar with the back end of Eli Manning’s receiving corps—most notably Rueben Randle, Louis Murphy, and Jerrel Jernigan.

If Josh Freeman is seeking for help in his contract push, he need look no further than down the line of scrimmage to Mike Williams. The Bucs’ WR2 is playing out the final year of his rookie deal, and while both sides have expressed interest and even met to discuss an extension nothing is imminent. Playing under a fourth-round contract Williams is quite affordable, but Tampa Bay has room to give him an upgrade if they so desire. Williams will need to weigh security against a slightly lowball offer he’ll likely receive prior to the season; if Williams does hit the season unsigned, the twin motivators of his contract and Freeman’s need to look good should give him a slight nudge up the fantasy draft board.

Kenny Britt has missed 19 games over the past three seasons and had almost as many off-the-field incidents. Yet miraculously, as Britt enters the final year of his contract he’s somehow managed to both get healthy and avoid arrest this offseason. It’s hard to tell if the Titans are buying Britt as the long-term answer to their WR1 question; after all, over the past two years they’ve spent a first-round pick on Kendall Wright and a second-rounder on Justin Hunter. All reports surrounding Britt thus far this offseason have been glowing—looks as good as ever, staying out of trouble, clicking with the offense—so perhaps a payday is just the motivation Britt needs. Enjoy his 2013, then, and let someone else watch him bust in 2014 when Dan Snyder overpays him in free agency.

It wasn’t all that long ago that James Jones was all but gone from Green Bay, a bit part in Aaron Rodgers’ receiving corps that seemed easily replaceable. But last year it was Greg Jennings who missed time and Jones who stepped up to lead the league in touchdown grabs. Jennings is gone, leaving even more looks for Jones in 2013. Going forward, unless Jones can’t find a way to fit under a cap somewhat restricted by Rodgers’ hefty contract, he’ll be catching passes in Green Bay for the foreseeable future; after all, you don’t spend all that money on a quarterback and then gut his receiving corps. So while Jones’ financial motivation might be lacking, there’s enough opportunity to keep Jones among the top wideouts on the fantasy draft board.

With a new regime and a new offense, it makes sense for the Eagles to take a wait-and-see approach to Jeremy Maclin and his expiring contract. While he’s only missed five games in four NFL seasons Maclin always seems to be dinged, and his productivity has been lacking with no 1,000-yard seasons and only one 10-TD campaign to his credit in Andy Reid’s pass-happy offense. The speedy Maclin would appear to be a perfect fit with Chip Kelly’s high-octane attack, and the Eagles have room under the salary cap to compensate Maclin accordingly, but all indications are they’ll let Maclin play his way into a new deal. With Michael Vick similarly motivated, there’s some extra upside to Maclin’s fantasy prospects this season.

Wes Welker’s arrival in Denver was good news for Peyton Manning and fantasy owners but bad news for Eric Decker and his contract year push. Sure, history suggests there will be plenty of stats to go around but at contract time more is always better and Welker will unquestionably take a bite out of Decker’s 122 targets and 13 touchdowns. Worse, teammate Demaryius Thomas hits free agency a year after Decker and Manning can’t play forever, so the Broncos have some tough choices to make about which receiver gets how much and for how long. On the bright side, Decker is still catching passes from Peyton this year and won’t be the focal point of defensive attention with Thomas and Welker also on the field so regardless of who pays him next year he’s still in line to post solid numbers.

The Steelers watched Mike Wallace leave via free agency and the Patriots make a run at Emmanuel Sanders before matching the offer and keeping Sanders around for one more season. With Pittsburgh pressed tight against the salary cap there wasn’t much wiggle room to offer Sanders more, and though the sides are reportedly discussing an extension Sanders appears more than willing to take advantage of his move into the starting lineup to drive the price up. Increased playing time, Wallace’s 122 targets to replace, and a financial motivator to boot; it all adds up to good reason for elevated expectations for a guy with five career touchdowns in three NFL seasons.

No team made a run at Danario Alexanderin free agency, but that’s hardly shocking: despite being among the most productive wideouts in the league over the final two months of last season, nobody trusts Alexander to stay healthy. He’s never played more than 10 games in a season, missing a total of 20 games in three NFL seasons; who’s going to throw a long-term deal at that? There is definitely upside to Alexander, and if he does find a way to stay on the field for 16 games his agent’s phone will be ringing in the offseason. But if it really takes a money motivator for Alexander to stay healthy, what’s the benefit in a long-term deal?

Others of note: The 49ers traded a sixth-round pick for Anquan Boldin, who will play out the final year of his existing deal in San Francisco. On the backside of his career, Boldin is likely looking at a series of one-year contracts the rest of the way, so the motivation with him will be perpetual… Mario Manningham restructured the final year of his contract to avoid being a salary cap casualty. He’s still working his way back from injury, so there’s more risk than reward here: risk that Manningham rushes back too soon and aggravates the injury, or risk that he shuts down so as not to enter the open market as damaged goods. Neither scenario does much to boost his fantasy stock… Darrius Heyward-Bey landed a show-me deal with Colts, which isn’t a bad move if he can stay healthy. He’ll also have to compete with Reggie Wayne and TY Hilton for looks, but getting out of Oakland for an audition can’t be a bad thing… Jacoby Ford, meanwhile, remains a Raider while he plays out his rookie contract. First, he’ll need to prove he can stay healthy after missing eight games in 2012; then he’ll need to get on the same page with Matt Flynn and outduel Denarius Moore and Rod Streater for looks in what is expected to be a run-heavy offense. Perhaps Ford should get with DHB’s agent to discuss the buffer year away from Oakland strategy…Jacoby Jones can dance, he can return kicks, but can he be a WR2? That’s the question he’ll have to answer this year if he’s looking for big money in the offseason. Sans Anquan Boldin he’ll get his best opportunity, but they probably said the same thing about him opposite Andre Johnson in Houston… Andy Reid might be just the boost that Dexter McCluster needs, and as a bonus Reid arrives in a contract year for McCluster. However, McCluster’s skills may need a specific type of offense to be effectively displayed so the market may not be as wide open as McCluster’s agent hopes. Either way, the combination of a potentially lucrative role in the offense and the dangling carrot of a payday make McCluster an intriguing PPR sleeper candidate.

TIGHT ENDS

That elite fantasy tight end Jimmy Graham is entering a contract year is somehow flying under the radar; Graham isn’t squawking, and the Saints haven’t said much in regards to his status. The Saints could be snug against the salary cap in 2014, and if Graham makes the same argument Jermichael Finley and Jared Cook threatened to make about being more of a wide receiver than a tight end he could be looking at a franchise tag deal that tops $10 million. Saints coach Sean Payton has indicated he won’t let that potential debate change how he uses Graham, and all Graham has said about the situation is that he’s “hungrier than ever.” Rob Gronkowski’s injury status has already pushed Graham to the top of the fantasy tight end draft board, and the prospect of a payday only solidifies that status.

Speaking of Jermichael Finley, talk that the Packers would release their enigmatic tight end failed to pan out; instead, Green Bay honored Finley’s $3 million roster bonus and will pay him in excess of $8 million this year. The Packers have been as frustrated by Finley’s inconsistency as his fantasy owners, but with no real backup plan on the roster it looks as if Ted Thompson expects a solid season from his tight end—with a hefty contract as a reward. That Finley took the team’s suggestion and put back on some weight he had dropped heading into last season suggests that franchise tagging him as a tight end or wide receiver won’t become a point of contention. That, in turn, suggests that Finley feels at home in Green Bay; if he turns that comfort into another productive season, he’ll be at home in Lambeau for a long time—a very good thing for his fantasy value going forward.

Baltimore’s tight end tandem of Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson both signed their RFA tenders and will be playing for bigger, longer contracts this year. Pitta is the popular choice to pick up at least some of Anquan Boldin’s slack, but both Pitta and Dickson have financial motivation to improve their numbers. If the Ravens find themselves in the same dire salary cap straits as they did this past offseason they may only be able to afford one of the two—and if Pitta is too productive, they may opt for the less expensive option. Either way, both motivation and opportunity are on the docket for Baltimore’s tight ends this season.

A trio of fantasy-relevant tight ends are playing on one-year “show me” deals in 2013: Fred Davis coming off an Achilles’ tendon injury in Washington; Dustin Keller with the Jets; and Brandon Myers, whose four-year contract with the Giants can be easily voided down to a one-year deal. The Redskins—and the rest of the league—will mostly want to see if Davis is healthy before investing any money in a long-term deal, while the Giants can simply opt to keep Myers around if he capably replaces Martellus Bennett. Keller, meanwhile, has to contend with another big-ticket signing in Miami—wideout Mike Wallace—as he looks to turn his one-year-ticket to South Beach into something more lucrative.

Both Detroit’s Brandon Pettigrew and Kansas City’s Tony Moeaki are in the final year of their rookie contract. The Chiefs appear ready to move on from Moeaki, having signed ex-Dolphin Anthony Fasano and drafted Travis Kelce, so anything Moeaki can do in Andy Reid’s TE-friendly West Coast offense will likely be auditioning for another team; whether the personnel logjam at the position allows Moeaki that opportunity, however, remains to be seen. Pettigrew will once again share looks with Tony Sheffler—also a free agent following the season—but he also stands as Matthew Stafford’s second-favorite target next to Calvin Johnson. Unfortunately, Pettigrew has just a dozen touchdowns to show for three straight seasons of triple-digit targets so unless the prospects of a fat new contract improve Pettigrew’s hands and red zone presence there isn’t much room for statistical uptick.