Players in the final year of their contracts often put up some of the best stats of their careers. Why? They're motivated to land the big contract, of course.
Therefore, in fantasy, it's wise for owners to target players entering a contract year.
Football can be a fickle game, though, and not every player's situation is the same; just ask Jeremy Maclin, Dennis Pitta and Danario Alexander. All three of those starters were heading into contract years, but have been hit with injuries during training camps.
Targeting players in a contract year doesn't guarantee success, but the extra motivation to produce big numbers merely gives an owner an added reason to like a talent.
Top 10 contract-year players
1. WR Hakeem Nicks, New York Giants: He was one of our prominent players with an injury risk but if he cannot stay healthy this season, he will likely lose quite a bit of contract money. Bank on him being a model citizen in practice -- you know, actually practicing with the team -- and trying to avoid the dreaded "Questionable" tag that seems to follow him week to week. Nicks, when healthy, can produce 1,400 yards and 12 touchdowns, elite numbers at his position. However, he'll barely break the into the top 20 receivers to target on draft day.
2. TE Jimmy Graham, New Orleans Saints: Graham will be the first tight end off the board in drafts primarily because Rob Gronkowski is questionable for the start of the season. However, being a free agent this winter could be the impetus to get him to perform to his near 100-catch, 1,300-yard, 12-touchdown level. Currently, he is head and shoulders above everyone at his position.
3. WR Eric Decker, Denver Broncos: Many think that Wes Welker will be the most productive wide receiver in Denver. That is crazy, because Decker is younger, just as talented and playing for a huge payday. Neither Welker or Decker is the threat Demaryius Thomas is, but Decker is a safer bet to match his production from 2012 than Welker, because he won't need any transition time; Decker already already has Manning's trust.
4. TE Brandon Pettigrew, Detroit Lions: Pettigrew is more of a sleeper than a breakout. Last season, slumped to under 600 yards and four touchdowns for the first time since his rookie season, mostly because he played in the shadow of Calvin Johnson. Those numbers should be a baseline in his contract year. Pettigrew stands to be a starter-worthy late-round pick at the shaky tight end position.
5. RB Darren McFadden, Oakland Raiders: I have to admit: I hate McFadden, but only because his talent keeps sucking me in. It is tough to look away when an owner is desperate for a potentially elite running back in Rounds 3-6. McFadden has first-round ability, but injury risk that makes you question whether you even would bother taking him in the last round. If McFadden is ever going to show his once limitless potential, I imagine he would do it right before earning a big free-agent contract. For those hanging on to McFadden, a walk year gives hope for production, if not consistent health.
6. D/ST New England Patriots: When three starters on a defense are entering contract years, you can justify placing a defense in this category. The Patriots have Rob Ninkovich, Brandon Spikes and Aqib Talib as potential free agents this winter. Also, Brady's lack of a reliable receiving corps to start the season should alter how the Patriots pace their attack. More running and ball control will aid a defense with a suspect secondary. The Patriots' defense haven't been great in terms of stopping yards or points, but that could change this season.
7. WR Kenny Britt, Tennessee Titans: Britt is another year removed from reconstructive knee surgery and Jake Locker has another offseason under his belt to prove to be a viable NFL starter. Britt should still be the receiving leader for a franchise that keeps adding outside threats early in the draft like Kendall Wright and Justin Hunter. Consider him a sleeper, too, because few really give the Titans passing game much credit. Britt is going to be drafted as a reserve receiver, but he could return to being a 900-yard, 10-touchdown threat in his walk year.
8. D/ST Cincinnati Bengals: Here's another defensive unit that tends to get overlooked in drafts. The Bengals' strength is decidedly up front and two of their stalwarts are entering the final years of their rookie deals. Geno Atkins, 25, and Michael Johnson, 26, haven't been able to reach an agreement on contract extensions, so they will be motivated to prove their worth for a defense that is a lot better than middle of the pack. In fact, this might be the best defense in the AFC North now, a division built on rugged, physical football.
9. RB Rashard Mendenhall, Arizona Cardinals: Mendenhall's contract year in Pittsburgh last year did not go as planned. However, he was coming off a knee reconstruction, and he dealth with an organization that had already decided to go in another direction with their backfield. In Arizona, Mendy has a big backer in Bruce Arians, who calls his free-agent back his starter. Mendenhall will have to hold off the talented but oft-injured Ryan Williams and rookies Andre Ellington and Stepfan Taylor, but he definitely has a chip on his shoulder to prove he is an NFL feature back.
10. QB Josh Freeman, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: He's coming off a career year, but the Bucs still drafted quarterback Mike Glennon out of North Carolina State, just in case Freeman doesn't work out. Remember, Glennon forced Russell Wilson to transfer to Wisconsin en route to fantasy stardom in Seattle last season. Also, Freeman has a high-caliber support cast, with receivers Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams, and not to mention one of the best running backs in football, Doug Martin. They help Freeman have another big year and earn his status as a big-dollar NFL quarterback. He will be drafted among the backup fantasy options, too, so he's considered a sleeper.
Remaining contract-year players
There are dozens more pending free agents you can pick through at varying times on draft day. Here are best of the rest to consider at each position:
• Jay Cutler, Chicago Bears
• Michael Vick, Philadelphia Eagles
• Chad Henne, Jacksonville Jaguars
• Ben Tate, Houston Texans
• Maurice Jones-Drew, Jacksonville Jaguars
• Andre Brown, New York Giants
• Montario Hardesty, Cleveland Browns
• Donald Brown, Indianapolis Colts
• James Jones, Green Bay Packers
• Brandon LaFell, Carolina Panthers
• Riley Cooper, Philadelphia Eagles
• Golden Tate, Seattle Seahawks
• Jacoby Jones, Baltimore Ravens
• Mario Manningham, San Francisco 49ers
• Julian Edelman, New England Patriots
• Andre Roberts, Arizona Cardinals
• Dexter McCluster, Kansas City Chiefs
• Anquan Boldin, San Francisco 49ers
• Jacoby Ford, Oakland Raiders
• Darrius Heyward-Bey, Indianapolis Colts
• Josh Morgan, Washington Redskins
• Damian Williams, Tennessee Titans
• Jermichael Finley, Green Bay Packers
• Dustin Keller, Miami Dolphins
• Fred Davis, Washington Redskins
• Tony Moeaki, Kansas City Chiefs
• Scott Chandler, Buffalo Bills
• Pittsburgh Steelers (DE Brett Keisel and DB Ryan Clark)
• Chicago Bears (DBs Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings)
• Houston Texans (LB Brian Cushing)
• Washington Redskins (LB Brian Orakpo)
• Minnesota Vikings (DE Jared Allen)
• Indianapolis Colts (DB Antoine Beatha and LB Pat Angerer)
• Steven Hauschka, Seattle Seahawks
• Adam Vinatieri, Indianapolis Colts
• David Akers, Detroit Lions
• Nick Folk, Dallas Cowboys
• Jay Feely, Arizona Cardinals
• Dan Carpenter, Miami Dolphins