More fantasy football DOs and DON'Ts contract year edition

More fantasy football DOs and DON'Ts: contract-year edition

9/5/13 in NFL   |   droth   |   127 respect

In case you missed it, on Tuesday we took a look to see if a few of fantasy football's biggest DOs and DON'Ts really hold up or if they're just mumbo jumbo. And today, we'll examine what some consider to be THE rule to live by. Whether it's the inner economist inside of us or years of hearing it over and over again, there is a belief within fantasy circles that players entering a contract year will perform better than they usually do and that they will carry you to victory.

But will drafting a bunch of to-be unemployed football players help you win your league? Let's dig into some numbers and find out.

June 18, 2012; San Diego, CA, USA; San Diego Chargers former running back LaDainian Tomlinson (center) and Chargers president Dean Spanos pose with a one day contract signed by Tomlinson during his retirement press conference at Charger Park. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY SportsIn order to figure this out, I took a rather simple approach to test if an expiring contract reallydoes motivate a player to perform better: how did player X's performance in his contract year compare to his performance over the rest of his career?

It gets a little more complicated when you include years that he only had five targets or 11 carries, so I narrowed it down a bit. I included the first year that they became even somewhat relevant in fantasy football and every year after that, even if they missed time or were not a focal point of the offense for some other reason.
It would have been impossible to do this for every free agent in history, so I only crunched numbers for the "top" guys, the players who, at some point, have had a fantasy impact. It came out to roughly 20 free agents per year and I looked at each of the last three seasons' free agent classes. Here's what I found:

It is incorrect to assume that a player will perform better in his contract year just because it is a contract year. Certain players certainly have performed better in contract years, but there is very little consistency in that statement.

Over the last three seasons, based on the free agents that I looked at and the years that I considered to be relevant (usually excluding a rookie year when a player is still figuring out what their NFL skills are), the average fantasy points per game in a contract year is less than one point higher than the career average. 

In 2010, contract year players were 0.75 fantasy points per game better than their career averages. In 011, they were 0.7 points better, and in 2012, they were 0.3 fantasy points per game worse than their career averages. 

There are some players (Ahmad Bradshaw +6 in 2010, Alex Smith +5 in 2011, Danny Amendola +3 in 2012) whose fantasy numbers jump up in their contract year, but there are just as many (T.J. Houshmandzadeh -4 in 2010, Ryan Grant -3 in 2011, Michael Turner -4.5 in 2012) whose fantasy production in their contract years are worse than their career average. 

Based on this medium sized sample, there is clearly no correlation--at least not a significant one--between contract years and production. (Note: I am admittedly no statistician, so if you feel like crunching a whole bunch more numbers and proving me wrong, be my guest.)

Just look at Ahmad Bradshaw. 2010 and 2012 were both contract years for him but produced different results. In 2010, he scored about six more fantasy points per game than his career average. Dang, that incentive sure did the trick. But wait, his fantasy points per game rose in 2011 (not a contract year) and then fell back to pre-2010 levels in 2012 (a contract year).

The graph of a player's production is almost never simple. It doesn't look like a bell curve, it looks like a mountain range. There are ups and downs (see Ahmad Bradshaw 2010-2012) but the general trends stick out at you. Bradshaw's fantasy production may go up or down this year (another contract year), but it has gone way up since his early days in New York. It is entirely likely that his fantasy points per game rise or fall by a couple of points this year, but it is unlikely that he'll go back to five points per game or skyrocket up to elite status. 

Like our previous analysis of fantasy football dogma, this rule may have some hint of legitimacy, but you should never trust rely on generalizations for something as flukey as fantasy football. This year, Kenny Britt, MJD, Anquan Boldin, and a million other players are in contract years but I don't anticipate it mattering much.

In almost every big-name free agent example from the last three years, there have been much betterexplanations for a player's decline or increase in production than "it's his contract year". 

Do you think Alex Smith led the 49ers to the NFC Championship in 2011  December 30, 2012; East Rutherford, NJ, USA; New York Giants running back Ahmad Bradshaw (44) runs the ball against the Philadelphia Eagles during the second quarter of an NFL game at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports ecause his contract made him more motivated than usual? Or was it maybe the incredible offensive line play in Jim Harbaugh's first season?

In 2012, in a contract year, Shonn Greene outperformed his career average, but was just slightly better than in 2011. Was it the money on the table that boosted his play? Or was it the fact that his production had increased each of the previous three seasons, as often happens with young players.

In Randy Moss' 2010 contract season, his production fell off. He played for three teams that year, a season after scoring 13 touchdowns for New England. If money were really a motivator, as the contract year theory suggests, he would've made one of those stops work in 2010.

The moral of the story is this: don't rely on any particular rule of fantasy football. Look at a player's individual history only in the context of that single player. Look at multi-year trends, not contract expiration dates.

In reality, most FF players only abide by these sorts of rules in a tossup situation. Should I take player X or player Y? Well, player Y is in a contract year, so let's go with him. I'm glad that this is usually the extent of the rule, but even that thought process is overly lazy. Here's a much better way. Just compare each player's previous couple of years; which way are they trending? Are there other factors like age, system, competition that are actually going to be relevant factors? Those more nuanced approaches are sure to produce more consistent results than looking at a list of upcoming free agents.

As they say on the Discovery Channel, MYTH BUSTED!
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