A prevailing wisdom exists that players playing during a “contract year” are likely to become good fantasy values. I remember in 2006, I heard on SportsCenter that former Seattle Seahawks RB Shaun Alexander was in his contract year. Hearing this, I knew that he was going to be my draft pick. My theory was that he would perform better than average to prove he was worth that next big contract. Accordingly, he scored 27 touchdowns that season, leading me to a championship! But does one spectacular instance form a rule?
Like my example above, a narrative usually supports the theory that these players are likely to produce strong fantasy seasons – the thought being that players without a future contract are incentivized to work harder and obtain their next big contract. Right? Well, not so fast…
Contract Years Generally
I wanted to test this narrative with actual data from the last three seasons. Here’s what I did: I gathered a list of fantasy-relevant players who played the entire NFL season without a new contract or contract extension. Next, I eliminated players who were significantly injured. Then, I looked at each player’s fantasy output and particularly focused on each player’s fantasy points-per-game to determine whether that number improved, stayed the same, or worsened from year-to-year. I was surprised to see that the numbers failed to support the narrative.
(all contract year data from Spotrac)
In 2017, only one contract year player out of 12 outperformed his previous year’s fantasy output, on a per-game basis. Meanwhile, 58.3% of the contract year players in 2017 performed worse than their prior year. 2017 certainly isn’t fitting the contract year narrative. But, maybe it’s an aberration.
2018 didn’t fit the narrative either! The numbers were actually quite similar to 2017, as 75% of the players either got worse or performed about the same as their prior year fantasy output. In 2018, three players improved, which was more than 2017, but so far, the numbers suggest that the narrative isn’t fact.
Finally, let’s look at last year, which was a particularly interesting year with several high-profile players playing through their contract year.
2019 was the best year yet for the contract year narrative, but even in 2019, most contract year players did not overperform. Even in this “strong year”, only 38% of the players improved substantially over their prior-year output. In total, over the course of three years, only 29% of “contract year” players outperformed their previous year fantasy output, and only 40% of contract year players improved at all.
So, what does this mean? First, it means that the contract year narrative is not a rule. If anything, it’s the opposite. It really doesn’t matter why to us fantasy players. The lesson here is that there is generally no reason to target or prioritize contract year players in your drafts.
If we filter out non-rookie contracts, we find that the number of players who outperform expectations increases dramatically. Among that subset (players playing in the last year of their rookie contract), the number of players who significantly outperform their previous fantasy output is 65%, and the number of players who simply improve is 71%!
Summing up, how can this knowledge make you a better fantasy player?
First, you can successfully ignore the “contract year narrative” for all players other than those on their rookie contract, or if anything, assume these older players will see decreases in their fantasy production. This makes sense logically. Either those players are too old to push it to the next level, or they simply got complacent after “getting paid”.
Second, fantasy studs on their rookie contract years often do perform better than previous seasons. Thus, if you want to boost a younger player playing on the last year of his rookie contract, there is a high probability that such a move is intelligent (approx. 65-70%)
This is particularly useful because many notable players are in their contract year in 2020. Here are a few I highlighted:
It’s likely that several of these players will get contract extensions before the NFL season begins, but we have 17 notable fantasy players playing in the last year of their rookie contract.
A few names that I really like from that list include Joe Mixon, Aaron Jones, Alvin Kamara, Chris Carson, Curtis Samuel, Kenny Golladay, and Chris Godwin. I know this list of names may seem obvious, but my point is that I would value these six above consensus given their rookie contract year status. These six players are poised for a big year, in my opinion, and their contract year status provides additional support for this position.
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 Players who received a contract extension immediately before the season were removed. Also, it’s possible I missed some contract year players, but because I analyzed over 40 players for this study, we have a large enough sample size to make a conclusion.
 For example, Allen Robinson’s contract year was cut short about 5 minutes into his first game. This data is unhelpful.
 Red means that a player’s fantasy points-per-game worsened during a contract year, yellow means it was pretty much the same (within one fantasy point-per-game), and green means significant improvement. This color is given by comparing the PPG column to the Prior Year PPG column
 I defined “substantial improvement” (shown in green in the table) as improving by more than a fantasy point-per-game