Contract Year Player talk
Money may indeed be the root of all evil, but it is also one heck of a motivator. That is particularly true for those short-shelf-life NFL players.
There are the fortunate few who will play their entire careers with fat and lucrative contracts, like Peyton Manning and Eli Manning. For the gridiron masses, the scary proposition of becoming a cap casualty in a non-guarantee salary pro football world lingers. That's why when the opportunity for a payday strikes, there is at least a belief that some step up more than usual.
After more stumbling than rumbling during his closing stretch in Buffalo, Marshawn Lynch's career came to a crossroads when he landed with Seattle in 2011. The Skittles-munching power back then rushed for over 1,200 yards and 12 touchdowns and the Seahawks ponied up with lucrative four-year deal.
Ahmad Bradshaw parlayed a massive 2010 season into his own four-year contract for $18millon with half the money guaranteed. After two injury-plagued seasons, he is trying to work his way back to big payday status on a one-year deal with the Colts.
Greg Jennings went from Green Bay to Minnesota this offseason, lured by a $47 million deal with $18 million guaranteed. That is certainly a healthy payday, but if the two-time Pro Bowl receiver had not missed half the season with an abdominal injury, the deal might have been substantially more (and perhaps with a better quarterback).
Super Bowl winner Joe Flacco might seem like an obvious case, though his regular performance didn't scream $100 million dollar man. Martellus Bennett entered last season with the New York Giants wearing a sleeper tag, but he opened eyes with a robust, touchdown-scoring campaign. The Bears opened their wallets with a multi-year deal this offseason.
Proving a player rises to the financial occasion might seem apparent in individual cases, but hard to prove and for some, not actually true. Still, for those that acknowledge the powerful incentive, here are players to watch for the 2013 season.
QB Jay Cutler, CHI - Quality Backup
After years of hype about his stupendous skill set, one might imagine Cutler is tracking for Hall of Fame consideration. If the former Bronco-turned Bear doesn't actually live up to his potential this season, the Bears won't consider a contract extension. Over the last two seasons, Cutler has used his cannon of a right arm to throw for 32 touchdown passes, including 19 in 15 games last season. By comparison, Peyton Manning tossed 37 last season when many considered the aging passer past his prime. At 30 years of age, Cutler should be in his prime. With weapons like Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Matt Forte, Martellus Bennett and playing behind what should be an improved line, it is time for the passer to start playing like it.
RB Maurice Jones-Drew, OAK - Solid/Safe Pick
The NFL's leading rusher in 2011, MJD was among the leading fantasy football busts in 2012. Savvy owners grew leery from the start - or rather while drafting - thanks to the human bowling ball's contract dispute, which led to a lengthy training camp holdout and the fear of an in-season injury. Sure enough, Jones-Drew played in only six games, his season ended by a lisfranc injury to his left foot. Entering the final year of his original five-year contract, the 28-year-old is out to reclaim his place among the league's top players and the paycheck that comes with it. MJD won't be helped by the Blaine Gabbert experience, but he has produced under similar circumstances. If he does, he'll certainly be a value play for fantasy owners and headed toward another sizable payday.
RB Darren McFadden, OAK - Solid/Safe Pick
At this point, we've all lived through the DMac experience. Explosive production when he plays, but far too often owners end up looking for a backup plan when the inevitable injury strikes. We complain, but the true woe-is-me comes from the Raiders who have never had their top offensive playmaker for a full 16 games. Oakland is promising more power running plays, the kind McFadden often turned into large gainers from 2010-11. Last season's zone-blocking schemes led to a career-low 3.3 yards per carry from the former first-round pick. McFadden won't be a fantasy first rounder this year, but a potentially strong second round pick. With a big contract at stake, motivation won't be an issue.
WR Hakeem Nicks, IND - Solid/Safe Pick
The Giants just handed one of their wide receivers a hefty contract, just not their best receiver. While Victor Cruz might be the top salsa dancer, Nicks is New York's number one target, yet he'll need to stay healthy in order to be paid like it. Even if Nicks, 25, can overcome the already lingering groin injury (and rack up his third 1,000-yard season), his next contract might come from another team. If we knew he could play at least 15 games -- and even better, not be a weekly injury report fixture- - projecting him as a top-10 fantasy wide out would be a snap. The not knowing is the tricky part, which is why his ADP is that of a fourth rounder.
WR Golden Tate, DET - Sleeper (undervalued)
Unlike the other names on this list, Tate isn't trying to reclaim any past glory. No, this season is about putting his name on the map for something other than not really catching a game-winning Hail Mary touchdown. Based on the former Golden Domer's skill set and the receiver situation in Seattle, it is possible he does exactly that. With Percy Harvin out for a large chunk of the entire season, Tate becomes Russell Wilson's primary target. Over his first three seasons, Tate's numbers have improved from one campaign to the next and he's poised for production far beyond his 45 receptions for 688 yards in 2012. Only bummer is that with several weeks left before the bulk of fantasy leagues take place, it is becoming harder to keep the 5-foot-10 playmaker's fantasy upside a secret.
TE Jermichael Finley, FA* - Quality Backup
One of the reasons the fantasy tight end position lacks quality high-end choices is that some options have gone from trending up to being on the outs. Finley could serve as the poster child for this unwanted scenario after hauling in only two touchdown passes last season, despite playing in all 16 games. Who knows how many scores and yards the talented (but inconsistent) Finley might have hauled in if his most prominent stat wasn't dropped passes. So far so good in training camp with his coach dropping praise on the five-year veteran. Once fantasy owners get past the top 5-6 options, it is all about upside and the tight end catching passes from Aaron Rodgers has plenty, assuming Finley holds on to what is thrown his way. If he does, he'll have a nice contract coming his way from the Packers or another team in 2014.
(Beyond those listed below, others to watch from a contract-year angle include: Eric Decker (WR, Broncos), Ben Tate (RB, Texans), Josh Freeman (QB, Bucs), Michael Vick (QB, Eagles), Brandon Pettigrew (TE, Lions), Kenny Britt (WR, Titans). Jimmy Graham is the most prominent potential free agent TE, but the Saints stud will get paid at some point, likely by New Orleans).