Inside The Toolbox: Contract Year Players

Money isn't everything, but it can of course be a premium motivator in life. Fantasy football expert Stephen Englert takes us INSIDE THE TOOLBOX, a series which covers the history and validity of FFToolbox's world famous tools, to analyze the pros and cons behind the strategy of targeting CONTRACT YEAR PLAYERS.

Editor's intro: At, we offer many tools which endow our users with interesting and unique points of analysis. In this multiple part series, we want to take a closer look at why these tools are useful and what kind of information each tool offered over the years. Through this exercise, we will re-examine the past to find hidden truths today. To check out the CONTRACT YEAR PLAYERS tool over at FFToolbox, click here.

What would you do for a multi-million dollar raise?

Show up early and stay late? Spend extra time with co-workers? Take greater care with every aspect of your work? Probably.

Would your work output improve? Probably.

That’s the logic behind the contract-year theory. The idea goes that since they are staring a major pay-raise in the face, NFL players will work harder and correspondingly their statistical performance will improve. Like in the scenario above, we generally assume that greater effort yields greater results.

Does that play out in actual practice? Sometimes yes and sometimes no. And frankly, it’s extremely difficult to predict when that added motivation will translate into statistical success. We’ll examine that a bit more below. But first, a few words of caution on contract-year theory.

Do not use these lists the way you’d use rankings, as a way to identify the best players. That won’t work. Instead, use contract-year theory as ONE tool in your Fantasy Football Toolbox. The fact is, that it appears to matter sometimes, in the right situations. But by no means does contract-year theory predict the top scorers or biggest improvements. Remember that as you browse the lists of contract-year players.

So how should a smart fantasy owner use contract-year theory? Let’s look at some examples to help figure that out.

WR Randy Moss, New England Patriots (2007)

In 2007, the Patriots signed Randy Moss to a one-year deal. Fans were skeptical. Moss had a well-deserved reputation as a diva and in the 2006 season, he’d caught just 42 balls for a paltry 553 yards and three touchdowns. Moss had just turned 30 and seemed to be in the twilight of his career. But from his first game with the Patriots that season, Moss was a revelation. He ended the season with 98 catches for 1,493 yards and an NFL-record 23 touchdowns. What changed from the previous season? In a nutshell, he joined Tom Brady, and a Patriots organization that was focused on winning and winning big. The Pats challenged Moss to prove himself and he did in a big way.

RB Shaun Alexander, Seattle Seahawks (2007)

Shaun Alexander’s 2005 season was one of the greatest performances by a running back in NFL history. The then-28 year old Seattle back was coming off a five-year streak of not missing a single game and had averaged 320 carries over the previous four seasons. That’s an incredible workload for a back, but Alexander wasn’t finished yet. In 2005 he carried the ball 370 times for 1,880 yards and a record-tying 27 rushing touchdowns. He also earned an MVP award. That year, Shaun Alexander carried the Seahawks offense, accounting for one third of their yards from scrimmage, and more total yards than the next two Seahawks combined. Seattle opted for rushes on more than half of their plays from scrimmage that year, which is nearly unheard of in today’s NFL. After the season, the Seattle rewarded their stud RB with an eight-year, $62 million contract. The next season, though, the wheels fell off for Alexander, as he averaged just 3.6 yards per carry. One year later the Seahawks released him. But many fantasy owners still remember that incredible 2005 contract-year.

RB Ray Rice, Baltimore Ravens (2011)

Coming to the end of his rookie contract, Ray Rice had already become a star for the Baltimore Ravens. But on the promise of a fat new contract, Rice outdid himself in the 2011 season. The Ravens gave him 367 touches that year, and he took them for 2,068 total yards from scrimmage and 15 touchdowns. He got a five-year, $40 million contract following that season. In 2012, he put up one more 1,500-yard effort, and then the wheels fell off in 2013. If Shaun Alexander’s case is any use as reference, Rice is probably done with the productive part of his career. But the motivation to get the big payday carried him to a tremendous performance in his contract-year.

QB Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints (2011)

The first time Drew Brees was faced with a contract year, in 2005, he didn’t exactly light it up. That sub-par season ultimately led to his release from the Chargers and subsequent signing with the Saints. So when his second contract-year rolled around in 2011, Brees was eager to re-write the script. And man, did he ever. In 2011, Brees threw for 5,476 and 46 touchdowns, with just 14 interceptions, breaking Dan Marino’s single-season passing yardage record in the 15th game of the season. After that incredible season, Brees and the Saints agreed to a five-year, $100 million contract. While it’s always seemed that numbers matter to Brees, the 2011 season in particular was one of the greatest performances ever for a fantasy quarterback, and came during a contract-year.

Essentially, you’re looking for stud players who are heading into contract years. So who fits the bill for a contract-year candidate in the 2014 season?

From left to right: Dez Bryant, Julius Thomas & DeMarco Murray

WR Dez Bryant, Dallas Cowboys

Dez is coming up on the end of his rookie contract, and he’s absolutely lived up to his billing so far. In four seasons he’s made himself into one of the best receivers in the NFL. Expectations are sky-high for Dez entering this season, but perhaps the promise of a few more million dollars will get him to push even harder.

RB DeMarco Murray, Dallas Cowboys

Murray’s another Cowboy finishing up his rookie contract, but he has a lot more to prove this season than Dez Bryant does. Given his history of injuries and missed games, Murray is a big question mark in the dependability department. That said, there’s relatively little mileage on his legs, so Murray may still have the capacity to reach an elite level of play. And maybe the lure of big money will help him get there.

TE Julius Thomas, Denver Broncos

Can’t you imagine Orange Julius salivating when he saw the recent announcement of Jimmy Graham’s $40 million deal? While Thomas had an elite season last year, he isn’t paid like an elite tight end. He’ll need to produce another effort like last year’s if he’s going to convince Broncos GM John Elway to open up the pocketbook like the Saints did for Graham.


So what can we draw about contract-year theory from these examples? Well, for starters, it helps if the player in question is tremendously talented. That is to say, the fact of it being a contract-year for an average player won’t turn them into a stud overnight. The talent needs to be there to start with, as was the case with each of Moss, Alexander, Rice and Brees. And, they need the opportunity to succeed. All of these players were focal-points of their respective offenses. Alexander in particular carried the ball an incredible 370 times. If the ball isn’t in their hands, they can’t score points. So look for guys who will get opportunities. Look for a player that has already played well and could possibly do a little more. The contract is a motivator, not a magic kiss that can turn a frog into a prince. And once again, for full coverage of which players are in their contract year, click here!

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