Are “Contract-Year” Players More Motivated?

 In Blog, Crutch Arguments, Strategy

Every year in late July, the echo chamber of the fantasy football community begins to roar. And the roar is fast and furious. One of the echo chamber statements that seems to get parroted often is the concept of drafting “contract year” players… that is, players in their final year of their current contract.

The rationale goes like this: NFL players want to make money, so during the season before they hit free agency they are extra motivated. We are told that these players will put in a few extra hours in the weight room or in the film room, that they’ll push a little bit harder throughout the season, and the net result will be better fantasy statistics. These players are supposedly worth more than other players that otherwise would be considered comparable.

However, hearing this rationale has always caused me to raise an eyebrow.

Why?

Well, it’s simple.

Most commentators that use this logic are simply assuming the motivation of that specific player; to assume this is to assume that you know exactly what’s going on in the head and heart and psyche of that player. I think it is inappropriate to ever make any such assumptions about other human beings; such assumptions can potentially lead us to wrong conclusions about certain players (Side Note: I think this is a valuable life lesson which transcends fantasy football, but I’ll leave that to people way smarter than me).

I’ve heard analyst and podcaster Chris Harris talk a lot about the “crutch-argument” phenomenon, where many writers and participants within the fantasy football community already have preconceived ideas of a certain player and then seek to find arbitrary reasons to boost or downgrade that player. The “contract year” motivation concept is a common crutch-argument.

Furthermore, I think a contract year could potentially have the exact opposite effect. My friend Walter Cherepinsky, the founder and chief writer over at Walterfootball.com, recently said to me that he thinks that the opposite effect might take place in some players. Walter asserted that maybe a player, in his contract year, being afraid of injury, might not push through certain injuries, as to ensure he remains healthy. Maybe, he might not put in those extra hours in the weight room, and maybe he might not give it that extra bit of effort. Some players might very well want to ensure that they get paid at least something in free agency, and therefore maybe they’ll coast in some areas to avoid injury, which maybe, just might, result in slightly depressed fantasy stats.

The Bottom Line: We’re not in the heads of players, so we don’t know their motivation!

But, we can measure stats. We cannot get into the head of any player, but we can check the box-scores. We can ask: Did their stats change in a contract year?

Rather than relying on conjecture or assumptions, I thought I would give you the facts, the numbers, and the cold hard stats.

So that was my simple goal for this article, to actually do the research, and see if there are any actual factual trends that leads us to believe that players do indeed perform better in their walk years.

 

The Research
I went back several years, looking for as many fantasy relevant players as I could find that played a full season under a “walk year.” I found 96 relevant players. (Note: I recognize that determining “relevance” is subjective, but as you look at the list I think you’ll agree that these players make sense for the purposes of this study). I examined players from the 2010 season all the way up to the 2015 season, examining those players’ stats in the final year of their contract.

I compared each player’s fantasy points per game from their walk year with the fantasy points per game they scored from their own previous two seasons. (Note: I used standard ESPN scoring to determine fantasy points).

Obviously, we want to see if there is any statistical variance when we compare and contrast a player’s contract year against his previous two seasons.

The lists below are separated by positions, and they include the player name, the year in which that player played under the final year of a contract, the contract year fantasy points, his average fantasy points the previous two seasons before the contract year, and whether or not those points increased or decreased in his contract year. (Note: Players who decreased in production in their contract year have their numbers highlighted in red).

One other thought before we dive into the numbers, I fully recognize and concede that this study isn’t precisely scientific. It is quite possible that I may have missed some players that would be relevant to this study. Also, there are certainly a variety of extenuating circumstances that have influenced the players’ results, and many of those circumstances are not reflected in this research as well as I would have liked. However, by examining 96 players over a period of six seasons, I think we can get an overall idea of the trend, if it even exists.

If the “contract year” motivation concept is a genuine thing that we ought to consider when drafting, then it certainly ought to show itself to some extent in this examination. Okay, enough bloviating, let’s begin.

 

Quarterbacks

Player Contract
Year
Contract Year
Pts/Game
Average Pts/Game
Previous 2 Years
Change
Pts/Game
Change Pct.(%)
Alex Smith 2010 9.9 10.6 -0.7 -6.6%
Vince Young 2010 6.2 5.3 0.9 17.0%
Alex Smith 2011 15.5 10.3 5.2 50.5%
Joe Flacco 2012 17.5 16 1.5 9.4%
Jay Cutler 2013 11.6 12.3 -0.7 -5.7%
Michael Vick 2013 15.9 19.5 -3.6 -18.5%
Ryan Fitzpatrick 2013 17.8 16.5 1.3 7.9%
Brian Hoyer 2014 13.2 12.4 0.8 6.5%
Kirk Cousins 2015 19.8 14.3 5.5 38.5%
Ryan Fitzpatrick 2015 20 17.1 2.9 17.0%
Sam Bradford 2015 16.4 16.9 -0.5 -3.0%
Ave. Pts/Game Change in Contract Year: +1.1 Players With Increase: 7
Ave. Pts/Game Change Pct. (%): +8% Players With Decrease: 4

 

Thoughts & Notes:

  • Seven of the eleven QB’s that I examined did indeed raise their average points per game in their contract years. Hooray! One point scored for the echo chamber. The data herein is a small sample size, but it does seem to point to the fact that Quarterbacks will be more productive in their walk years.
  • The average increase across these eleven players was 1.1 fantasy points per game. Now, consider this: According to Matthew Berry of ESPN, the average winning team each week in 2015 ESPN standard leagues was 94 points (meaning, if you’re in an ESPN standard scoring league, most weeks 94 fantasy points would be enough for a win). Does the 1.1 points/game feel significant in light of needing 94 points to win each week?
  • Alex Smith makes the list, twice. But in one case he decreased his fantasy production and in the other case he increased it. Are we to believe that he was motivated in one of those years, but not the other? Hmmm, my guess is that his increased production in 2011 had little to do with his contract, and much more to do with the 49ers hiring a new head coach named Jim Harbaugh.
  • Ryan Fitzpatrick also makes the list twice, and in both cases he raised his average points per game. Hooray! Another point scored for the echo chamber. However, he has actually had six contract years over the course of his NFL career, and that’s mostly because he has had several short stints, in multiple places (Rams, Bengals, Bills, Titans, Texans, and Jets). Most of these seasons were irrelevant to fantasy football. If I had included all of those seasons, we’d see that in some of those seasons he increased his fantasy output, but in some other seasons he actually decreased his production. The best season of Fitzpatrick’s career (before 2015) was in 2011 with the Bills, which was not a contract year. What motivated him to play so well that season? I don’t know what got him to have a career year that season, but it obviously wasn’t a contract. In addition, I wonder what numbers he may have posted if he could have teamed up with a WR like Brandon Marshall before 2015? When we honestly examine Fitzpatrick’s career, I think it is hard to make the case that he produced better stats just because he was in a contract year.
  • Brian Hoyer makes the list for his 2014 contract year. He did have a better season in 2014 than his career average up to that point; however it is also important to note that, like Fitzpatrick, Hoyer has had multiple contract seasons (four to be exact). But of course, he saw very little playing time in those previous seasons and they are mostly irrelevant. It’s hard to gauge whether or not his increased points per game in 2014 was influenced by the fact that it was his walk year in Cleveland or more to do with the fact that he finally got the chance to be a full-time starter.
  • Before the 2015 season Sam Bradford was traded to the Eagles to play for Chip Kelly (whom the Eagles rightfully fired after Week 16 of the season). Many people expected Bradford to produce big numbers in the fast-paced offense. But that did not happen. Bradford’s numbers dipped below his stats from the previous two seasons. (Note: He missed the entire 2014 season with a torn ACL, so his numbers above are from 2013 and 2012).
  • One major observation as I looked at this list: Based on talent level and overall career production, I don’t think that I’d really want my fantasy team heavily relying on any of these players. Just a thought.
  • Conclusion: QB’s in a walk year did do better, but the increase was slight, and many of these players found themselves in extenuating circumstances which makes the data suspect, so the data feels inconclusive.

 

Running Backs

Player Contract
Year
Contract Year
Pts/Game
Average Pts/Game
Previous 2 Years
Change
Pts/Game
Change Pct.(%)
DeAngelo Williams 2010 8 17.5 -9.5 -54.3%
Pierre Thomas 2010 9.8 11.1 -1.3 -11.7%
Ronnie Brown 2010 8 12.8 -4.8 -37.5%
BenJarvus Green-Ellis 2011 9.3 11.7* -2.4 -20.5%
Peyton Hillis 2011 9 15.2 -6.2 -40.8%
Cedric Benson 2011 10.1 12.1 -2 -16.5%
Jonathan Stewart 2011 9.2 9.8 -0.6 -6.1%
Joseph Addai 2011 6.1 13.5 -7.4 -54.8%
Matt Forte 2011 14.4 11.8 2.6 22.0%
Michael Bush 2011 11.7 7.5 4.2 56.0%
Ray Rice 2011 18.8 14.6 4.2 28.8%
Ahmad Bradshaw 2012 11.6 12.9 -1.3 -10.1%
Peyton Hillis 2012 3.3 12.1 -8.8 -72.7%
Rashard Mendenhall 2012 5.1 12.3 -7.2 -58.5%
Reggie Bush 2012 11 8.7 2.3 26.4%
Shonn Greene 2012 10.6 8.5 2.1 24.7%
Steven Jackson 2012 10 12.3 -2.3 -18.7%
Darren McFadden 2013 8.3 12.4 -4.1 -33.1%
Joique Bell 2013 10.5 6.7* 3.8 56.7%
Knowshon Moreno 2013 14.8 8.3 6.5 78.3%
Rashard Mendenhall 2013 8.7 7.9 0.8 10.1%
CJ Spiller 2014 5.4 11 -5.6 -50.9%
DeAngelo Williams 2014 4.4 8.9 -4.5 -50.6%
DeMarco Murray 2014 19 13.2 5.8 43.9%
Frank Gore 2014 9.5 11.8 -2.3 -19.5%
Justin Forsett 2014 12.6 2.2 10.4 472.7%
Mark Ingram 2014 12.7 5.2 7.5 144.2%
Ryan Matthews 2014 9.7 10 -0.3 -3.0%
Alfred Morris 2015 5.4 10.9 -5.5 -50.5%
Chris Ivory 2015 11.8 7.6 4.2 55.3%
CJ Anderson 2015 8 11.8* -3.8 -32.2%
Doug Martin 2015 13.1 8 5.1 63.8%
Lamar Miller 2015 11.7 9.1 2.6 28.6%
LeGarrett Blount 2015 9.7 6.7 3 44.8%
Matt Forte 2015 13.1 16 -2.9 -18.1%
Ave. Pts/Game Change in Contract Year: -0.5 Players With Increase: 16
Ave. Pts/Game Change Pct. (%): -4.8% Players With Decrease: 19

 

Thoughts & Notes:

  • 19 of the 35 RB’s that I examined decreased their average points per game in their contract years. Ouch!
  • The average change in points per game across these 35 players was minus half-a-point, which amounts to be a loss of 4.8% of production each game. In light of a whole season, this is insignificant, like what we saw with the QB list. But unlike what we saw in the QB data, the RB’s have a much wider and much more extreme range of outcomes. This data makes me feel that RB’s in a contract year are much more volatile than QB’s.
  • Justin Forsett is undoubtedly the player that stands out on this list. He increased his production by more than 472% in his contract year as compared to his previous two seasons. Wow! (Forsett’s stats skew the percentages for this entire RB list; remove Forsett and the average change goes from -4.8% to -7.6%). Forsett is a small-ish RB who had been mostly a journeyman, but in 2014, he was a big producer, and there’s no doubt that he helped a lot of teams win a lot of fantasy games. However, it is important to note that Forsett wasn’t facing a contract year for the first time. This was actually the fourth time in his career that he was in a contract year, and in all three of the previous contract years, his production decreased from the previous season. Forsett was given ample opportunities in previous seasons and never did much with them. Again, four times in his career he played in a walk year, and three of those times his production decreased. Are we to believe that he was not motivated in his first three contract years, but somehow, fourth time is a charm? Huh? I don’t think so. Also, let’s not forget that if not for the stupidity and criminal activity of Ray Rice, Forsett may not have ever gotten the opportunity to play much. I could be wrong, but when I examine the whole situation, I find it hard to put a lot of stock into Forsett’s contract being a major reason for his success.
  • DeAngelo Williams makes the list twice. In both cases he decreased his fantasy production significantly. If he had not done so, he might still be a member of the Carolina Panthers. Likewise, Peyton Hillis made the list twice, and also both times decreased his production significantly.
  • Rashard Mendenhall and Matt Forte both made the list twice, and like what we saw with Alex Smith, these players each had one contract year where they increased their production and another contract season where their production decreased.
  • *BenJarvus Green-EllisJoique Bell, and CJ Anderson all had previous statistics that were so insignificant that it made it impossible to use multiple of their previous seasons for this study. Therefore, for these players, instead of using stats from multiple previous seasons, the “previous” column only includes fantasy production from one previous season. Bell is the only one of this trio to have increased his production in his contract season.
  • Conclusion: Some RB’s in a walk year produced better points per game than in their previous seasons, while some others did not. Some RB’s played way better, while some others played much worse. A few RB’s saw slight increases and some others saw slight decreases. In some cases the changes were dramatic, but in other cases the changes were nominal. Bottom Line: Running backs being in a contract year did not help us foresee what type of fantasy production those players would net in that season.

 

Wide Receivers

Player Contract
Year
Contract Year
Pts/Game
Average Pts/Game
Previous 2 Years
Change
Pts/Game
Change Pct.(%)
Brandon Lloyd 2011 7.1 9.5 -2.4 -25.3%
Braylon Edwards 2011 2 7.4 -5.4 -73.0%
Jerome Simpson 2011 6 9.2* -3.2 -34.8%
Pierre Garcon 2011 8.3 7.5 0.8 10.7%
Reggie Wayne 2011 7.5 11.2 -3.7 -33.0%
Vincent Jackson 2011 10.6 10.2 0.4 3.9%
Devery Henderson 2012 2.6 3.7 -1.1 -29.7%
Dwayne Bowe 2012 7.5 11.1 -3.6 -32.4%
Greg Jennings 2012 7.6 12 -4.4 -36.7%
Mike Wallace 2012 8.8 11.4 -2.6 -22.8%
Victor Cruz 2012 10.6 13* -2.4 -18.5%
Wes Welker 2012 10.8 11 -0.2 -1.8%
Emmanuel Sanders 2013 7 4.1 2.9 70.7%
Eric Decker 2013 12.2 9.2 3 32.6%
Golden Tate 2013 7.7 5.8 1.9 32.8%
Hakeem Nicks 2013 6 8.8 -2.8 -31.8%
James Jones 2013 7.1 8.4 -1.3 -15.5%
Julian Edelman 2013 8.9 2.8 6.1 217.9%
Kenny Britt 2013 0.8 10.8 -10 -92.6%
Mike Williams 2013 5.6 7.4 -1.8 -24.3%
Santana Moss 2013 3.7 7.5 -3.8 -50.7%
Stevie Johnson 2013 6.6 8.9 -2.3 -25.8%
Andre Johnson 2014 7.4 11.1 -3.7 -33.3%
Demaryius Thomas 2014 14.2 13.5 0.7 5.2%
Dez Bryant 2014 14.3 12.9 1.4 10.9%
Jeremy Maclin 2014 12 8.7 3.3 37.9%
Randall Cobb 2014 12.8 11.5 1.3 11.3%
Stevie Johnson 2014 4.7 7.7 -3 -39.0%
Torrey Smith 2014 8.9 8.5 0.4 4.7%
Alshon Jeffrey 2015 11.6 11.6 0 0.0%
Doug Baldwin 2015 11.9 6.6 5.3 80.3%
Marvin Jones 2015 6.8 4.8 2 41.7%
Michael Crabtree 2015 5.9 8.8 -2.9 -33.0%
Michael Floyd 2015 8.1 7.9 0.2 2.5%
Mohammed Sanu 2015 3.7 5.8 -2.1 -36.2%
Rueben Randle 2015 8 6.6 1.4 21.2%
Travis Benjamin 2015 8 2.6 5.4 207.7%
Ave. Pts/Game Change in Contract Year: -0.7 Players With Increase: 16
Ave. Pts/Game Change Pct. (%): -8.1% Players With Decrease: 20

 

Thoughts & Notes:

  • 20 of the 37 WR’s that I examined decreased their average points per game in their contract years when compared to their previous two seasons, while only 16 of the 37 increased their production. The average change was minus 8.1%. Ouch again!
  • Alshon Jeffrey produced the exact average points per game in his contract season that he had produced in his previous two seasons. Talk about consistency. But I can’t help but feel like he may have increased his production if not for the hamstring injury.
  • Stevie Johnson is the only player to make the list twice. In both cases he decreased his fantasy production significantly.
  • Emmanuel Sanders, Julian Edelman, Jeremy Maclin, Marvin JonesDoug Baldwin, Golden Tate, Eric Decker, and Travis Benjamin all had very good career years while playing under the final year of their contracts, and all were rewarded handsomely with new contracts. But only two of them (Edelman and Baldwin) stayed with the same team (in both cases the players signed contracts that were widely regarded as “home-team” discounts). Sanders, Maclin, Jones, Tate, Decker, and Benjamin all took their talents elsewhere to sign more lucrative contracts.
  • Honorable Mention: The one player some might say belongs on this list is Percy Harvin. After the 2012 season, the Vikings traded Harvin to the Seahawks. The 2013 season would have been his contract season, but the Seahawks signed him to big money six-year deal. Due to injury Harvin missed most of the regular season (although he did help the Seahawks win the Super Bowl with an 87-yard return for a touchdown to start the 2nd half of that game). Five games into the 2014 season the Seahawks traded him to the Jets. Harvin played in 8 games and was cut after that year. He signed a one-year deal with the Bills for the 2015 season, which technically speaking made it a contract year. But with the circumstances of Harvin’s career, it’s hard to use any of his stats as viable for a study like this one.
  • *Jerome Simpson and Victor Cruz both had previous statistics that were so insignificant that it made it impossible to use multiple of their previous seasons for this study. Therefore, for these players, instead of using stats from multiple previous seasons, the “previous” column only includes fantasy production from one previous season. Both players decreased their fantasy output in their walk years.
  • Conclusion: The WR position was more volatile than the QB position, but not as volatile as the RB list. However, overall, WR’s in a contract year saw their production decreased more often than not (20 out of 37), and by a higher margin than RB’s (-8.1% for WR’s vs. -4.8% for RB’s). But the fact that 16 out of 37 still did increase their production leads me to believe that WR’s in a contract year really can go either way.

 

Tight Ends

Player Contract
Year
Contract Year
Pts/Game
Average Pts/Game
Previous 2 Years
Change
Pts/Game
Change Pct.(%)
Vernon Davis 2010 8.3 7 1.3 18.6%
Ben Watson 2012 4.3 5.1 -0.8 -15.7%
Dustin Keller 2012 5.5 6.6 -1.1 -16.7%
Jared Cook 2012 5.9 4.3 1.6 37.2%
Ed Dickson 2013 2.1 3.4 -1.3 -38.2%
Jermichael Finley 2013 8 6.5 1.5 23.1%
Jimmy Graham 2013 13.6 11.2 2.4 21.4%
Julius Thomas 2014* 9.3 10.8 -1.5 -13.9%
Coby Fleener 2015 4.2 6.5 -2.3 -35.4%
Gary Barnidge 2015 9.9 1.2 8.7 725.0%
Ladarius Green 2015 5.1 2.6 2.5 96.2%
Martellus Bennett 2015 5.6 7.3 -1.7 -23.3%
Ben Watson 2015 7.4 1.9 5.5 289.5%
Ave. Pts/Game Change in Contract Year: +1.1 Players With Increase: 7
Ave. Pts/Game Change Pct. (%): +19.7% Players With Decrease: 6

 

Thoughts & Notes:

  • 7 of the 13 TE’s that I examined increased their average points per game in their contract years when compared to their previous two seasons.
  • The average change was an increase of nearly 20%. That is certainly substantial, but it was greatly skewed by the 2015 numbers of just three players.
  • Jermichael Finley was a having a very good season in his contract year, but only played in six games due to a bruised spinal cord injury, and he never played again in the NFL.
  • Gary Barnidge had a very good contract season in 2015. Through his first six seasons in the NFL, Barnidge had a combined total of just 44 catches, but in 2015 he had 79 receptions. And from watching him on film, it was not “flukey” at all. Quite a remarkable story.
  • Ben Watson is the only player to make the list twice. The first time is for his contract season with Cleveland at age 31, wherein his production decreased by 15.7%. His second appearance on this list, at age 34 with New Orleans, is for his 2015 campaign, when he greatly increased his fantasy production by nearly 290%. In the previous two seasons before 2015 Watson was playing behind Jimmy Graham. Graham was traded in the off-season before the 2015 season, which gave Watson the chance to take the job. The pre-season fantasy football hype train was all-aboard Josh Hill, but Watson proved to be the better option. So, was Watson more motivated at age 34 than he was at age 31? Maybe, or maybe not, I’m not sure. But consider this: The QB’s in Cleveland while Watson was there were: Brandon Weeden, Colt McCoy, Thad Lewis, Seneca Wallace, Brady Quinn, and Derek Anderson. That is clearly very different than catching passes from a future Hall of Fame QB like Drew Brees. And playing in Cleveland would certainly be very different than playing in a TE-friendly system under Sean Payton. My point is simple: Maybe it wasn’t Watson’s contract situation that boosted his stats, but rather maybe the circumstances in which he found himself.
  • *Julius Thomas had previous statistics that were so insignificant that it made it impossible to use multiple of his previous seasons for this study. Therefore, instead of using stats from multiple previous seasons, the “previous” column only includes fantasy production from one previous season. Thomas’ production dipped in his walk year before leaving Denver to sign a big money deal with the Jaguars.
  • Conclusion: The TE list was similar to the QB list, in terms of less volatility than the RB list or the WR list, but again, as we saw with each of the previous lists, there is not necessarily a correlation between players entering a contract year and an increase in fantasy points per game.

 

Final Thoughts:

Since the 2010 season, there have been 96 players, that are relevant to fantasy football, to enter into and play a full season under the final year of their contract.

Of those 96 players, only 46 of them have produced fantasy points better than their production from the previous two seasons.

46 of 96… that is less than 48%.

More than 52% of all the players that entered into a contract season since 2010 saw their production go down, and if you only look at RB’s and WR’s (which are the positions we care most about), then the percentage of players that saw their stats decreased is closer to 56%.

From my 21 years of experience in fantasy football, I have come to the conclusion that variances in fantasy football production, from season to season, are impacted more by things like age, injuries, coaching, and the player’s surrounding cast of teammates. When it comes to contract year players, the conventional “wisdom” of the echo chamber just doesn’t hold water.

Now, if there is a good player that you like, that happens to be going into a contract year, then go ahead and draft him. I am not saying that you should stay away from contract year players. There are plenty of contract year players that I am very interested in drafting as we approach the 2016 season. I am simply saying that you ought not to expect anything extra from any player just because he’s going into his walk season.

Draft good players, not expiring contracts.

 

Credits:

  • Thank you to Rotowire for having player stats readily accessible to the general public.
  • Shout-out to my friend Josh Manikowski for helping me with the research for this article.