Fantasy Football

2024 Fantasy Football: Who could be contract-year stars this NFL season?

2024 Fantasy Football: Who could be contract-year stars this NFL season?

An old fantasy football theory is that players perform better when they are heading into the last year of their contract. Last offseason, the great Brandon Niles did an in depth analysis of this phenomenon to assess if it held up — you can read it here. Today, I will be adding the information we know about the 2023-24 season to that data in order to identify potential contract-year gems for this upcoming fantasy football season.

Here’s a TLDR on what Brandon took away from looking at contract year data from 2015 to 2022:

  • Quarterbacks: Younger quarterbacks heading into contract years tend to see a jump in production, while older contract-year quarterbacks do not as they are typically journeymen or close to the end of their career.

  • Running Backs: Certain running backs have excelled in contract years, but situation and volume tend to be far better indicators of success than contract status.

  • Wide Receivers: Receivers experienced the biggest jumps in production during their contract years. Most successful contract-year receivers were in stable situations (safe depth chart position, continuity in the offense, etc).

  • Tight Ends: There is a smaller sample size for tight ends compared to the other positions, but contract-year tight ends’ success is more closely tied to opportunity than anything else.

  • Overall, contract-year status isn’t a stand alone indicator of if a player will be productive in fantasy or not. It is best used as a tiebreaker when deciding between two players to draft.

Now, let’s take a look at how contract-year players performed last year to paint a clearer picture of if the contract-year bump exists. Note that I did not include players who were given an extension during the season or cut during or after the season ended.

2023 was a pretty successful year for contract-year quarterbacks. Cousins, Mayfield and Minshew all earned multi-year deals after exceeding expectations last season. Mayfield and Minshew both fit the bill of less experienced quarterbacks who needed to have big seasons to prove that they could be starters in the NFL. Cousins, on the other hand, is a bit of an anomaly. He tore his Achilles halfway through a statistically impressive season but got a huge contract from the Falcons anyway as the biggest fish in a small quarterback free-agency pond.

There were a ton of big-name running backs in the last year of their contract in 2023, several of whom took pay cuts and changed teams this offseason. This makes sense, as we can see in the data that almost all of the contract-year RBs last year saw a dip in production. Running backs notoriously have short careers in the NFL, and this data is further proof of that notion. So, I would avoid drafting older running backs just because they are in a contract year.

D'Andre Swift and Devin Singletary had more consistent production between 2022 and 2023. However, it’s hard to say that contract was the reason behind their performance — Swift and Singletary both were given larger roles in their respective offenses, so volume was likely a far more important component of their success.

Of this lot, Evans and Pittman both match up quite nicely with the rules that Brandon laid out. They were both the clear top receivers on their teams and had fairly stable quarterback play (from the aforementioned Baker Mayfield and Gardner Minshew, which is interesting). Higgins dealt with injuries for much of the season, while Brown had to deal with a Clayton Tune and Joshua Dobbs-led offense for a large portion of the year.

We were able to increase our sample size of tight ends after last season, but there’s not a whole lot of promise in the results — Hunter Henry and Dalton Schultz were the only contract-year tight ends who increased their production from the year prior. I would continue to emphasize opportunity and quality of offense more than contract status for streaming tight ends in 2024.

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Here are some notable players currently slated for a contract year in 2024, and whether or not they are worth considering as potential contract-year jump candidates.

Prescott reminds me a lot of Kirk Cousins’ situation heading into last year. He is entering the final year of his contract and is set to become an unrestricted free agent if he does not reach an extension with the Cowboys. I think that contract status is something to factor in for Prescott this season — if he continues to put up big numbers, he could earn himself a payday similar to what Cousins got from the Falcons.

Although Love has not yet signed an extension, I expect the Packers to give him one in the coming weeks — Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst himself said that they hope to get the deal done by the start of training camp. So, I would avoid pricing Love’s contract into his fantasy status unless things drastically change by the end of the summer.

Tua’s contract situation is fascinating. Several of his draft classmates, such as Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert, and Jalen Hurts, recently got massive extensions that made them among the highest-paid players in the league. Tua likely wants a similar deal from the Dolphins heading into his fifth year, but he is clearly a step below those other three in terms of talent. If Tua and the Dolphins cannot come to terms on a deal by the start of the season, which I think is very possible, I would like Tua a little more in fantasy. He could very easily follow the steps of Lamar Jackson as a player who showed out during their fifth-year option to earn a large extension.

Both Jones and Conner are older running backs who are similar in profile to guys like Henry and Ekeler last season. I would avoid using their contract-year status as a reason to take them as they seem like classic dead-zone running backs.

The Pittsburgh Steelers declined to pick up Harris’ fifth-year option, meaning he is set to be a free agent after this season. It is hard to get a gauge on how Harris will be used in the Steelers offense this season, as fellow running back Jaylen Warren split time almost evenly with Harris last year. On paper, Harris’ situation is similar to Josh Jacobs a few years ago — Jacobs led the league in rushing and was a first-team All-Pro after the Raiders declined his fifth-year option in 2022. However, given what we know about Harris as a player, I would not overcomplicate anything with his contract situation and just treat him as a lower-end RB2.

Lamb and Aiyuk are in very similar situations — both are 2020 first-round draft picks waiting on an extension after getting their fifth-year option picked up. Both Lamb and Aiyuk skipped mandatory minicamp in early June, indicating that they are holding out to get the extension they want. Truth be told, I think this is mostly just offseason drama and that both players will get paid before the season starts — it looks like Lamb and Aiyuk are both committed to holding out until they get their contracts, so I doubt there will be a scenario where either of them enters the season playing on the fifth-year option.

Higgins is in a slightly different spot than Lamb and Aiyuk. Because he was taken in the second round of the 2020 draft and not the first, he does not have a fifth-year option and instead will be playing this season on the franchise tag. I believe the stars are aligning for Higgins to have a contract-year explosion. He fits the bill of a successful contract-year receiver as the clear No. 2 option in the Bengals offense, and will still have Burrow throwing him the ball. The Bengals also have the fourth-highest vacated targets heading into this season after getting rid of Tyler Boyd and Joe Mixon, so Higgins could receive a bigger slice of the target pie now that he is fully healthy. Put all that together, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Higgins has a monster season to earn himself a massive payday next spring. I’m drafting Higgins wherever I can in fantasy this year.

Allen and Diggs are in similar boats as veteran stars who were traded to young, exciting offenses this offseason. However, it’s difficult to attribute any of their potential production to their contract situation. Allen and Diggs will both be joining brand new offenses in Chicago and Houston, respectively, so their surrounding situation and volume will have a much larger effect on their fantasy performance. This isn’t to say they won’t be great in fantasy — I would just advise against using their contract-year status as the main justification for drafting them.

Godwin’s contract voids after this season and he will become a free agent if he does not reach an extension with the Bucs in the coming months. As a cornerstone of the franchise for the last half-decade, I wouldn’t be surprised if Godwin agrees to a team-friendly extension before training camp starts. However, if that’s not the case, he is a solid contract-year target. Much like Higgins, he checks all of the boxes of a productive contract-year wideout and has shown he still has juice left after going over 1,000 receiving yards last season. He’s a great WR3 candidate in the middle rounds.

Hopkins is in a similar situation as Godwin, coming off a 1,000-yard season in his first year with the Titans after signing a two-year contract last July. I don’t expect Hopkins to get extended before the season because of his age (he is 32), but I could easily see him having a spike year and proving that he still has some gas left in the tank. He’s also a very solid WR3/FLEX option this season.

Cooper is entering the final year of a five-year, $100 million contract he signed with the Cowboys back in 2020. He is coming off a career season where he racked up 1,250 receiving yards and has been absent from mandatory minicamp. Considering Cooper is already 30 years old, it is unlikely that he will receive a multi-year extension, so I am in support of the contract-year narrative here. He has shown time and time again that he can produce regardless of who is throwing him the ball, and I expect him to have another standout season as the clear No. 1 receiver for the Browns and earn himself one last payday next year.

  • Players entering the final year of their contract have mixed results in fantasy football. Generally, contract-year status should be used as a tiebreaker when deciding between two players instead of the end-all-be-all deciding factor.

  • Looking at 2023 data helped clarify the factors that go into a successful contract-year season.

  • This year, there are a few potential contract-year stars, including Dak Prescott, Tee Higgins and Amari Cooper.

More analysis from 4for4: Do defenses repeat fantasy performances?

This article was originally published on 4for4.com

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