2021 Fantasy Football: Contract-Year Players to Watch

These players are out to prove they're worth a new big contract and that means improved stats for fantasy managers to enjoy
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Motivation.

Fantasy managers love when their players have added reason to produce big totals at a high level. While the most important goal of many players is to hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy, earning the biggest possible contract is also high on the list (maybe even higher than a championship). So, let’s take a look at which players entering contract years and will be motivated to prove their worth ahead of the 2022 offseason.

Note: All 2021 base salary data provided by Spotrac.

Quarterbacks

ben-roethlisberger-pittsburgh-steelers-last-unbeaten-team

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers (2021 salary: $1,075,00): This could be the final year of what has been a Hall-of-Fame career for Roethlisberger, who enters the season at the age of 39. He finished as the QB14 a season ago, averaging 17.8 fantasy points per game. With most of his weapons in the passing game back, Big Ben remains a QB2.

Ryan Fitzpatrick, Football Team (2021 salary: $3,000,000): The Amish rifle is going into his age-38 year, as his career across eight teams (and now nine) has rarely seen him sign long-term deals. He averaged just over 17 fantasy points per game a season ago, so he’ll be in the QB2 conversation as a late-round choice in most 2021 drafts.

Jameis Winston, Saints (2021 salary: $1,000,000): Winston is entering a huge year, as he’s the projected favorite to replace Drew Brees as the Saints No. 1 quarterback. If he can find success, it could mean a big contract heading into his age-28 season. On the flip side, a perceived failed year could cost Winston starting opportunities in 2022.

Cam Newton, Patriots (2021 salary: $1,500,000): This is very likely to be Newton's last season as the starter in New England, as the team picked its future franchise field general, Mac Jones, in the NFL draft. Still, Newton will be looking to prove he can succeed as an NFL starter for consideration among teams looking for a starter in 2022.

Teddy Bridgewater, Broncos (2021 salary: $4,250,000): Bridgewater’s 2020 totals didn’t light the fantasy world on fire, but he did finish a respectable 18th in fantasy points among quarterbacks. He’ll battle Drew Lock for the starting job in training camp, and he could be playing to earn respect as a No. 1 quarterback for 2022 and beyond.

Notables: Taysom Hill, Saints; Andy Dalton, Bears; Marcus Mariota, Raiders

Running Backs

Nick Chubb

Nick Chubb, Browns (2021 salary: $3,384,000): The most attractive free agent back, Chubb ranks fifth among free-agent runners in terms of overall salary. The Browns will have to open their wallets or franchise tag the talented Chubb, who doesn’t turn 25 until December. He’d benefit from another huge statistical season under Kevin Stefanski.

Melvin Gordon, Broncos (2021 salary: $4,500,000): Gordon, who finished as the RB14 a season ago, is likely playing his final season with the Broncos after the team drafted his replacement, Javonte Williams. As a result, the 28-year-old runner will be motivated to produce to tempt other NFL teams to add him for the 2022 year.

Raheem Mostert, 49ers (2021 salary: $2,975,00): Mostert, entering his age-29 season, could be hard-pressed to find a prominent role in 2022 sans a huge 2021 campaign. The Niners drafted both Trey Sermon and Elijah Mitchell, who project as the future of the team's backfield. This could be Mostert's final fantasy-relevant NFL year.

Chase Edmonds, Cardinals (2021 salary: $920,000): This is an important year for Edmonds, as he’ll look to prove he can be more than a committee back in his age-25 season. A successful campaign could lead to a nice new deal and a prominent role for 2022 and beyond, but Edmonds could find it difficult to separate from James Conner.

Ronald Jones, Buccaneers (2021 salary: $1,444,351): Jones led Buccaneers backs in touches, yards, touchdowns, and fantasy points last season, but Leonard Fournette was their top back through the postseason en route to a Super Bowl title. Jones would do well earn that role once again, but a committee seems pretty likely again in 2022.

David Johnson, Texans (2021 salary: $1,250,000): This is very likely to be Johnson’s last season as the starter in Houston, as he'll turn 29 this December and has seen his numbers decline. On a team that is in rebuilding mode, the Texans will no doubt be on the hunt for a younger featured back ahead of 2022. D.J. is best served as an RB4.

Leonard Fournette, Buccaneers (2021 salary: $1,000,000): Fournette is coming off a huge playoff run, earning up the nickname "Lombardi Lenny" as the Buccaneers took home the trophy. Still, in his prime at age 26, Fournette will be hard-pressed to earn a true featured role with Jones and Giovani Bernard on the roster and in contract years.

James Conner, Cardinals (2021 salary: $1,250,000): Speaking of Conner, who inked a team-friendly deal, is also looking to prove he can be a productive and durable back (something he hasn’t been since 2018). A potential committee with Edmonds could hurt the value of both backs, but this duo has a lot to prove for their future NFL careers.

Notables: Nyheim Hines, Colts; James White, Patriots; J.D. McKissic, Football Team; Rashaad Penny, Seahawks; Phillip Lindsay, Texans; Sony Michel, Patriots

Wide Receivers

Green Bay Packers Davante Adams

Davante Adams, Packers (2021 salary: $12,250,000): Adams has nothing more to prove at the NFL level, posting WR1 totals a season ago with Aaron Rodgers at the helm. Whether or not Rodgers returns to the Packers could determine if Adams is back with the team in 2022 and beyond. At this point, he's still my top fantasy wideout.

Robby Anderson, Panthers (2021 salary: $8,000,000): Anderson is coming off his best season in the stat sheets, finishing with 95 catches and 1,096 yards. He'll be reunited with San Darnold in 2021, and another solid campaign should be a nice payday in Anderson's future. He'll be a solid No. 3 fantasy wide receiver in all drafts.

Allen Robinson, Bears (2021 salary: $17,888,000): Robinson has been franchised in each of the last two seasons, during which time he’s produced two top-10 seasons from a fantasy standpoint. Entering his age-28 campaign, Robinson would benefit from a third straight big season as he’ll become a true unrestricted free agent in 2022.

Chris Godwin, Buccaneers (2021 salary: $15,983,000): The Buccaneers placed the franchise tag on Godwin, who will go into this season as a WR2 in most fantasy drafts. He'll have plenty of motivation to produce in his age-25 season, as a major payday with Tampa Bay (or elsewhere if Tom Brady retires?) It could be just around the corner.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers (2021 salary: $1,000,000): Smith-Schuster finished a very respectable 16th in fantasy points among wideouts, and he’ll remain in Pittsburgh on a one-year deal. He has a great rapport with Roethlisberger, who is back for maybe his final season, so a solid 2021 season could mean lots of dough for JuJu in 2022.

Will Fuller, Dolphins (2021 salary: $931,765): Fuller is coming off the best season of his career, but he had to settle on a one-year deal with the Dolphins. It's not the best landing spot as the team has many mouths to feed, but Fuller would be wise to make some hay to raise his free-agent stock heading into the 2022 offseason.

Courtland Sutton, Broncos (2021 salary: $2,183,000): Sutton is entering his age-25 season, and it’s an important one as he looks to prove to the rest of the league that he’s 100 percent and capable of being a No. 1 wideout. While the Broncos have many options in the passing attack, Sutton has the highest ceiling and could bust out in 2021.

D.J. Chark, Jaguars (2021 salary: $2,183,000): Chark is coming off a disappointing 2021, making this upcoming campaign even more important in terms of his value on the open market in 2022. The presence of Trevor Lawrence should help, too. Chark, who is just 24, could draw plenty of attention as a free agent if he has a strong 2021.

Notables: Antonio Brown, Buccaneers; T.Y. Hilton, Colts; Mike Williams, Chargers; Michael Gallup, Cowboys; Emmanuel Sanders, Bills; A.J. Green, Cardinals; Christian Kirk, Cardinals; Sammy Watkins, Ravens; Jamison Crowder, Jets

Tight Ends

Ravens Mark Andrews

Mark Andrews, Ravens (2021 salary: $3,384,000): Andrews has produced a pair of top-6 finishes among tight ends, so it’s no surprise he’s considered a top-5 option at the position ahead of 2021 drafts. He’s already proven his worth to the Ravens as the top pass catcher for Lamar Jackson, but another strong year would help his contract cause.

Dallas Goedert, Eagles (2021 salary: $1,246,946): Goedert could be in a great spot to put up career-best totals this season, as the Eagles are reportedly looking to trade Zach Ertz. If that happens, Goedert would be in a great position to produce strong fantasy totals and earn himself a nice new contract with the Eagles (or elsewhere) in 2022.

Logan Thomas, Football Team (2021 salary: $2,315,000): Thomas broke out in his age-29 season, posting more targets, catches, yards, and touchdowns than he had in his previous four years combined. Now at the age of 30, Thomas will have to go out and prove that his 2020 totals were no fluke. That's motivation to produce once again.

Evan Engram, Giants (2021 salary: $6,013,000): Engram has failed to live up to the big expectations he had after he busted as a rookie, missing time due to injuries while also dealing with dropped passes and inconsistent production. The Giants have many mouths to feed, but Engram needs to step up, and he enters his age-27 campaign.

Mike Gesicki, Dolphins (2021 salary: $1,381,626): Gesicki is fresh off his best season in the pros, posting 53 catches, 703 yards, and six touchdowns. Now entering his age-25 campaign, he'll look to prove he should be paid as one of the NFL's top-10 tight ends. The selection of Hunter Long in the draft added motivation for Gesicki, too.

Notables: Robert Tonyan, Packers; Zach Ertz, Eagles; Eric Ebron, Steelers; Rob Gronkowski, Buccaneers; O.J. Howard, Buccaneers; Jimmy Graham, Bears; Hayden Hurst, Falcons; Gerald Everett, Seahawks; Jared Cook, Chargers

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Michael Fabiano is an award-winning fantasy football analyst on Sports Illustrated and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association (FSWA) Hall of Fame. Click here to read all his articles here on SI Fantasy. You can follow Michael on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram for your late-breaking fantasy news and the best analysis in the business!