You usually only hear about contracts in the NFL when a player is holding out for a better deal. But the quiet ones playing with the contract in-hand are the players we should really be giving our attention to in fantasy football. They are biting their cheek and putting in the work to get paid, which makes some of them good contract-year gems.
Last year, Chris Johnson held out so long he wound up being a huge bust, albeit after he got paid. Maurice Jones-Drew, while still under contract through 2013, is following that same dangerous path.
Heck, MJD signed a five-year, $30.95 million contract in 2009 and is owed $4.45 million this year and $4.95 next. He knows, at 27, this could be his last chance to really have bargaining power coming off a big year. Picking a player in a contract year is more about them having their best season before becoming rich.
Below we rank the top players who are due for contract renewal after the season. These are not rankings like you will see on your cheatsheets. Rather, this is more an evaluation of what their contract status can do for their fantasy production.
There are a slew of backup quarterbacks in contract years, but among the starters, there are two real good ones.
Joe Flacco, 27, Ravens -- Here is the quintessential contract-year player. We haven't seen much greatness out of Flacco, but the bet here is he performs like a fantasy starter, if not a star, week in and week out as Torrey Smith and Ed Dickson take off and Anquan Boldin remains steady. The Ravens are going to regret not locking Flacco up before he prices himself into the elite. That is where he is going to be when this year is said and done.
Matt Schaub, 31, Texans -- He is coming off an injury-plagued year that allowed the Texans to realize they can be a postseason contender with a mere game-manager. But Schaub has shown he can be far more than that and now he has to prove a lot of things to his team, including his health yet again. A healthy season will mean 4,000 yards, 25 touchdowns and a huge payday.
The life of a back is a short one, so pay very close attention to the ages of the backs below. The youngest are the ones to watch. There are plenty of backs we haven't yet seen the best of yet who could have that perfect career year right before earning a contract extension.
1. Shonn Greene, 26, Jets -- His progression has seemed frustratingly slow, but Greene's numbers have improved each of his three seasons. With a true ground-and-pound offense now in New York, he should finally take off -- just in time to make it expensive for the Jets to keep him around.
2. Reggie Bush, 27, Dolphins -- After his first 1,000-yard season, Bush has gotten to talking crazy about winning a rushing title. Under Joe Philbin's offense that will be a tall order, but Bush will at least be put in space to make bigger plays this year. It should add up to his best fantasy season as a pro, even if he has Daniel Thomas and rookie Lamar Miller behind him. Bush is the game-breaker of that bunch.
3. Rashard Mendenhall, 25, Steelers -- A career-high workload combined to take the legs out of Mendenhall last year, which ended with his major knee surgery. Expect the Steelers to bring him back slowly. Once healthy, though, Mendenhall is the type of back the Steelers want and he should re-earn his feature-back role.
4. Isaac Redman (RFA), 27, Steelers -- Sure, he is the back of choice at the start of the season, but he is older and not quite the talent Mendenhall is. If he were, he would have shown it by now. Whether or not he is a fantasy star out of the gate, the bet is Mendenhall is the man when things are said and done.
5. LeGarrette Blount (restricted), 25, Buccaneers -- Everyone loves rookie Doug Martin right now, but it should be reminded Blount is the incumbent and opened the preseason atop the depth chart. Blount had to fight to get where he was and now has to fight to stay there. He has the fight to make this a good year before getting paid.
6. Felix Jones, 25, Cowboys -- He was once the darling talent, now he's second fiddle to DeMarco Murray. Jones reported to the camp out of shape and could have taken advantage of Murray coming off an injury of his own. Instead, he'll bide his time as a backup initially. With a role, Jones still can take off. "We're going to see how his year goes and his health issues along the way and see where it works out," Cowboys VP Stephen Jones told The Dallas Morning News. "We certainly haven't ruled out re-signing him, but we'll see how the year takes us."
7. Kevin Smith, 25, Lions -- He was out of football once and returned last year to surprise down the stretch. With Jahvid Best (post-concussion syndrome) still not cleared and Mikel Leshoure (Achilles') still not up to speed, Smith opened the preseason as the starting back in a potentially awesome offense.
8. Tim Hightower, 26, Redskins -- This is supposed to be Roy Helu's breakout year. Instead, the Redskins list Hightower (coming off ACL surgery) as their starter and Evan Royster as the backup on the initial depth chart. The role is intriguing, if Hightower can hold off those young talents. Hightower needs to prove healthy enough to be worth the dollars of a starting back.
9. Rashad Jennings, 27, Jaguars -- He got a raw deal last season, landing on the preseason IR and sitting out the year, despite proving healthy enough to play by Week 5. With MJD a holdout and in needing of a running mate to take some of the workload, Jennings is positioned to have a surprising season. He is an outstanding handcuff, and not just for MJD owners. Jennings will open the season as the Jags' starter, even if MJD reports to camp before Week 1.
This is a position that seems to have loads of talent on the verge of big contracts. They have to be careful, though, because play-calling and a QB's preference for targets can change their fortunes in a hurry. The team's commitment to a contract-year wideout is something to watch, because if a team feels the player is on the way out, it can easily just not gameplan them in. There are some real big names here:
1. Wes Welker, 31, Patriots -- With the huge years he has already had, it will be improbable for him to post a career season, but a contentious negotiation certainly has left him motivated. If the Pats place the franchise tag on him again, he will earn a nifty $11.4 million for 2013. "That's a great situation," he told the Boston Herald. Yeah, we'd say so.
2. Greg Jennings, 28, Packers -- He showed some signs of aging a year ago, but there should still be plenty of production to come. He is most likely headed for a franchise tag, but taking back some of the numbers that have gone Jordy Nelson's way can earn him a long-term deal.
3. Dwayne Bowe, 27, Chiefs -- He was franchise tagged this past offseason, but he could go through the process all over again. A healthy Matt Cassel should mean big numbers for Bowe.
4. Mike Wallace, 26, Steelers -- He warrants a long-term contract the Steelers don't seem inclined to offer him since they have him on a first-round tender as a restricted free agent this season. This reeks of a DeSean Jackson situation, but Wallace has a more consistent QB and achievable expectations.
5. Victor Cruz (restricted), 25, Giants -- His smashing breakthrough a year ago is probably not repeatable, particularly when you consider all the long touchdowns, but the third-year receiver is at least motivated to come close and make good on his top-10 WR position. "Whenever the contract comes, it comes," Cruz said in July. "I'm not going to be sitting back, waiting for it, thinking about it, because then I won't be focused on football."
6. Danny Amendola, 26, Rams -- As long as preseason hype doesn't ruin him from being more than a late-round sleeper, he should be a good value, particularly in PPR leagues. Sam Bradford should have a bounce-back Year 3, which might mean a 100-catch season for this possession receiver. The overachiever stands to earn himself a lot of money in that event.
7. Malcom Floyd, 30, Chargers -- While he has been fairly consistent -- as in just off the fantasy radar -- he does have the potential to be Philip Rivers' No. 1 wideout with Vincent Jackson having signed with Tampa Bay. Floyd should be entering the twilight of his career, but his contract status just might make this a breakthrough year.
8. Brandon Tate, 24, Bengals -- He started camp as a starter opposite A.J. Green, which should mean a lot of targets when Green gets overemphasized by defenses. Roughly in his third season, because of a redshirt rookie year due to recovery from ACL surgery, Tate is a deep out-of-nowhere sleeper.
9. Mohamed Massaquoi, 25, Browns -- He is having a good camp and might finally have a capable QB. He is at least slated to start opposite Greg Little and ahead of supplemental draft pick Josh Gordon.
10. Austin Collie, 26, Colts -- He wasn't the same without Peyton Manning, but perhaps Andrew Luck can revive him. The departure of Pierre Garcon helps.
11. Devery Henderson, 30, Saints -- He never really amounted to much, but the loss of Robert Meachem will at least give Henderson a steadier role behind Marques Colston and Lance Moore.
12. Ramses Barden, 26, Giants -- Rookie Rueben Randle (LSU) and second-year Jerrel Jernigan have more speed, but Barden has the size you can't develop, or defend. "It's time; It was time last year; It's time," coach Tom Coughlin said in camp. "The guy is going to make a mark in the league. He's smart; he's been around long enough."
13. Brandon Gibson, 24, Rams -- Like Amendola, Gibson opened camp as a starter as an incumbent. He doesn't have the ceiling of some of the Rams' young WR talents, but he does have experience and that might get him an opportunity.
14. Anthony Armstrong (RFA), 29, Redskins -- He fell off after a surprising 2010, but if he makes the team, perhaps he can improve with Robert Griffin III's QB play.
If you miss out on one of the few monsters at this position like Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham, the best strategy would be to wait a long time to pick your starter. The names below are a part of the reason for this. There is a lot of potential here and they certainly look capable of posting a career year, especially when you consider their ages and development paths:
1. Fred Davis, 26, Redskins -- He picked up for Chris Cooley well enough last season to look like a future gem at the position. Now, he will need to prove he is RGIII's go-to man long term.
2. Dustin Keller, 27, Jets -- With no Plaxico Burress and a new commitment to the running game, Keller could become a legit red zone target. Many will be looking to Tim Tebow. Fantasy owners looking for a tight end should look to Keller.
3. Jared Cook, 25, Titans -- Regardless of whom starts at QB, Cook is expected to take a significant step forward, continuing on his progress of late last year.
4. Ed Dickson (RFA), 25, Ravens -- If Flacco takes the expected step forward, it will be because of his targets. Torrey Smith is rising and Dickson should, too.
5. Heath Miller, 29, Steelers -- Ben Roethlisberger is going to be relied upon more than ever in a more open passing attack, so Miller can quietly have a career year.
6. Martellus Bennett, 25, Giants -- Bennett gets a lot of credit for being a physical talent that was stuck behind Jason Witten in Dallas. We will see in New York, which needs a TE option.
7. Travis Beckum, 25, Giants -- Beckum is coming off an ACL torn in the Super Bowl, so he won't be ready early, but he might emerge late if Bennett doesn't.
It is hard to imagine a kicker being jacked up about his contract status, but in case you need a reason to select your kicker after the first few sure-things are off the board:
1. Nate Kaeding, 30, Chargers -- He is coming off injury and has to prove more valuable than Nick Novak. With that team, this can be a career year.
2. Mike Nugent, 30, Bengals -- He is not your first choice at the position, but his team can position him for plenty of field-goal opportunities.
3. Rob Bironas, 34, Titans -- He has had some huge fantasy seasons and his team figures to be better at running this season.
4. Neil Rackers, 35, Redskins -- Another former No. 1 fantasy kicker, but the Redskins offense is in the hands of a rookie QB, so there is a bit of an unknown there. Also, he has to beat out Graham Gano.
5. Lawrence Tynes, 34, Giants -- He has made huge kicks in the postseason, but Eli Manning is good in the red zone and the running game figures to be better finishing than a year ago.
6. Phil Dawson, 37, Browns -- Not only is his offense in the hands of a rookie QB, but also a rookie RB, too. He probably should be off the fantasy radar.