The motivation is real, but improved production is another matter
Show me the money … or don't. Doesn't make much difference to me.
This column begins with that clichéd quote for an important reason: When it comes to the topic of "contract-year players" -- players destined for big years as they play out their final seasons before free agency -- those four words are a fantasy analyst's crutch. Go ahead, do a quick web search; you'll find countless columns praising the merits of the contract-year theory that begin with that quote.
2013-14 FREE AGENTS-TO-BE
The following 27 players, all of whom are top-200 picks in terms of ADP (through Aug. 15), will become unrestricted free agents at season's end.
It's therefore somewhat appropriate that such a cliché -- and one from an overrated movie, at that -- is so frequently attached to a crutch argument.
Let's face facts: There is a significant gap between contract-year motivation and contract-year production. Every impending free agent is driven by the former. Not every one enjoys the latter.
You might think players like Maurice Jones-Drew, Darren McFadden and Jermichael Finley, each of whom is headed for free agency at season's end, warrant the extra buck in an auction merely because they're playing for a payday. Jones-Drew, in particular, should be a popular such example. He's 28 years old with more than 1,500 career carries on his legs, meaning he's likely facing his final big payday. He's also coming off a disappointing campaign during which he was limited to a career-low six games due to a Lisfranc fracture that eventually required surgery. There's every reason to believe he'll be plenty motivated as he plays for a new deal.
The unfortunate truth, however, is that, in the past eight seasons, "draftable" contract-year players -- we'll define these as top-150 players going by ADP (average draft position) -- suffered a 6.9 percent drop in fantasy production comparative to their previous three seasons' average.
That number might not mean anything to you, as any experienced fantasy owner is familiar enough with the laws of regression to understand that any select player sample is at risk for an overall drop in production. But this number might: Non-free agents during that same span suffered a 3.2 percent drop in fantasy production compared to their previous three seasons' average.
Now, those same experienced fantasy owners might also understand that these two samples are of rather different sizes: There were more than six times as many in the latter group than the former group. Point taken, but if there was any validity to this "theory," wouldn't you have expected starker contrast in favor of the contract-year group, even as small as it is?
Fantasy analysts are correct to point out contract-year standouts of the past: Randy Moss (2007), Mike Anderson (2005), Brandon Jacobs (2008), Ray Rice (2011), Ahmad Bradshaw (2010), Drew Brees (2011), Marshawn Lynch (2011) and Shaun Alexander (2005) all managed at least 150 fantasy points, as well as an increase of at least five points per game compared to their previous three seasons' average, in seasons before becoming unrestricted free agents. There are many historical success stories in the contract-year class.
The contract-year busts list, however, is every bit as extensive. Larry Johnson (2009), Moss (2010), Willie Parker (2009), Ahman Green (2005), Rudi Johnson (2008), Brett Favre (2010), Jamal Lewis (2005), Steve Smith (2010) and Ronnie Brown (2010) were all top-60 picks -- that's an ADP in the first six rounds of a standard ESPN league -- who suffered a decline of five or more fantasy points per game comparative to their previous three seasons' average. And if you're counting, that's one more bust than success story.
You can see further details of this study in the chart below, with statistics broken down by different positions, ADPs and types of free agents.
|All free agents||145||13.1||108.1||8.2||13.7||122.6||8.9||13.8||106.0||7.7|
|Top 50 ADP||40||13.6||145.7||10.8||14.7||173.1||11.8||14.2||147.9||10.4|
The lesson is clear: There is no such thing as a blanket "contract-year theory."
There is only contract-year motivation; and that is subjective -- not objective -- fantasy analysis. In short, you shouldn't be using lists of prospective free agents to blindly identify values; you should be using them as yet another tool, and a small one, preferably one coupled with better tools for identifying values.
That's where we return to Jones-Drew.
Jones-Drew isn't a potential fantasy value merely because he's playing for a new deal. Flash back to two sentences above, which explain why he fits the description: "He's 28 years old with more than 1,500 career carries on his legs, meaning he's likely facing his final big payday. He's also coming off a disappointing campaign during which he was limited to a career-low six games due to a Lisfranc fracture that eventually required surgery." Couple these facts with his contract status and then, and only then, does the argument make sense.
He's not the only such example … but again, before we get to the list of this season's prominent impending free agents, remember that it is a subjective list:
Hakeem Nicks, New York Giants: He's coming off the worst campaign of his young, four-year career -- his 82 fantasy points in 2012 were actually fewer than his 109 from his rookie season of 2009 -- and it was one marred by knee issues that eventually required surgery. Groin issues have also hampered him throughout camp, but you can be sure that if Nicks can possibly push through any pain, he will … maybe even to his own detriment (now or later). Here's one way in which contract-year motivation counts: If you're betting on an injury risk, bet on one playing for a payday.
Jimmy Graham, New Orleans Saints: He suffered a 43-point decline last season, and he led the NFL in drops (13), so Graham does have room to improve. He's also coming off wrist surgery, and, unsurprisingly, he has worked hard to get back to full speed in time for camp. Graham also has another factor working in his favor: With fellow tight end standout Rob Gronkowski an injury risk himself, Graham has a chance to steal the position's spotlight for himself; that's important as he sets his market value.
Kenny Britt, Tennessee Titans: Take a look at Britt and it's difficult not to see a potential fantasy stud. He has the size and speed to break out, and he'll enter free agency as one of the youngest players available. But here's the problem: Britt has had trouble staying on the field, having suffered significant knee injuries in back-to-back seasons, and off the field he has had his issues in the past. With renewed focus, he might finally be ready to realize his potential … in NFL season No. 5.
Jay Cutler, Chicago Bears: He's the forgotten man among quarterbacks this season, mostly because of the richness in talent at the position, but among No. 2 options in two-quarterback leagues (or backups in standard formats), his ceiling ranks among the highest. Sure, blocking has been a problem for Cutler in Chicago, but knowing that he's playing for a new deal, perhaps he'll put his worries to rest and fling it with confidence in Marc Trestman's offense. After all, the team should have a healthy, developing Alshon Jeffery and free-agent signing Martellus Bennett as weapons.
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