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The Contract Year Deception

by Jake Ciely
Aug 22, 2013 11:18 AM EDT



“It’s a contract year!” How many times have you heard that phrase? Actually, how many times have you heard it just this offseason? You have likely lost count, and I’m telling you that hearing it once is too much. The “contract year” theory is bunk. It’s a fairy tale attribute that will make you overrate players. That’s right. From now until your final fantasy draft, just as we try with the Spice Girls, you need to forget the term “contract year” ever existed.

Let’s examine the theory behind the contract year. We’re supposed to believe that a player during said year will perform at a higher level, even have a career best season. Why? We’re supposed to expect career numbers because that player will want to “cash in” and see a better payday than he normally would if he produced career average numbers.

This already defies logic. We’re talking about one player on a team of 53. Even if you only take the starters, the assumption is that one solitary player can affect his fantasy point production on his own. This gives no thought to the other 10 starters. What if the offensive line has a terrible season? Or great? What if the QB takes a step back, is injured or has his own career year? What if the receivers make Brandon Pettigrew look like the most sure-handed player in the league? To discount the other 10 starters is foolish.

Now, I understand players can give extra effort (but not 110 percent, for the 1,000th time, there is no such thing!). In truth, each player has a choice each snap. Does he give 100 percent, or try a bit less to “conserve energy” or “protect from injury”? Yet, we are now back to 11 guys on offense and defense all making the same decision, and back to a player only controlling so much of his own destiny. This entire theory also implies that players only care about new contracts. Believing in “contract years” suggests that players don’t also give more effort when on playoff-contending teams, or that they won’t take a few plays off when playing for a 2-14 team.

I know that everyone is already creating his own list of players that prove the “contract year” theory. I’m here to save you from wasting time though… actually, a ton of time! This research was a lot more intensive than I had anticipated. To save you the two-plus weeks it took me to dig up these numbers, just keep reading.

There are 222 players in this study, dating back to 2003. Why 2003? First, it gives us a nice decade-long look at contract year players, and second, data prior to that is hard to find (and I need to sleep and eat). To save you from scrolling through rows of my Excel sheet, below is a snippet from the study. The most important number is the Prev %, which shows the contract year's performance compared to the year prior.

Player Contract Year Pts PPG Career PPG Career % Best Pts Best PPG Best % Prev Yr Pts Prev PPG Prev % vs Norm Career Year
Ahmad Bradshaw 2012 162 11.6 8.8 30.8% 203 12.7 -8.8% 159 13.3 -12.7% In Norm N
Michael Turner 2012 159 9.9 8.9 11.1% 276 17.3 -42.4% 217 13.6 -26.7% Below AVG N
Reggie Bush 2012 176 11.0 10.5 5.0% 180 12.0 -8.3% 180 12.0 -8.3% In Norm N
Shonn Greene 2012 169 10.6 8.2 29.1% 169 10.6 0.0% 163 10.2 3.7% In Norm Y
Steven Jackson 2012 160 10.0 13.2 -24.4% 329 20.6 -51.4% 184 12.3 -18.5% Below AVG N
Arian Foster 2011 256 19.7 17.7 11.1% 330 20.6 -4.5% 330 20.6 -4.5% In Norm N
BenJarvus Green-Ellis 2011 149 9.3 8.2 13.5% 187 11.7 -20.3% 187 11.7 -20.3% Below AVG N
Cedric Benson 2011 151 10.1 9.2 9.3% 177 11.1 -9.0% 177 11.1 -9.0% In Norm N
Fred Jackson 2011 174 17.4 9.8 76.8% 174 17.4 0.0% 156 9.8 78.5% Above AVG Y
LeGarrette Blount 2011 123 8.8 7.2 22.0% 138 10.6 -17.2% 138 10.6 -17.2% Below AVG N

Players are broken down into three areas: “Above Average,” “In Norm” and “Below Average.” I compared the contract year to a player’s prior season, career averages and his career best performance. Due to numerous factors – injuries, usage change, etc. – a player needed to have a statistical difference in two of those areas. For example, if a player was a career backup who became the starter due to an injury ahead of him, his numbers are going to be skewed for his contract year. Lastly, a player fell within the range of typical production if his fantasy points were within +/- 10 percent, or “In Norm.” An increase over 10 percent is “Above Average” and under -10 percent was “Below Average.”

The end result surprised me. Now, I expected this research to disprove the theory, but I didn’t expect this… Contract year players actually performed worse more often than better. That’s right. Not only is the contract year theory of improvement invalid, it’s actually hiding the fact that players are more likely to decline than improve in production. Of the 44 quarterbacks, 18 (40.9 percent) fell within their norm, 10 (22.7) performed above their averages and 16 (36.4) fell short of a typical season. For running backs: 65 total, 28 (43.1) In Norm, 13 (20.0) Above AVG, 24 (36.9) Below AVG. Wide receivers: 80, 26 (32.5), 18 (22.5), 36 (45.0). Tight ends: 33, 10 (30.3), 11 (33.3), 12 (36.4).

Chew on those numbers for a minute. Only 23.4 percent of contract year players increased their fantasy production by 10-plus percent. The amount of players that performed worse? Nearly 70 percent higher, or 39.6 percent overall. Basically, out of Hakeem Nicks, Darren McFadden, Fred Davis and Kenny Britt, only one will have a career year while two others will likely perform much worse. We also come full circle here, as I purposefully chose all four due to their injury history. Even if one or more has a large jump in fantasy production, can we really say it was solely due to chasing a new contract?

About that “contract year” theory…