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Players in contract years can be a boon for your fantasy team

Timing can be everything. Free agency requires an element of impeccable timing.

Like the back-shoulder fade -- a fade-stop, if that's what you choose to call it -- when the timing is right, you can strike gold with contract-year players in fantasy football.

It is the phenomenon that transitioned Giants running back Ahmad Bradshaw from a fantasy backup at 778 yards and seven scores in 2009 to a fantasy star at 1,549 total yards and eight scores in 2010. That is the way to go into free agency for the first time after Year 4.

Fantasy owners, take lessons.

Timing can work the other way, too.

The Cardinals struck at the right moment with their recent contract extension for Larry Fitzgerald. They stood to pay him a boatload if he had a rebound season from his 2010 campaign that could have been characterized as disappointing by his standards. With new quarterback Kevin Kolb poised to return Fitzgerald to a 100-catch, 1,400-yard, 10-plus-TD beast, the Cardinals got in on a stock that was about to trend back up significantly.

Every year there are a number of NFL players on the verge of free agency, but only a select few are really poised to capitalize on running that perfect timing route to breaking the bank.

No one is really concerned about the pending contract status of a Terrell Owens (knee). He is still a free agent, perhaps on a candidate to pick up a one-year deal somewhere like Larry Johnson just did with the Dolphins, and it doesn't excite anyone in fantasy.

Also, note, contract-year motivation can go out the window the moment a player puts pen to paper on a new deal, although you still have to see a guy like Fitzgerald trending back up. You draft a contract-year player because you're hoping the all-mighty dollar gets him to focus on an all-mighty season.

We break down the top 10 players who stand to outperform their draft position due to impending free agency this next offseason. We start with the action Jacksons.

The Eagles aren't just the most fortunate team in this brief post-lockout offseason, winning in free agency. They are also a team with key position players motivated to post huge seasons before their next big contract is due in 2012.

No. 1 here goes to Jackson, who ended a holdout and stands to emerge as perhaps the best receiver in fantasy, especially since quarterback Michael Vick is also in a contract year. We might have chosen Vick for this list, but he remains an injury risk and was already pretty elite last season.

Jackson is more likely to take a significant step forward in Year 4. We could see 80 catches, 1,500 yards and 15 TDs from this game-breaker -- all that production from a wideout that might not get picked among the top 10 at his position.

Let's stick with diva receivers -- after all, they seem to be the most inclined to play up to the situation. It is very easy to take plays off at this position, right Randy Moss?

A contract-year receiver can be a gold mine, especially if they take less plays off.

Jackson took most of 2010 off, holding out until the bitter end and now vowing to play under the new CBA rules as the Chargers' franchise player on a one-year deal. Like the Jackson above, Vincent has an elite quarterback getting him balls.

He might not be the Chargers' primary receiving threat, with future Hall of Famer Antonio Gates splitting the seam, but he is clearly the choice on the outside. Jackson has yet to catch as many as 70 passes, reach 1,200 yards or double-digit TDs. He is going to be motivated to smash past all of those reachable plateaus.

Brett Favre's disaster a season ago is Peterson's gain this year. A contract year should be the clincher to make Peterson the first player off the board on draft day.

Peterson, 26, is entering the crucial time of his career -- as a running back's lifespan is limited. He needs one huge year to earn perhaps his last huge contract.

He is going to get it.

Heck, Peterson is coming off a career low 1,298 yards last season. A healthy Peterson -- he has missed just one game in the past three years despite being labeled as an injury risk on draft day 2007 -- is going to be good for 1,500 yards and 15 touchdowns.

And, perhaps most intriguing of all, Peterson is angling to play on third downs now and Donovan McNabb is famous for a rhythm passing game. Peterson could chip in 50 catches and 500-plus yards receiving.

This is going to be Peterson's best year yet, regardless of what you think of the Vikings' offensive line.

As Peterson enters perhaps the crescendo of his career, Rice is just getting started at age 24. With Willis McGahee vulturing touchdowns in Denver now, Rice just might be the most heavily relied on ballcarrier in football. And, like Peterson will be, Rice is already a featured part of the Ravens short passing game.

Rice will be the Ravens' do-everything back and he is the prime age to have his best season. How old was Arian Foster amid his breakthrough a year ago? 24.

Rice will get carries left, right, center, short yardage, goal line and third and long. When the Ravens finally decide to pass? They probably will be inclined to dump it off to Mr. Rice, too.

The Ravens have always been a defense and running-game team in the Ray Lewis era. Rice, backed up only by 30-something Ricky Williams, is perhaps more important to his team's success than any other player in football. He sounds like a fantasy gem.

Speaking of 24-year-olds that mean a lot to their team's success, the returning Finley just might make the reigning World Champions even better than last year. Heck, before his injury, he was the most productive of Aaron Rodgers' receiving options.

Finley also has the benefit (benefit?) of injury risk. See, some will avoid him or downgrade him coming off major knee surgery, but he has looked healthy in camp and is poised for a career year. It just so happens to come in time for his first foray into a contract year.

He looks capable of being the rare 70-catch, 800-yard, 10-touchdown threat at the thin tight end position. He is a great consolation prize in the middle rounds if you lose out on Gates, Jason Witten or Dallas Clark. Finley could sneak up and be more productive than anyone at the position in fantasy, especially since he has a higher-ranked quarterback getting him passes than even that trio.

The Giants missed out on the returning Plaxico Burress, but Manningham has served time (did time, get it?) as an apprentice and is ready to take hold as a starter entering the season for the first time. The Giants have also lost Steve Smith to the Eagles, so Manningham takes on his largest role yet in Eli Manning's offense.

Manningham already enjoyed a third-year receiver breakthrough a season ago, but he is ready to take a significant step up the fantasy rankings this year. He is going to surpass each of his career highs set a year ago: 60 catches, 944 yards and nine TDs.

Manningham might not even crack the top 25 receivers selected on draft day. A 70-catch, 1,000-yard, 10-touchdown season is not far off and could have him perform like a top-10 receiver in fantasy.

Like the Eagles, the Patriots had a nice offseason, adding the firepower of Chad Ochocinco to a Tom Brady-led offense that looks like it could be as good as the record-setting 2007 one. No one is talking about Welker.

Heck, there is even talk Deion Branch is Brady's guy. No, Welker is.

Welker is the underneath slasher who is now another year removed from a serious knee injury that caused him to lose almost 40 receptions and exactly 500 yards off his totals from 2009. It is easy to forget Welker overcome an injury over an offseason that used to take receivers a full calendar year to come back from.

Welker can get back to his 100-catch and 1,000-yard levels and maybe even crack 10 touchdowns for the first time. That's crazy production for a receiver who is getting picked out of the top 15.

Grant is not your average 28-year-old running back. Coming off a season-ending ankle injury, he is actually less of an injury risk then you might believe.

Heck, few backs his age have had under 800 career carries.

Grant, like Finley, gives the Packers an excellent shot at being even more scary this season. Grant looks healthy and postseason star James Starks or rookie/third-down back Alex Green are real threats to cut into Grant's production.

Injury risk has Green barely among the top 25 backs to target on draft day. His circumstance could make him a top 10 performer at the pivotal position. He is a good value in Round 4 or 5.

He is unhappy about his contract at age 28, rightly so. He is on the downside of his career due to age and injury risk.

But, if he doesn't sign a contract this season -- management is saying they want to make him a 49er for life -- Gore could be motivated for one last big year.

He doesn't have a great supporting cast in San Francisco -- unless you're counting exciting rookie Kendall Hunter pushing him from down on the depth chart; otherwise, we might have been inclined to make Gore higher on this list.

What the heck? Where is Vick? Yeah, this writer was saying the same thing when Kolb, now a Cardinal with Fitzgerald, was the Eagles' quarterback of the future in training camp a season ago.

Vick is in a contract year and poised to be a big-time fantasy star, but he is getting drafted as such. It will be hard for him to outperform his lofty draft status.

Young, on the other hand, no one expects anything from. He could assume the Eagles' offense -- all that fantasy goodliness -- after a Vick injury and be this year's Vick-like breakthrough.

There are a lot of "ifs, ands" or "buts" here, but as a last-round pick and early season stashee, the risk way outweighs the rewards.

Vick was long considered a gloried running back under center. What age does the beating take over a player? Age 30.

Vick is 31, albeit lightly beaten in prison for years. Young is, well, relatively Young at age 28. Look out if he is handed the keys to the Eagles' Ferrari.

The top 10 above was hand-picked and ranked according to their potential to outperform their draft position. The list of pending free agents go far deeper and you might see some hidden value else where.

Here are the top pending 2012 free agents by position:

Quarterbacks1. Michael Vick, Eagles 2. Drew Brees, Saints 3. Ryan Fitzpatrick, Bills 4. Chad Henne, Dolphins 5. Jason Campbell, Raiders 6. Vince Young, Eagles 7. Charlie Whitehurst, Seahawks

Running backs1. Adrian Peterson, Vikings 2. Ray Rice, Ravens 3. Frank Gore, 49ers 4. Matt Forte, Bears 5. Peyton Hillis, Browns 6. Ryan Grant, Packers 7. Marshawn Lynch, Seahawks

Wide receivers1. Reggie Wayne, Colts 2. Dwayne Bowe, Chiefs 3. DeSean Jackson, Eagles 4. Mike Wallace, Steelers 5. Vincent Jackson, Chargers 6. Wes Welker, Patriots 7. Marques Colston, Saints 8. Brandon Lloyd, Broncos 9. Steve Johnson, Bills 10. Mario Manningham, Giants 11. Pierre Garcon, Colts12. Donnie Avery, Rams 13. Eddie Royal, Broncos

Tight ends1. Jermichael Finley, Packers 2. Visanthe Shiancoe, Vikings 3. Fred Davis, Redskins

It is interesting to note, like Jackson-Vick above, there are a few QB-WR duos in contract years. There are also Brees-Colston, Fitzpatrick-Johnson and Kyle Orton with Lloyd or Royal. Those duos can be intriguing to hook up for career years, too.

Eric Mack writes fantasy for SI.com and will outline all the news and nuggets game-by-game every week of the NFL season in his Fantasy Football Fast Forward. You can mock him, rip him and (doubtful) praise him before asking him for fantasy advice on Twitter @EricMackFantasyON SALE: Sports Illustrated's Fantasy Football 2011 issue tells you where all the free agents landed and what their fantasy impact will be, along with the critical draft strategy and stats analysis you need to win your league. Order one now.

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