September 08, 2009

CONTRACT YEAR! You'll endlessly hear that exclamatory refrain from anyone discussing a player whose deal is done at the end of this season. Like it's the end-all-be-all of how a guy will perform in the upcoming year. Sure, the motivation to pull in major dollars is a strong one, but just because a player is motivated to do something doesn't mean it'll actually happen.

Take J.T. O'Sullivan, for instance. You think his eyes didn't fill with greenbacks when he was handed the keys to Mike Martz's offense in San Francisco last year? All he had to do was hold off Shaun Hill and Alex Smith and his numbers were sure to be good enough to land a lucrative multi-year deal somewhere. He was so close to a giant payday that he could almost taste the caviar that he hoped to be licking off a stripper's stomach for the rest of his life. Alas, it was not to be. Why? Because O'Sullivan didn't possess the requisite skill set, or have enough support, to do it. He had the motivation, but motivation alone won't bring home the bacon. Same can be said for Maurice Morris, Bryant Johnson, Kyle Boller, Amani Toomer, Reggie Williams and L.J. Smith. And that's just a look at last year's contract year player crop. If you want to go back further, Chris Brown entered his 2006 contract year coming off two consecutive seasons as the Titans' starting running back, and promptly rushed 41 times for 156 yards...the entire season.

Another mistake people make when discussing pay-off seasons is focusing only on star players. This year, guys like Philip Rivers, Greg Jennings, Brandon Marshall, Roddy White, Terrell Owens, Ronnie Brown and Owen Daniels are all entering the last year of their respective deals, and all will sign massive contracts at some point, regardless of how they perform in '09. They've already established themselves as game-altering performers, and in most cases, their main motivation will come from winning a Super Bowl and garnering league-wide, bow-down, respect. The money will be there. They know this.

Now that I've narrowed the pool down to players who are literally playing for jobs, let's identify the three categories they fall into. With all this talk of getting paid, I'm starting to feel a little gangsta, yo, so I've divided the following candidates into players who will "get that scrilla," guys who "won't thrill ya," and under-appreciated performers who you should "take a feela" on. Alright, so that last one is pretty lame. Shoot me. It rhymed ... biatches.


Jason Campbell

Let's cut Campbell some slack. He had three different offensive coordinators over his first three seasons. His two main receivers could moonlight as munchkins in the remake of Wizard of Oz. His owner's a megalomaniac, his first head coach was born before the advent of the forward pass and his current leader has third degree burns on his posterior from sitting on a metal chair placed directly over a bonfire. Of course, none of that is an excuse for throwing 13 touchdowns while starting every game last season, or failing to reach the 200-yard plateau in eight of 16 contests. But hey, he did throw a league-low six interceptions!

With the Redskins attached to recent rumors about other QB acquisitions, its apparent this is Campbell's last chance to prove he's a starting caliber NFL signal-caller. A second consecutive season in QB guru Jim Zorn's complicated version of the West Coast offense will help. As will the anticipated development of big, physical, second-year wideouts Devin Thomas and Malcolm Kelly. With motivation, familiarity, and a handful of weapons at this disposal, Campbell is one of my favorite candidates for contract-year success.


Chad Pennington

Despite leading the league in completion percentage and setting a career high with 3,653 passing yards, Pennington once again is in a situation where he has to prove himself. Not to the Dolphins brass -- who've all but decided that Chad Henne is the QB of the future -- but to the other 31 teams who may be looking for a starter next season. With Pat White in the fold and looking to make an impact as a prime-time Wildcatter, and the hot breath of Henne on the back of his neck, Pennington will be hard-pressed to reach his lofty (for him) numbers of 2008. To top it off, he's only played 16 games twice in his nine-year career, and never in back-to-back seasons. He played 16 last year, in case you didn't get where I was going with that.


Kyle Orton

You'll read a lot about how Orton's skill set fits perfectly with the offense Josh McDaniels is implementing in Denver, and how he could find similar success to Matt Cassel from a year ago, and you'll get no argument from me. Orton's completion percentage will undoubtedly climb into the 60-plus range, and with plenty of weaponry at his disposal, it's safe to assume his first 3,000-yard season is well within reach.

However, don't make the mistake of glancing at Cassel's numbers from '08 and projecting them onto ol' "Neckbeard." For starters, if you look closer at the game-by-game production, you'll see that Cassel averaged 345 yards and threw 13 touchdowns during four monster outings, while hitting pay dirt just eight times with an average of 193 yards in the remaining 12 games. Oh, and he was also in charge of guiding an offense that established itself as the best EVER the year prior. I have no doubts Orton will find success in Denver and land a multi-year deal at season's end, but that doesn't necessarily mean he's worthy of your fantasy lust. Consider him a reliable backup with matchup play possibilities, despite the recent injury.


LenDale White

Maybe it's just me, but White seems to embody the "dolla dolla bill y'all" persona that many NFL'ers are acting out these days, and, not surprisingly, the signs of contract year motivation are already evident. Weighing in at a blubbery 260-pounds last season, "Smash" apparently realized that playing your way into shape during training camp hasn't worked since 1964. He has vowed to keep himself hovering around 230 pounds throughout the season.

White's always had the physical tools to be an ultra-productive fantasy running back, it was just his head, heart and gut that prevented him from rising to the status his talents indicated. Now that the chance of a huge payday has taken care of his heart and gut, owners are left with only his head to worry about. That puts him on par with about 50 percent of the players in the league right now. Even if Chris Johnson stays healthy for the entire year -- and at a scatty 200 pounds, that's no sure thing -- don't be surprised to see 250-plus carries, over 1,000 yards, and double-digit touchdowns out of the formerly beefy RB.


Willie Parker

With knee and shoulder issues limiting him to 11 games, Parker suffered through his worst statistical output since taking over the starting job in 2005. He averaged 3.8 yards-per-carry, and recorded just three catches. In his absence, Mewelde Moore established himself as a reliable third-down option, and now that Rashard Mendenhall is healthy, it will be extremely difficult for the 28-year old Parker to find fantasy success without third-down or goal line touches.

All the reports coming out of Pittsburgh have been positive regarding Parker's conditioning, but if he's lost even the slightest bit of step, we can go ahead and start the clock on his impending free agency. You'll have to draft him as an RB2 if you want to own FWP, and I am not willing to pay anything near that much for a rapidly declining running back with a possible time share problem.


Pierre Thomas

As an undrafted free agent in 2007, Thomas' rookie contract is now up, and after posting 677 total yards and nine scores over his last six games as the Saints starting running back, he's looking to upgrade his "embarrassing" $460,000 salary of last year.

Sporting a career average of 4.8 yards per carry, Thomas enters the season as the unquestioned primary ball carrier and goal line option in NOLA, and factoring in his above-average receiving skills -- 48 catches in part-time duty over the last two seasons -- it's not hard to see why fantasy experts everywhere are declaring him the breakout candidate of '09. And I gotta admit, I'm buying into the hype. Looking at Deuce McAllister's line of 1,057 yards and 10 touchdowns during the Saints 2006 run to the NFC Championship game -- he was a year removed from a torn ACL -- I can't help but think that's Thomas' floor. If you can snag Pierre in round four or five in a standard 12-team league, consider yourself lucky. He is dropping that far because of his recent injury, which many not mean much a few weeks from now. And when you do, immediately take off your pants, pull your shirt over your head, and run around the draft room screaming repeatedly, "I'm a lucky Pierre!" Trust me, you'll get big laughs.


Braylon Edwards

Edwards is surly, irresponsible -- check out his role on the night Donte' Stallworth was arrested -- and his hands appeared to be made of granite last year. And yet, none of that bothers me. He's the only competent target in Cleveland, his combination of size and speed can change games, and he clearly needs a cash influx to pay for $1,500 bottles of Perrier-Jouet Rose Champagne and $700 Grey Goose on a regular basis. It doesn't matter who's quarterbacking the Browns -- my money's on Brady Quinn -- Edwards will be a dominant fantasy presence this season. Draft him as your second wideout, and reap the benefits of number one production.


Chris Henry

By all accounts, Henry has done a complete 180 in his approach to football, and more importantly, life in general. Words like "maturation" and "dedication" are being thrown out with regularity, and he spent a portion of his offseason training with Carson Palmer in California. Through all the drug/gun/fighting/drunken arrests that he's been involved in, it's easy to forget that Henry caught 15 touchdowns during his first two years in the league. When you see the 6-foot-4, 200-pound deep threat gliding down the field, snagging balls with ease against overmatched defenders this season, you'll understand why he still has a job in the NFL.


Anthony Fasano

Many people are discounting Fasano as a reliable fantasy option based on his, well, unreliability last season. Sure, he had six games when he registered one catch or less, and the hands-challenged David Martin posted nearly identical reception and yardage totals, but why focus only on the negative? He ended the season on a relative tear relatively, hauling in 11 catches for 142 yards and four scores over his final four games. With an underwhelming receiving crew -- and I'm being nice with that description -- Pennington connected with his tight ends for 11 of his 19 scoring tosses, with seven of those finding Fasano's open arms.

Bill Parcells knows a little somethin' somethin' about tight ends. He was responsible for drafting superstar pass-catchers Mark Bavaro and Jason Witten, and turned Ben Coates from a little-used backup into a perennial Pro Bowler. When the Tuna goes to the length of trading a draft pick for a former offensive player, fantasy owners should take note. Especially a tight end he's compared to Bavaro. I see 10 touchdowns and a heaping pile of Benjamins awaiting Fasano at year's end.


Tony Scheffler

Josh McDaniels hates tight ends, everyone knows this. I think it's even posted somewhere on his Facebook profile. More specifically, he hates pass-catching tight ends. He thinks their place is on the line, protecting the quarterback, not running up the seam with speedy wideouts. While in New England, he routinely shied away from Ben Watson -- an athletic receiver-type -- instead preferring the slow moving blocking stylings of Daniel Graham. And guess who's on the Broncos roster? Yep, Daniel Graham. What I'm trying to say is, don't count on Scheffler moving into the elite-level at this position under McDaniels' spiteful gaze. Don't even bank on him repeating his 40/645/3 line from a year ago. Do look for him to be wearing a new uniform next season, though. And if he starts off slow, which he most likely will, he'll a good mid-season buy-low candidate in dynasty leagues.


Randy McMichael

McMichael caught 11 balls through the first four games last season before hitting injured reserve with a broken leg. The Rams have an entirely new coaching staff, led by Steve Spagnuolo, and brought in a dominant center, Jason Brown, and drafted tackle Jason Smith with the second overall pick. They also added blocking tight end Billy Bajema and fullback Mike Karney. All that adds up to an emphasis on protecting Marc Bulger in their implementation of the West Coast offense, and McMichael will be featured heavily in it. He caught 60-plus balls in three consecutive seasons between 2004 and 2006, and with youngsters Donnie Avery and Laurent Robinson occupying the wide receiver positions, McMichael could prove to be a tremendously valuable safety blanket for Bulger.

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