Going after contract-year players is usually not a bad idea as they should be motivated to play through injuries in hopes of securing a big pay day at season end. The one caveat to this strategy is the fact that some teams might be looking to phase out those on their final year deals in hopes of ushering in younger players on more team friendly salaries. In this article we’ll discuss the most relevant fantasy players that will be entering week one with a lot to prove.
Alex Smith: The No. 1 overall pick the 2005 draft enters his second season with Kansas City and is rumored to be unwilling to take a contract that lacks a large amount of guaranteed money. It's been rumored that Smith is targeting upwards of $20 million per season, similar to the recent contracts signed by Jay Cutler and Joe Flacco. The 30-year-old signal caller had a solid first year under head coach Andy Reid, averaging 221 yards per game with 23 touchdowns and just seven interceptions. He remains a game manager with limited options, especially with Dwayne Bowe’s future in limbo; he has already been suspended for Week 1 and is battling finger and quad injuries. Smith is a lower-end QB2 worth considering in rounds 12 or 13 of 12-team leagues.
Jake Locker: The eighth overall pick of the 2011 draft enters this season with hopes of playing a full 16 games for the first time in his career. Locker has played in just 23 games through his first three NFL seasons, and the Titans drafted Zach Mettenberger this season as a potential heir apparent. New head coach Ken Whisenhunt will look to improve Locker's 56 percent career completion rate, and the Titans’ passing offense could be set up to surprise with PPR dynamo Kendall Wright and one of the hottest sleepers in Justin Hunter at wide receiver. Tennessee will also likely have rookie Bishop Sankey in their backfield for the majority of the season, which could result in a greater reliance on the passing game. Locker remains well worth targeting as a late-round flier as his mobility and underrated weapons could result in a top-15 finish at the position provided he can stay healthy.
Brian Hoyer: The Browns’ quarterback carousel came to a stop on the veteran, albeit by default as Johnny Manziel has yet to resemble anything close to a NFL-caliber starting quarterback. All signs point to Hoyer starting the first few games of the season and then likely giving way to Manziel after Cleveland’s Week 4 bye if he’s ready. The 28-year-old Hoyer impressed in two starts last season before he suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 5. He completed 60 percent of his passes in those two starts while averaging 295 yards per game with five touchdowns and three interceptions. With Josh Gordon likely suspended a large portion of the season, the Browns figure to rely heavily on their ground game and emerging defense under first-year head coach Mike Pettine. It’s difficult to recommend Hoyer to those not in two-quarterback leagues as the Browns have a difficult opening schedule -- at Pittsburgh, vs. New Orleans and vs. Baltimore.
DeMarco Murray: The 26-year-old from the University of Oklahoma is coming off a career year in which topped 1,000 yards rushing for the first time while adding 53 catches for 350 yards. With Scott Linehan now calling the offensive plays, Murray should have a chance to approach 60-70 catches, making him a solid RB1 in all formats, especially PPR. Dallas boasts one of the best offensive lines in the league as well as one of the worst defenses, so Murray could hear his number called early and often this season with the high likelihood that the Cowboys are in weekly shootouts.
Shane Vereen: Sugar Shane has played in just 26 games over his first three seasons and had his 2013 campaign derailed by a broken wrist that forced him to miss half of the season. He should remain an elite PPR running back as he averaged eight catches and 75 yards through each of the first five games he played in last season. But the addition of pass-catching rookie James White and a committee backfield including those two and touchdown-stealing Steven Ridley (if he stops fumbling) make it difficult to justify Vereen’s fifth-round average draft position. He has just nine touchdowns in his first three seasons, and the Patriots have a multitude of weapons, especially with the expected return of Rob Gronkowski and the acquisition of Tim Wright.
Stevan Ridley: The 25-year-old LSU alum has already been benched once this preseason for fumbling, but he could provide solid value if he can get out of Bill Belichick’s doghouse by Week 1. From Weeks 4-11 last season, Ridley averaged 16 carries for 74 yards per game and scored seven touchdowns. But through the final six games of the regular season, his butterfingers resulted in a limited role, and Ridley was virtually a non-factor in the playoffs. His value in PPR leagues is greatly diminished by his 19 career catches, but he is just one season removed from 1,263 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns. Ridley is an intriguing risk/reward pick based on his current eighth-round ADP in 12-team leagues.
At wide receiver, there are a handful of high-profile pass catchers who will likely cash in at the end of the season as Demaryius Thomas, Dez Bryant and Randall Cobb figure to stay with their current team for the foreseeable future. We will profile a few WR2 and WR3s who will be looking for big money after a productive 2014 season.
Michael Crabtree: An Achilles injury limited the 10th overall pick of the 2009 draft to just five games last season in which he posted just 19 receptions, 284 yards and one touchdown. However, in 2012, Crabtree put up 1,105 yards and nine touchdowns, and he’s a solid bounce-back candidate as Colin Kaepernick’s go-to wide receiver. Crabtree should provide a solid return for those who invest a fourth- or fifth-round pick in him. The 49ers might be forced to throw more this season with multiple question marks on their defense.
Roddy White: For the first time in his nine-year career, White was forced to miss games due to injury last season. He also finished with less than 1,000 yards for the first time since 2006. With Atlanta sporting a weak defense and questionable ground game, they should finish in the top five in pass attempts again, placing White on the back end of the WR1 radar. Although he’ll turn 33 in November, White’s consistently elite production makes him a solid value based upon his current fourth-round ADP.
Jeremy Maclin: Maclin, 26, is returning from a torn ACL that sidelined him for the entire 2013 season. This season, he is expected to be the No. 1 option in the Eagles’ passing game with DeSean Jackson in Washington. Maclin’s fantasy upside is capped by the multitude of options in Philadelphia’s passing game following the offseason additions of RB Darren Sproles and rookie WR Jordan Matthews. Maclin’s current ADP has him coming off the board in round five or six, which seems a bit high as Torrey Smith and Marques Colston seems like better options in that tier.
Wes Welker: The 33-year-old slot receiver battled multiple concussions in 2013 that caused him to miss three games and finish with fewer than 100 catches for just the second time since 2006. With the offseason additions of Emmanuel Sanders and rookie Cody Latimer, Welker will likely be playing his final season in the Mile-High City. His current ADP has him coming off the board in the fourth round, close to Michael Floyd, Michael Crabtree and Roddy White – all three of whom will likely see a greater amount of targets in 2014. It certainly doesn’t help matters that Welker sustained yet another concussion last week.
Torrey Smith: The 25-year-old Maryland alum is coming off his first 1,000-yard season and could be positioned to top those numbers as the No. 1 option in new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak’s system. He will be playing the “X” receiver position that helped Houston’s “a href="http://fftoolbox.scout.com/profiles/profile_display.cfm?player_id=6931">Andre Johnson produce WR1 numbers for so many years under Kubiak. Smith scored 19 touchdowns in his first three seasons and is a fine pick at his current sixth-round position.
Reggie Wayne: The 35-year-old is returning from an ACL injury that cost him the final nine games of the 2013 season. The Miami alum has been a model of consistency, reaching 75 catches each season from 2004 through 2012 and failing to exceed 1,000 yards just once during the same stretch. That came in 2011 when Wayne gained 960 yards. He is expected to man the slot with T.Y Hilton and Hakeem Nicks playing outside. OC Pep Hamilton is known as more of a run-centric coach and is expected to utilize more two-tight end sets with Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen. However, Wayne could surprise, especially in PPR leagues, as the Colts could be forced to embrace their passing game if Trent Richardson fails to return to his 2012 form. Wayne is a stellar value in rounds seven or eight.