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“Now, a few more details about this year’s company picnic: It’s at the plant, no food will be served, the only activity will be work, and the picnic is canceled.” — Charles Montgomery Burns, a lover of money, and a savvy businessman

For rich folk, the possession of paper with high monetary value can become a sort of hobby. A collecting hobby, because having money usually leads to the desire to want more money. It’s cyclical, and it ends in possessing pets who are made of gold (I assume).

But in sports generally, it’s always felt like the motivating factor of money is stretched a little far during a player’s contract year. Is it possible that he’s trying a bit harder prior to free agency, and hitting the open market? Sure. A psychologist, I am not. But to assume a boom is forthcoming, and that the numbers produced by the player in a contract year will far exceed his career averages the majority of the time is the kind of narrative-based, false assumption that leads to broken dreams.

I’ve always thought this about football, and have set it aside as an offseason research project that hasn’t happened yet. Thankfully, someone did that work for me, and the result is pretty startling.

Contract year chatter comes up sporadically in August prior to fantasy drafts, and it’s often used as a little delicious bonus gravy on top of a player you’re lusting after. Example: do you think this is the year Kenny Britt finally stays healthy and cashes in on his potential? Great, that could happen. Then if he doesn’t break, he’ll also be extra motivated to catch lots of footballs and run really far because he’s in a contract year, right? RIGHT?

Hakeem Nicks is in a nearly identical situation with his constant health concerns, and an expiring contract. Same with Maurice Jones-Drew, while Josh Freeman and Jay Cutler need to prove they can return to being their former effective selves before getting paid next spring.

Usually in fantasy thinking, the contract year element is an add-on with these players. Britt is one example, and Cutler’s situation may be an even better one. You like the addition of Marc Trestman and Cutler’s outlook in a new offense which will focus more on his strengths, and therefore you also like him as a sleeper. Oh and look, he’s in a contract year too.

Let’s just leave that last part out from now on, kay?

Jake Ciely, who’s the managing editor at RotoExperts and the senior fantasy editor at the appropriately named Football.com, took on the exhaustive task of looking back on the performance of each contract year player over the past decade, a two-week process (better you than me, Jake). In the end, his study included 222 players, and to find any differentiation in either direction from a fantasy perspective, the production during a contract year was compared to the numbers from the previous season, a player’s career averages, and his career best season at that point. Thus, three simple categories were formed: below average, average, and above average.

What he found is that contract year players often performed worse:

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).

He also adds that only 23.4 percent of contract year players increase their production by at least 10 percent.

It would be easy to blame age for this, because often when marquee offensive players are allowed to walk, that’s a factor. Steven Jackson is a Falcon now because the Rams wanted to move forward in their backfield, and last year his production fell by 18.5 percent. But Reggie Bush was/ middle-aged last year for a running back (27), and his production fell by 8.3 percent. Ditto for Arian Foster in 2011, whose numbers declined slightly by 4.5 percent.

There’s surely an degree of skewing happening, and there are always exceptions (like Joe Flacco last year, though the peak of his season was in the playoffs, and he had a meh regular season, finishing 15th among QBs in fantasy points). Generally, the truly elite offensive players are locked into long-term contracts long before hitting free agency, with a few exceptions who tumble through cracks each March (Mike Wallace). Therefore, those on the dirty bottom already just continue their average play during contract years.

But even when factoring that possibility in, the percentages above are still jarring, as the sample is large enough to take into account players throughout the skill spectrum. So if you were already shrugging off any contract year talk as a fluff fantasy narrative which hangs on the lowest branch, keep doing that.

More notes, stray thoughts, and other such randomness

The Eagles made the correct decision, and the only decision

With a hearty butt slap to Nick Foles (who also looked good throughout the preseason), Michael Vick was always the logical choice to be the Eagles’ starting quarterback in a fast-paced Chip Kelly offense, a decision which was finalized yesterday.

We know about Vick’s legs, and what he can do with them. We know he can be creative in the open field, and he’s far more comfortable when granted that creative license than he is when chained and restricted to the pocket. From the limited glimpses we’ve seen during the preseason, a Kelly offense will do exactly what we assumed all offseason: put Vick in an environment that best suits those strengths.

Yes, Vick making decisions is always a scary thought, and there will always be the danger of turnovers that accompanies a style of play which puts him in compromising situations. We know this too, and as a prospective Vick fantasy owner, you need to accept it as part of the Vick package (a sacrifice made much easier by his bargain ADP). But he’s always seemed more comfortable making those decisions while moving, and reading the field on the run. Kelly has him in constant motion, moving to…somewhere.

That said, like any questionable quarterback situation, the decision to name Vick the starter could be temporary. Sheil Kapadia expanded on the depth of Vick’s recent turnover troubles, while saying that despite what Kelly said yesterday (this is a “one-quarterback operation”, and Vick doesn’t need to look over his shoulder) a switch will be considered if last year’s Vick returns.

Kelly can help and will help, but to an extent, this still lies on Vick’s arm and mind:

The questions from past years remain with Vick. He’s been picked off 24 times and fumbled 21 times in his last 23 games. He takes a lot of hits and has trouble staying healthy. Those issues do not suddenly go away just because he’s been named the starter. Kelly can certainly help with scheme, but ultimately, it’ll be on Vick to prove he can take care of the football and stay on the field.

What up, Le’Veon Bell?

Since this is the year of the broken preseason body, of course we expected horrible news on Le’Veon Bell after he left the Steelers loss to Washington Monday night. What we received fell short of that, which is glorious, but there’s still a dose of uncertainty.

Bell has reportedly avoided a Lisfranc injury, according to Ed Bouchette, which was his most significant hurdle. Though as Bouchette also correctly noted, any foot sprain for a running back who’s expected to shift and plant is significant. So…ugh?

Maybe, but for now during drafts, we’re still safe to take the discount on Bell, and embrace an element of risk. Currently, he has an ADP 41.0, and if that drops nearly a full round due to fear that he won’t be effective early or he’ll miss time, the risk has been managed for you.

The discount is there, and you may just have to stomach a few missed games to start the season. That’s why you’ll also secure whoever emerges as the handcuff between Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer, though a committee is likely, which sucks and will provide an early-season fantasy migraine.

We can’t shrug off, say, two missed games, because that’s a nice chunk of a fantasy regular season that’s only 13 weeks long. But there’s inherent and significant risk with all running backs, and we also can’t shrug off a nice bargain price on possibly one of the best RB2′s in 2013.

UPDATE: After this post was published another report surfaced, and this one cranked the suck knob on Bell’s injury a little further into the scary and unknown territory. USA Today’s Mike Garafolo reports that the Steelers are waiting for the results of a second opinion before projecting a recovery time for Bell’s mid-foot sprain. When a second opinion is needed, that hints strongly at an injury which is more serious in nature, or that the team wants to verify the awfulness of the first diagnosis.

So until further notice, I’ll respectfully changed my assessment of Bell’s fantasy outlook right now. If you thoroughly enjoy risk (say, do you ride bulls?) and your league is drafting today, going ahead and take a nice Bell discount, but make sure he falls even further. Let him fall to about the seventh or eighth round instead, after his pre-injury ADP was projecting him to be a third- or fourth-rounder.

SECOND UPDATE: Ughhhhhhh. NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport says the Steelers now believe Bell has a Lisfranc injury after all, which is instant doom. He’ll be out for “quite some time” and even when he begins to get healthy, he’ll be severely limited.

Lisfranc injuries for running backs are widely unpredictable. Go ask a Maurice Jones-Drew owner, and he’ll tell you all about the pain he endured in 2012.

Stay away from Bell. No, run away from Bell. If the team tries to avoid surgery, Bell will likely be out for a minimum of six weeks, and if he gets carved up there’s a good chance his season will end before it started. The dreaded committee will now follow between Dwyer and Redman, but if you’re forced to pick one right now, go with Dwyer. He had more burst last year, and despite missing three games to Redman’s two, he had a sizable workload advantage (he received 156 carries, while Redman was given 110).

Adrian Peterson is taking Eddie Lacy in his dynasty leagues

How did we possibly get to learn an athlete’s innermost thoughts before Reddit? I suppose that required real, genuine human interaction. Sounds horrible.

Adrian Peterson did an AMA (“Ask Me Anything”, for the uninitiated), and was asked to name the best rookie running back. He picked one from a division rival:

Eddie lacy, but he’s on a passing team. but that was a real good pickup… that i didnt like

Step into the matrix

Often (see: every day), I talk about using a late-round quarterback strategy. This means avoiding the high price for the likes of Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees, and taking two or three QBs on the cheap in the late rounds. Ideally, the tandem you then form will include two quarterbacks who are flawed, but have a high ceiling, possibly because of a new situation. An example would be taking Jay Culter, followed by Ryan Tannehill.

To help with your late-round quarterback blanketing, John Paulsen from 4For4.com has kindly provided a matrix showing the best combination of bargain arms based on their schedules. Pro tip: Carson Palmer and low-cost sleeper Josh Freeman could be a profitable duo.

People can be just the worst

No. No No No No No No No No.

Nooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo….

RG3 shirt