It is more than just a money incentive when a rookie comes of age in their contract year. All players, rookie or not, want job security. League expectancy for a career on average is very short term - about three years. So money is one thing, but keeping it rolling in is another.
In fantasy, we look at contract year players from the point of view that they'll produce because they have those incentives. Recently, the idea has met with success. Like DeMarco Murray in 2014 and Doug Martin in 2015. In both of those cases these running backs had strong contract years. Chris Ivory too was in a contract year in 2015 and also produced his best numbers since entering the league in 2010. His total yards from scrimmage increased by 44% in 2015 from the average of his previous two seasons.
It seems running backs are the main focus because other skill positions don't control their contract as closely. A wide receiver depends on targets and quarterback/coach decisions to get the ball. A running back holds his fate in his own hands and depends heavily on a good offensive line to create his opportunities. If a running back succeeds in raising his free agent stock, his linemen should expect presents at Christmas.
Alfred Morris was in a contract year in 2015, but there was no joy because the state of the Redskins line was not so great for establishing a solid running attack. I'm sure Morris tried, but his contract year fell apart and he had to put himself on the market - outside the blue chips. He got a $3.5m two-year deal with Cowboys, but compared to Doug Martin's five year $37.5m contract, it looks like he landed on Mediterranean to Martin's Boardwalk.
Contract Year Players
Whether you strategize your fantasy team by factoring in contract year players or not, bearing it mind when drafting is just that little extra information to have that other people don't. Contract year players, especially running backs, have a sound record when it comes to expectation.
Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints
Current: 5yr $100m
So it's back to this again. I think the Saints are dreading another year of it. Last time if you recall, Brees was threatened with the franchise tag during negotiations. A quarterback of his stripe, with a Super Bowl trophy, rightly found that an insult. How they intend to deal with him this time to ensure he ends his career with the team, I'll never know.
The bright side to all of it is that Brees has everything to play for in 2016. This can only help fantasy owners with a bit of confidence. Brees will likely show that he's nowhere near "washed up" to get a decent two or perhaps even a three year contract out of the deal. This optimism is tempered somewhat, because the Saints have no real up and coming quarterbacks to speak of. So they are sort of bound to Brees for at least the time being whether or not he has a banner 2016.
In fantasy, he's the one quarterback you are tempted by because of the big numbers he can produce. However, his often ordinary performances outside of the Superdome make him a freckled fantasy elite. That said, I still like Drew Brees. With as bad a defense as New Orleans has, he's bound to be tossing the ball around like Santa throwing candies in a parade.
Tyrod Taylor, Buffalo Bills
Current: 3yr $3.35m
There's nothing better for Tyrod Taylor's great situation than his wide open field of opportunity to shine. The Bills have already worked out a generous base for Taylor to work up from. The rest is up to Tyrod. E.J. Manual can only look from the sidelines and think "that could have been me."
There is work for Tyrod to do before he gets a sniff at a multi-year deal, beyond the nominal 2yr extension the Bills have reportedly set as the starting point. Part of the work involves improving his accuracy. The emphasis on a strong running game with a stout defense should help Taylor game manage and find that open man better.
Where do we seat Taylor? It's almost as though we need another dry run. We see red apples on the tree, but think we should wait for the green ones to turn red before picking any. He's a shaky ranked QB14, because the ADP is averaging him at 139. The fantasy drafting world always speaks louder, but in truth I feel he deserves this range and not ESPN's rather low QB26.
Given his QB2 category, you can expect what you're given with Taylor. The upside is there somewhere I think, so if you are drafting deep for quarterback or as an extra for your bench, why not go for another test drive?
Update: The Bills have sweetened the deal for Tyrod Taylor by offering the multi-year contract. He'll play at $9.5m in 2016, but for him to get the plus five year extension totalling $92m, he'll have to prove it through the season. It's a much more enticing than the short range deals reports suggested earlier in off season.
Some other quarterbacks in a contract year
|E.J. Manuel||26||3||4 yr $8,885,300|
|Geno Smith||25||3||4 yr $5,019,603|
Eddie Lacy, Green Bay Packers
Current: 4yr $3.4m
We love Eddie. Even though we hope there's less of him to love in 2016.
Eddie has worked hard in the off-season to lose the extra weight and reduced enough to be ready by the time the season starts. Fantasy is licking its chops for a major comeback from Lacy (RB12), but his ADP is barely scratching the overall top 20, so some apprehension persists.
If you take out the game shape problems, we are still left with his overall rookie contract record. At various times it is promising, frustrating, astonishing and confounding. The slow starts particulary stand out and his brief injury out of the gate into the NFL has never faded from the fantasy chronicle.
We've never had the big breakout from Lacy really, unlike Doug Martin who had a stellar rookie campaign. If Lacy returns to 1400+ yards from scrimmage in 2016, then fantasy will just let out a big yawn. We want more. We always want more. We want Lacy to rock and take that total yardage beyond 1600.
I'm confident that Lacy can do this in a contract year and the carrot will help. I think he's a bargain and a very good prospect for not just a comeback, but a careeer season. It's not too bold to suggest this either, because it's all lining up for Eddie. He's in a good and balanced Packers offense with some fine tuned adjustments, which include tight end Jared Cook. Jordy Nelson returns, giving extra texture for Lacy to make those first downs and breaks into the secondary.
Latavius Murray, Oakland Raiders
Current: 4yr $2.66m
A lot of back and forth in the off-season on Latavius Murray is starting to settle down as a value choice. His current ADP of 41 looks really appetizing compared with other number one running backs in the NFL fantasy ranks. The rest of the hype is coming out of camp and praise for his work ethic. Plus the other usual coaching pump ups. DeAndre Washington is also riding a sleeper wave for the backup relief role and looks like a decent handcuff too.
Here's the problem. He put in a rather bust-ish 2015 season for starting all 16 games. The 1200+ yards didn't translate into steady productive fantasy points either. Only six games were over 10 standard fantasy points. How much improvement can he give on those numbers? A 20% increase only puts him at 1400+ and a couple of extra touchdowns.
The fantasy aspect of risk/reward starts creeping in to your thinking on this. I always look optimistically for contract players, but for some reason the same vigor for drafting him isn't exactly there. We're relying on an augmented Raiders offensive line to help Murray race for the gold in 2016.
It's not a great outlook for Murray's contract year, but it's not bad either. The ever strengthening offense of the Raiders has to count for something. Since things are trending up for the team as a whole, I'd have to say that Murray would get swept along. That is as enthusiastic as I'm going to get.
Some other running backs in a contract year
|Le'Veon Bell||24||3||4 yr $4,120,600|
|DeAngelo Williams ||33||10||2 yr $4,000,000|
|Theo Riddick ||25||3||4 yr $2,251,000 |
|Isaiah Crowell ||23||2||3 yr $1,540,000 |
|Knile Davis ||24||3||4 yr $2,741,016 |
|Branden Oliver ||25||2||3 yr $1,530,000 |
Michael Floyd, Arizona Cardinals
Current: 4yr $9.97m
Cardinals receivers are still waiting for the day to come where they all move up in rank. More waiting in 2016. Larry Fitzgerald continues his career with yet another contract extension (2yr $22m) and doesn't become a free agent now until 2018. Michael Floyd and John Brown, the other two amigos, remain the understudies for yet another year. If Fitz plays it out and continues to hold a nice chunk of the cap space, Floyd might be forced to try the open market.
How good is Floyd anyway? Would he steadily get 1000+ receiving yards if Fitz wasn't there? John Brown just chalked up his first career 1000 yard season, so who really comes next in the pecking order anyway? Not only that, the Cardinals are constantly grooming smooth young receivers like Jaron Brown and J.J. Nelson, so is there ever going to be a future for Floyd in Arizona?
Obviously Floyd would like to get to the next salary level. Getting quality playing time has never been an issue in Arizona, so staying with a decent extension would be in his best interest. An extension was already in the works as early as January, but where it ends up after 2016 remains to be seen.
Fantasy trust for Floyd is less in his hands than other factors, so that's unfortunate. He's deep enough (ADP 58) so that you don't have to treat him like silk, but he's not polyester either. So don't let Floyd's minimal upside dissuade you too much and keep him under consideration.
Alshon Jeffery, Chicago Bears
Current: 1yr $14.6m franchise tag
The Bears and Jeffery failed to come to an agreement and so the July deadline came and went with Jeffery on the franchise tag. Jeffery, despite his strong talent, is gaining a reputation in fantasy and real football as an injury risk. He'll have to remain healthy this year to cash in on a fresh and lucrative contract.
So far, he's off to a rough start. A hamstring injury has had him sidelined for some of camp. Fortunately, the issue is not serious and Jeffery will resume his role as WR1 in the Bears offense. Going forward however, in fantasy and otherwise, the injury bug with Jeffery is biting hard and risk keeps weighing heavier than reward.
All this talk of Kevin White's preening for the next level is just a fantasy diversion. Fun discussion, because that's what we do. Compared to Jeffery, White is still far behind, so there's no need for any big target concerns. Besides, it's not like there's a lot of mouths to feed in Chicago anyway.
I'll stick with the optimistic side. It's all to play for with Jeffery and the upside is just too robust to let injury worries get the better of your judgement. Every player is at risk for injury and letting yourself get clouded too much over it will cause you to pass over a fantasy diamond. And that's what Jeffery is.
Some other wide receivers in a contract year
|DeSean Jackson||29||8||4 yr $24,000,000|
|Josh Gordon||25||3||4 yr $5,341,648|
|Emmanuel Sanders||29||6||3 yr $15,000,000|
|Vincent Jackson||33||11||5 yr $55,555,555|
|Markus Wheaton||25||3||4 yr $2,811,376|
|Kenny Stills||24||3||4 yr $2,354,452|
|Terrance Williams||26||3||4 yr $2,896,972|
|Kendall Wright||26||4||4 yr $8,218,452|
|Pierre Garcon||29||8||5 yr $42,500,000|