Does the “contract year theory” hold water? Ask Joe Flacco, who turned the Ravens’ foot-dragging into a $120 million contract behind a career 2013 postseason run. Fantasy owners looking to break a tie could bank on the smell of money to propel a contract-year player to new heights—or at least heights he can cash in on when he hits the open market this winter. Also good information to keep in mind for dynasty leagues, as a guy might underachieve his way onto the open market while you stash him at a buy low cost and hope a change of scenery leads to rejuvenation.
Carson Palmer, Cardinals – If Logan Thomas is the Cards’ quarterback of the future he’s still a couple years away, so a solid season from the 34-year-old Palmer could earn him a couple more seasons as an NFL starter—be it in Arizona or elsewhere.
Andy Dalton, Bengals – Cincy hasn’t quite fully committed to Dalton in a situation that somewhat resembles Flacco’s. Could Andy be the next quarterback to get overpaid for bringing home a ring?
Alex Smith, Chiefs – Smith is 30 and at present the Chiefs’ backup plan is rookie Aaron Murray. However, he’ll need Jamaal Charles to turn a whole lot of dump-off passes into long gains to get anything close to his rookie contract.
Jake Locker, Titans – The Titans passed on picking up Locker’s option in hopes of finally getting a quality, injury-free season out of him, but they have Zack Mettenberger waiting in the wings in case the 2011 first-round pick fails to deliver. So there’s definitely motivation here; whether there’s an offense in place that would push Locker to put up numbers worthy of a follow-up contract is another question entirely.
Michael Vick, Jets – Geno Smith is the Jets’ future, but if Vick wins the competition and flashes some of that old magic he may still find another short-term gig elsewhere in 2015.
DeMarco Murray, Cowboys – A big year—heck, a healthy year—from Murray likely keeps him in Dallas with a decent bump in pay. Is cash motivation to avoid the injury bug? Murray’s fantasy owners can certainly hope so.
Shane Vereen, Patriots – New England isn’t a franchise that likes to toss money around, so if Vereen is too good—like, “Stevan Ridley can’t hang on to the ball and Vereen becomes the three-down feature back and blows up” good—he may price himself out of town. Fantasy owners wouldn’t mind that a bit.
Stevan Ridley, Patriots – Perhaps Ridley can envision the football stuffed with Benjamins; then he won’t be so prone to putting it on the ground. If he hangs on to it, he’ll likely do enough for the Patriots to bring him back. Or, like Vereen, if he takes over as the feature back he might play his way into a contract New England won’t match.
Frank Gore, 49ers – We’ve all been writing off Gore for years, yet he keeps on keepin’ on. The Niners have his potential replacement on roster, so all another solid year from Gore will do is slow the transition to Carlos Hyde.
Ryan Mathews, Chargers – Mathews finally stayed healthy and as such delivered on his first-round promise. Now he’s in the last year of that rookie contract and needs to produce again to collect the big bucks of a second deal. Once again, health will be the key.
Fred Jackson, Bills – At 33 Jackson is unlikely to get another big contract, but if C.J. Spiller can’t stay healthy and Jackson winds up shouldering the workload he’s low-mileage enough to draw some interest.
Danny Woodhead, Chargers – Woodhead already secured one free-agent deal leaving New England for San Diego; at 29, he’s not too old to warrant another contract as a valuable third-down contributor should he string together another solid season.
Darren McFadden, Raiders – McFadden is only 26, so a big year—and a healthy year—could earn him a good-sized two- or three-year deal as someone’s feature back. Of course, staying healthy has always been an issue.
Mark Ingram, Saints – It’ll be tough for Ingram to earn a big contract as part of the Saints’ inevitable RBBC, but if the prospect of cash motivates Ingram during his limited opportunities fantasy owners won’t mind tagging along for the ride.
Knowshon Moreno, Broncos – It’s unlikely Moreno will ever be in as good a situation as he was coming off of last season’s success; that he showed up out of shape in Miami hangs a big “buyer beware” sign around his neck heading into next offseason regardless of what he does for the Dolphins.
Roy Helu, Redskins – The probable pass-catching back in Jay Gruden’s offense, Helu’s most likely path to a hefty contract would be a strong showing in that very role in Washington.
Ahmad Bradshaw, Colts – At 28 Bradshaw isn’t done, but he’s coming off yet another injury and would need to shine while Trent Richardson falters to earn a payday as a feature back elsewhere.
Demaryius Thomas, Broncos – With Eric Decker’s statistical void to be filled, it would behoove the Broncos to lock up Thomas through at least the rest of Peyton Manning’s run in Denver—and do it before he hits the field this season, because at that point the cash register will just start spinning.
Dez Bryant, Cowboys – Bryant is in a similar situation as Thomas, albeit in a slightly less productive offense. He’ll need to keep his off-the-field life squared away as well to ensure Jerry Jones backs up the Brinks truck.
Randall Cobb, Packers – No free agent stands to make more money this offseason—or earlier, if the Pack is able to extend his deal—than Cobb, who this season is earning less than, among others, Eric Weems, Dane Sanzenbacher, Jason Avant and Brandon Tate. The Pack have long played “interchangeable receivers”, but Cobb might be the one guy they need to lock down to keep Aaron Rodgers happy.
Jordy Nelson, Packers – Speaking of a happy Rodgers, Nelson is due for a new deal as well. After losing Greg Jennings and James Jones in back-to-back offseasons the Pack won’t want to start completely from scratch at receiver; however, a healthy, productive season from Nelson might force Ted Thompson to make some tough decisions.
Jeremy Maclin, Eagles – Last year was supposed to be Maclin’s big contract year push, but a knee injury scuttled those plans. He gets a redux in 2014, and without DeSean Jackson to horn in on his action. The only caveat: Chip Kelly has already demonstrated he’s willing to roll with system guys who aren’t necessarily paid top dollar.
Michael Crabtree, 49ers – Colin Kaepernick got paid, and Vernon Davis is pushing his way to the front of the line. A big year from Crabtree will keep him at the fore of the Niners’ pay scale as well—maybe even price him beyond what San Francisco wants to shell out.
Roddy White, Falcons – At 32 White is likely looking at one more reasonably-sized, three-year deal. A big season—heck, even something that makes him a solid 1B to Julio Jones’ 1A—ensures he gets that deal, be it from the Falcons or elsewhere.
Hakeem Nicks, Colts – Nicks dribbled last season’s opportunity for a contract push down his leg; a one-year deal in Indy gives him another shot, only now he’s behind TY Hilton and Reggie Wayne in the pecking order on a team that’s been inclined to run the ball more than they should.
Cecil Shorts, Jaguars – There’s an opportunity here for Shorts, as Justin Blackmon won’t play and the Jags’ rookie receivers aren’t ready just yet. The question is, can Chad Henne do enough to get Shorts paid?
Wes Welker, Broncos – Welker is 33, but a solid season out of the slot might prompt Peyton Manning to sign the check on a short-term deal that keeps the two together through the rest of Manning’s run.
Torrey Smith, Ravens – Would the Ravens pay their quarterback and then let his top receiver walk? They might if Smith has a monster campaign, which is both a) unlikely, since he’s a deep threat in Gary Kubiak’s historically short-game heavy passing attack; and b) possible because Gary Kubiak’s historically short-game heavy passing attack doesn’t have need for a high-priced deep threat. Now all Smith needs to do is live up to the “monster campaign” portion.
Kenny Britt, Rams – Free agency failed to motivate Britt before; in fact, lots of things have failed to motivate Britt thus far during his unremarkable NFL career. Jeff Fisher takes another crack at it, and the smart money isn’t exactly backing Britt.
Andre Holmes, Raiders – Holmes is 26 and might just be on the cusp of a breakout. What better motivator than a fat—or at least chubby, given he’ll be restricted—free-agent payday?
Sidney Rice, Seahawks – Rice failed during last season’s free agent audition, so he settled for a short-term deal with the run-heavy Seahawks. He’s unlikely to deliver much more bang for the bucks this time around.
Jarrett Boykin, Packers – Wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility for both Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb to go down with injuries at some point this season, opening the door for Boykin to step up his game. He’s just 24 and would be a restricted free agent, but if the Pack choose to keep Nelson and Cobb Boykin would wind up playing his way into a payday elsewhere.
Julius Thomas, Broncos – Jimmy Graham got paid, and Thomas is a slightly younger version. If the Broncos don’t pay him before the season starts he’ll have plenty of motivation to pursue Graham money—or better yet, split out wide a few more times in hopes of making wide receiver money instead.
Jordan Cameron, Browns – If there’s a beneficiary to Josh Gordon’s absence this year it’s Cameron, who becomes by default Cleveland’s top passing game target. Jimmy Graham set the bar, Julius Thomas might raise it, and even if Cameron doesn’t clear it he’ll at least get a nice boost from the market.
Kyle Rudolph, Vikings – Rudolph had to be thrilled when the Vikings brought in Norv Turner to call plays, given what Turner has done for tight ends in the past. What would really make Rudolph indispensible in Minnesota is becoming a security blanket for Teddy Bridgewater.