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Predicting Fantasy Performance in Contract Seasons (2022 Fantasy Football)

by Sam Ryner | Featured Writer
Jun 22, 2022
Irv Smith Jr.

Between websites, apps, podcasts, TV shows, and streaming platforms, there is more easily available fantasy content than there has ever been before. With fantasy sports becoming more and more mainstream, it’s become harder for die-hard fantasy managers to maintain a significant edge over more casual managers. 10 years ago, fantasy managers would have to actively seek out fantasy content. Devoted managers could search and learn about fantasy sleepers for the upcoming season who would truly give them a leg up against their fantasy competition. Nowadays, you would have to be sleeping under a rock to not know that Gabriel Davis is primed for a breakout year.

With casual fantasy managers becoming more knowledgeable, die-hard managers need to look even deeper to prevent the knowledge gap from shrinking too much. There are plenty of small angles that most fantasy managers don’t consider that can provide an edge, and one of those angles is how players’ fantasy performance is impacted during contract years.

Researching player performance in contract years is a broad target, so to keep the research clean and meaningful, some criteria needed to be established:

1. Only expiring rookie contracts were used in the research. There’s a big difference between Deebo Samuel entering the final season of his rookie contract and an already-declining 34-year-old A.J. Green playing in a contract season. Players’ performance in the final season of their rookie contract is the focus of this article.

2. To avoid flooding the data with players who never made an impact in the NFL, only fantasy-relevant players were included in the data sample. In this study, fantasy-relevant is defined as:

  • Every QB who was his team’s starter in his contract year
  • Every RB who has finished inside the top 60 at the position at least once during his rookie contract
  • Every WR who has finished inside the top 70 at the position at least once during his rookie contract
  • Every TE who has finished inside the top 24 at the position at least once during his rookie contract

3. Players were excluded from the data sample if they were injured or suspended and missed the season, or if they were not on the active roster during their contract year (no practice squad players).

Under this criteria, we are left with a sample of 117 fantasy-relevant players who have played out the final season of their rookie contracts since 2017. Below is a position-by-position breakdown of the results along with information about players who are entering the final season of their rookie contracts in 2022.

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QUARTERBACK

Notable QBs heading into a contract year in 2022: Daniel Jones, Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, and Drew Lock.

QB contract-season fantasy performance data (2017-21; 4-point passing TD)

  • 40% produced a PPG at least one point above their career average.
  • 40% produced a PPG at least one point below their career average.
  • 20% produced a PPG within one point of their career average.
  • 40% had the best season-end rank of their rookie contract.
  • 60% had the worst season-end rank of their rookie contract.

Fun fact: 80% of QBs who played into the final season of their rookie contract were backups in the following season.

What this means: The biggest takeaway for the QB position is that most fantasy-relevant QBs don’t play into their contract season because they have already signed an extension with their team. Only five fantasy-relevant QBs have played into the final season of their rookie contract since 2017, by far the lowest number for any position. As you can tell by looking at the list of QBs heading into contract seasons, these are players whose teams aren’t yet certain if they want to commit to them in the long term. The fantasy performance data for the QB position is a mixed bag. An equal number of QBs increased and decreased their PPG in the final season of their rookie contract when compared to their career average. However, the data does indicate that any QB heading into the final year of their rookie contract isn’t likely to be a wise investment in dynasty leagues, as the majority of these players don’t retain their status as starting QBs. In terms of redraft leagues, Daniel Jones is the best bet to see a bump in fantasy production with him having a new head coach with a track record of developing QBs, an improved offensive line, and a presumably healthy group of skill-position players.

TIGHT END

Notable TEs heading into a contract year in 2022: Irv Smith Jr. and Dawson Knox.

Contract-season fantasy performances for TEs (2017-21; PPR scoring)

  • 66.7% produced a PPG at least one point above their career average.
  • 27.8% produced a PPG at least one point below their career average.
  • 5.5% produced a PPG within one point of their career average.
  • 38.8% had the best season-end rank of their rookie contract.
  • 27.8% had the worst season-end rank of their rookie contract.

Fun Fact: Of the TEs who saw their PPG drop by at least one point in their contract season, 60% of those players were not starting for their team and the other 40% played in TE committees during their contract season.

What this means: The fun fact listed above is an important one. The data shows that TEs generally improve in their contract season regardless of what their role is in their offense, but the odds of a TE increasing his production in his contract season have been almost a certainty if he is the primary TE in his team’s offense. In the past five seasons, 90% of players who functioned as their team’s primary TE in their contract year have produced a PPG number that is at least one point better than their career average. This bodes well for both Irv Smith Jr. and Dawson Knox heading into this season.

RUNNING BACK

Notable RBs heading into a contract year in 2022: Saquon Barkley, Josh Jacobs, Miles Sanders, David Montgomery, Damien Harris, Darrell Henderson, Devin Singletary, Alexander Mattison, and Tony Pollard.

RB contract-season fantasy performance data (2017-21; PPR scoring)

  • 46.7% produced a PPG at least one point above their career average.
  • 42.6% produced a PPG at least one point below their career average.
  • 11.1% produced a PPG within one point of their career average.
  • 33.3% had the best season-end rank of their rookie contract.
  • 31.1% had the worst season-end rank of their rookie contract.

Fun Fact: 70% of UDFA RBs who were identified as fantasy-relevant had their best season-end rank in their career during their contract season.

What this means: The RB position is similar to the QB position in that there isn’t much of a difference in the percentage of players who improved versus players who saw a dip in their PPG during the final year of their rookie contract. It’s also similar in that the top RBs are usually signed to contract extensions before playing in the final year of their rookie contract. Since 2017, the following players signed contract extensions before playing in the final season of their rookie contract: Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook, Alvin Kamara, Joe Mixon, Nick Chubb, and Ezekiel Elliott. Of the RBs currently ranked as RB1s according to FantasyPros’ expert consensus rankings in PPR formats, only Austin Ekeler, Derrick Henry, and Aaron Jones have played in the final season of their rookie contracts. 75% of the players ranked as RB1s are either still playing on their rookie contract or received a contract extension before their rookie contract expired. The overall takeaway for the RB position is that contract seasons haven’t been strongly correlated to positive or negative player performance relative to their career average PPG.

WIDE RECEIVER

Notable WRs heading into a contract year in 2022: Deebo Samuel, DK Metcalf, Diontae Johnson, Terry McLaurin, Hunter Renfrow, Mecole Hardman, and Parris Campbell.

Contract-season fantasy performances for WRs (2017-21; PPR scoring)

  • 48.9% produced a PPG at least one point above their career average.
  • 32.6% produced a PPG at least one point below their career average.
  • 18.3% produced a PPG within one point of their career average.
  • 38.7% had the best season-end rank of their rookie contract.
  • 30.6% had the worst-season end rank of their rookie contract.

Fun Fact: 67.2% of fantasy-relevant WRs produce a PPG number that is better than or equal to their career average in the final year of their rookie contract.

What this means: The fact that WRs are more likely to increase their fantasy PPG during the final season of their rookie contracts isn’t surprising given that the WR position tends to be one of the more difficult transitions from college to the NFL. Fantasy managers have been spoiled by Ja’Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson the past two seasons, but the majority of young WRs require a few seasons in the NFL to establish themselves as consistent contributors. Research has shown that a WR’s prime years are generally between ages 25 and 28, with age 27 most likely to be the pinnacle of production. So WRs improving their PPG in the final year of their rookie contracts makes sense when rookie contracts can range from 3-5 years. The final season of WR rookie contracts is usually taking place as the player enters or is already within his prime in most circumstances. With this being the case, WRs entering the final season of their rookie contracts are good bets to increase their production and may present draft-day bargains assuming that their potential bump in production isn’t already baked into their ADP.

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