Assurances from both sides that “something will be worked out by camp.”
Confidence from the player’s agent that a deal will be in place before the start of the regular season.
A headline during the bye week along the lines of “Should we be worried that [Insert Player Name Here] isn’t signed?”
It’s also understood that the player, no matter their contract status, will play like a rabid mountain creature. They could also crack under the pressure.
Boom or Bust
In 2015 DeMarco Murray parlayed his 1,845 yards-13 touchdown 2014 into a 5-year, $40 million deal with the Eagles. On the flip side, Braylon Edwards signed a one year with the 49ers in 2011 to prove he was still a legitimate receiving threat. He caught 15 passes for 181 yards. Edwards was waived at the end of the season and was out of the league by 2012. It can go both ways.
Let’s take a look at some well-known fantasy football names in make-or-break contract years.
Note: I used spotrac's list of free agents to-be as a resource for this article.
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Speaking of rabid wildlife, Kirk Cousins still doesn’t have that long-term deal he’s desired. He flung the ball all over the field last season for 4,917 yards and 25 touchdowns. He’s the best quarterback Washington has had in a long time and finished as QB-5 in fantasy scoring. Cousins was going to be a top-10 quarterback without the added zest of a contract scenario, but it might add a little spice to what should be an impressive campaign.
I know what you’re thinking and - contrary to casual fan assessment - yes the Browns have players with fantasy value. The Crow rushed for 952 yards last season and seven scores. There is an argument to be made that he was underutilized. He ran the ball 192 times or nearly thirty fewer times than other contract-year running backs. After all, Crowell was ripping off 4.8 yards per carry. It’s an impressive feat when you consider how terrible the Browns offensive line was last year. The combination of a contract year, a much improved offensive line (Cleveland added J.C. Tretter and Kevin Zeitler in free agency) and more carries point toward a big 2017 for the Browns tailback.
Let’s make this clear: Jeremy Hill is not missing. He is not dead. He was not abducted by aliens. Hill is 24 years old. For all intents and purposes, he should be the starter in Cincinnati. Yes, even ahead of Joe Mixon. Let’s not dump his fantasy stock just yet. Hill’s “down” year yielded 839 yards and nine scores. The 3.8 YPC was ugly, but is there anywhere to go but up? If anything, both Hill and Mixon will be spending much of the year running for their lives behind an offensive line which lost both Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler to free agency. I’ll take a desperate Jeremy Hill over a player who hasn’t been through a single training camp.
Eddie Lacy’s last two fantasy campaigns have been massive disappointments compared to the start of his career. He rumbled for 2,317 yards through his first two seasons, but regressed over the past two. Appearing in just five games last season due to a bad ankle, Lacy rushed for just 360 yards. On the bright side, Lacy showed up to Seattle’s OTAs in shape. The Seahawks desperately need to reclaim their run-first identity on offense. If he is indeed in the “Best Shape of his Career” category, Lacy could parlay his one-year deal into financial and fantasy football success.
Wouldn’t it be funny if the first time Carlos Hyde played all 16 games was in a contract year?
Hyde was productive last season as a starter with 988 yards on the ground, 27 receptions for 163 yards and nine total touchdowns. The only problem was that Hyde missed three games, one of which was the all-important Week 16 (the championship round for most fantasy leagues).
Unlike the other running backs mentioned, Hyde doesn’t appear to have any immediate competition in the backfield. Tim Hightower’s best days are behind him at age 31. Fourth-round pick Joe Williams is a question mark. If there were ever a year for Hyde to separate himself as one of San Francisco’s premier playmakers, this would be it.
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There were few things more frustrating in fantasy football last season than Brock Osweiler short-hopping the ball to DeAndre Hopkins or sailing it over his head or heaving it out of bounds on an out route. In any case, Hopkins still managed to haul in 78 balls for 954 yards. Fantasy owners really felt the sting due to his sharp decline in touchdowns – he found the end zone four times compared to 11 in 2015. Finally free from the oppressive Osweiler regime and in the last year of his rookie deal, expect Hopkins to have huge year.
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Allen Robinson/Marqise Lee
Both of Jacksonville’s top receivers from 2016 enter the last year of their contracts in 2017. Allen Robinson (73 receptions, 883 yards, 6 TD) and Marqise Lee (63 receptions, 851 yards, 3 TD) were Blake Bortles’ top targets. Robinson had a solid year, but it was a gigantic step back from 2015 when he hauled in 80 catches for 1,400 yards and a staggering 14 touchdowns. Lee’s 851 yards were his career high by far, but he reached paydirt just three times. The integration of Leonard Fournette into the Jags offense will mean less targets for every receiver. Bortles has yet to complete 59 percent of his passes through his first three seasons. This all sounds like a recipe for fantasy disappointment.
The oft-injured Cincinnati tight end is one of Andy Dalton’s favorite red zone targets. During his breakout 2015 (615 receiving yards, 13 TD), Dalton found Eifert 11 times for scores inside the 20-yard line. Last year was a different story. Derailed by a back injury, the Notre Dame product appeared in eight games and managed just 394 yards. Those who draft Tyler Eifert this year can pin their hopes on the fact he managed five scores in his abbreviated 2016 season. It’s a huge if, but if Eifert can stay healthy he could be primed to earn a big payday in 2018.