Playing for a contract tends to make most players work a little harder. While statistical evidence doesn’t prove anything for NFL players, logic would allow us to think a player working in his final year of his deal would play through some minor injuries and stay a little longer studying film and his playbook.
Maybe that’s naïve of us, since they are professionals and they should be giving 100 percent every day in their amazing job. But then again, most of these guys are in their mid-20s, so how responsible were you when you were that young?
Here are several players working in their final season of their current contract, with an educated guess on how it will affect them in fantasy play this year.
Brian Hoyer, Cleveland Browns: The Browns named him the starter for the beginning of the season, as rookie Johnny Manziel is having trouble with the playbook. Hoyer is essentially playing for a contract on another team for next season.
Jake Locker, Tennessee Titans: Finishing up his rookie contract, Locker just needs to stay healthy and get the ball to a bevy of quality receivers, including new running back Bishop Sankey, in order to get a new deal in Tennessee. He has bye-week replacement potential this season.
Alex Smith, Kansas City Chiefs: The Chiefs' offensive leader is looking for a deal like the one given to Joe Flacco in Baltimore, but it’s not expected to make him much of a better quarterback in this system for 2014. Dwayne Bowe might already be looking at another down year after his one-game suspension. It’ll be tough for Smith to become anything more than a fantasy backup this season.
Carson Palmer, Arizona Cardinals: Next year is a voidable year, so Palmer is essentially playing for a contract. He’ll be 35 years old next season, but if Bruce Arians gets another good year out of him, he’s not going anywhere. He’s worth a look in larger leagues right now, with two superb wide receivers and a great pass-catching tailback like Andre Ellington.
Ahmad Bradshaw, Indianapolis Colts: He signed a one-year deal entering this season while coming off a serious neck injury. If Bradshaw can prove he’s healthy, he’ll be just 29 years old next season, and can sign a better deal with another team (or the Colts again) as a quality pass-catching running back. Trent Richardson’s play could also affect Bradshaw.
Frank Gore, San Francisco 49ers: Entering this year at age 31, it’s tough to envision Gore sticking around in the Bay Area next year, especially with Carlos Hyde being drafted this season and Marcus Lattimore joining San Francisco last year. He won’t be motivated as much by a contract as he will to just keep the youngsters behind him on the depth chart.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Cincinnati Bengals: When the Bengals drafted 238-pound tailback Jeremy Hill this May, the writing was on the wall for The Law Firm. But Hill hurt his shoulder in the second preseason game, and Green-Ellis is still seeing early action. The expectation is he won’t be with Cincinnati next season -- with this season still up in the air, too.
C.J. Spiller, Buffalo Bills: With Bryce Brown on the roster now and 33-year-old Fred Jackson inking a contract extension through next season, Spiller looks like the only guy not guaranteed to return in 2015. Reports are he has been explosive this summer, and last year’s high ankle sprain is behind him. He just turned 27 years old, and has had just one first-round worthy fantasy year in four NFL seasons.
Ryan Mathews, RB, San Diego Chargers: The Fresno State product will miss Ken Whisenhunt’s play-calling, but he played all 16 games last season, which is the first time he has done that in the NFL. Danny Woodhead takes some heat off him on passing downs, and Donald Brown was signed to step in if Mathews gets hurt. But if he repeats last year’s 1,400-plus total yards and seven touchdowns, he’ll be a very helpful RB2 in fantasy play.
Darren McFadden, Oakland: Run DMC has been a major disappointment since getting drafted out of Arkansas, one year after the Vikings took Adrian Peterson (who he was often compared to). Nagging injuries have limited him, and he has played in just 45 of 64 NFL games, and the addition of Maurice Jones-Drew will certainly limit him a bit this season. Maybe fewer carries will help keep him healthy, but fewer opportunities means fewer chances for fantasy points.
DeMarco Murray, Dallas Cowboys: Nobody seems to love contact more than Murray, which tends to get him injured more often than not. We’ll see if playing in a contract year -- and having two young running backs waiting in the wings behind him -- adjust his playing style a bit to trying to run away from would-be tacklers. If he gets 250-plus carries this season, for the first time in his career, then he’d likely outplay his second-round fantasy ADP.
Stevan Ridley & Shane Vereen, New England Patriots: Vereen hasn’t been able to stay healthy and Ridley hasn’t been able to hold onto the ball (including a fumble in his second preseason game). With James White on the roster, these guys will need to step it up if they hope to return to the Patriots next season. While White has been underwhelming in the preseason, the Patriots' coaching staff likes him a lot. If Ridley falters, White could see plenty more action this season, with Vereen continuing to work as a passing downs back.
Kenny Britt, St. Louis Rams: Jeff Fisher brought in the wide receiver he drafted while he was with Tennessee, and Britt signed a one-year deal to prove his worth. If he can stay out of trouble, and stay healthy, two tasks that have perplexed him up until now, the 25-year-old will be a great late-round sleeper.
Dez Bryant, Dallas Cowboys: A few stud wide receivers are finishing up the last year of their rookie deals, as Bryant joins Demaryius Thomas and Michael Crabtree among the elite looking to get paid. He’s the only Cowboys wide receiver to post consecutive seasons with 90 receptions and over 1,200 receiving yards.
Randall Cobb, Green Bay Packers: Coming off a broken leg, Cobb is motivated more than most of the players on this list because he’s trying to prove he’s healthy. A writer from Packers.com believes Cobb has a chance to lead the NFL in receptions this season. Jordy Nelson is essentially the No. 1 WR on this club, but Cobb is essentially 1A.
Michael Crabtree, San Francisco 49ers: Coming off a season in which he came back from a torn Achilles tendon, Crabtree is very motivated to stay healthy. He has reportedly come into camp in great shape after ballooning to 230 pounds last year, and he has the looks of a player on a mission in San Francisco. History also indicates the 49ers won’t pay big money for him, which means he could be a stellar free agent next year, like Vincent Jackson a couple years ago. He’s a WR2 with WR1 potential, much like Antonio Brown was last season.
Jeremy Maclin, Philadelphia Eagles: Chip Kelly has mentioned that Maclin looks great after his torn ACL from a year ago, but now the wide receiver’s dealing with a hamstring injury. He signed a one-year deal to show what he's got, and obviously he’d love to stay in Kelly’s high-flying offense. With DeSean Jackson in Washington, Maclin is the unquestioned No. 1 target for Nick Foles.
Cecil Shorts, Jacksonville Jaguars: Shorts has always struggled for respect in this league, it seems, and now he’s likely going to be allowed to walk by one of the worst teams in the NFL. He has had groin and hamstring problems that could affect him again in the regular season, and the Jaguars drafted Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson with early picks, 26-year-old has his work cut out for him.
Torrey Smith, Baltimore Ravens: Another No. 1 wide receiver in the final year of his rookie deal, Smith has to prove he’s more than just a deep threat for Joe Flacco to heave long balls to. Steve Smith should be a helpful mentor to Torrey this season, and if the Ravens can get the younger Smith involved more in different ways, he will outproduce his current ADP of the sixth round.
Demaryius Thomas, Denver Broncos: Obviously, Thomas’ fantasy value really hinges on how long Peyton Manning can continue playing. As long as the Broncos can keep their quarterback upright (they get LT Ryan Clady [foot] back this season), Thomas will put up fantasy WR1 status.
Reggie Wayne, Indianapolis Colts: Yet another wide receiver coming off a season-ending injury and entering the final year of his contract, Wayne is hopeful of turning in a season similar to the first year he had with Andrew Luck. He caught 106 passes for 1,355 yards and five touchdowns that year, ranking him 15th among fantasy wide receivers. Reports are he looks like he was never injured, but his seventh-round ADP shows most people are still cautious about the 35-year-old receiver.
Wes Welker, Denver Broncos: It’s safe to say that at 5-foot-9, Welker has done a good job of proving the doubters wrong. He’s 33 years old and in his final year of his current contract, and the Broncos brought in Emmanuel Sanders and drafted Cody Latimer. Unless Welker signs with the Patriots or Saints next season, this could be the last year we think of him as a WR2 in fantasy play.
Jordan Cameron, Cleveland Browns: It’s possible he gets signed to an extension before the season starts, which Cleveland would be wise to do, considering he’s about to get a billion targets this season with Josh Gordon suspended. Cameron played well with Hoyer last season, and rookie Johnny Manziel will likely dump to his tight end often when he plays. In other words, whichever quarterback is under center, Cameron should continue to do well.
Charles Clay, Miami Dolphins: He broke out last season, and the Dolphins will likely want to see him duplicate that before inking him to a big contract. He hurt his knee early in camp, but he was able to return this past week. The Dolphins will likely bring Clay back, considering he’s one of quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s favorite targets. We’ll see what the new Dolphins offense can do for both of them in 2014, but for now, Clay is a top-15 tight end with top-10 ability.
Julius Thomas, Denver Broncos: Coming off his own breakout season, Thomas is working for quite a nice raise in salary this year. With Eric Decker now with the Jets, Thomas is expected to see even more targets in the red zone, as Sanders has a different skill set than Decker. Both of the Thomases are expected to be Manning’s favorites inside the five-yard line, along with the shifty Welker.