Posted: Friday August 24, 2012 9:57AM ; Updated: Saturday August 25, 2012 12:20AM
Eric Mack
Eric Mack>INSIDE FANTASY FOOTBALL

Motivated contract-year players could help you win your league title

Story Highlights

Baltimore's Joe Flacco is this season's quintessential contract-year player

Among running backs, Shonn Greene and Reggie Bush playing to get paid

Wes Welker, Mike Wallace playing with a financial chip on their shoulders

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Joe Flacco
With Torrey Smith and Ray Rice, Joe Flacco may have the weapons he needs to play his way to a lucrative new contract.
AP

You usually only hear about contracts in the NFL when a player is holding out for a better deal. But the quiet ones playing with the contract in-hand are the players we should really be giving our attention to in fantasy football. They are biting their cheek and putting in the work to get paid, which makes some of them good contract-year gems.

Last year, Chris Johnson held out so long he wound up being a huge bust, albeit after he got paid. Maurice Jones-Drew, while still under contract through 2013, is following that same dangerous path.

Heck, MJD signed a five-year, $30.95 million contract in 2009 and is owed $4.45 million this year and $4.95 next. He knows, at 27, this could be his last chance to really have bargaining power coming off a big year. Picking a player in a contract year is more about them having their best season before becoming rich.

Below we rank the top players who are due for contract renewal after the season. These are not rankings like you will see on your cheatsheets. Rather, this is more an evaluation of what their contract status can do for their fantasy production.

Quarterbacks

There are a slew of backup quarterbacks in contract years, but among the starters, there are two real good ones.

Joe Flacco, 27, Ravens -- Here is the quintessential contract-year player. We haven't seen much greatness out of Flacco, but the bet here is he performs like a fantasy starter, if not a star, week in and week out as Torrey Smith and Ed Dickson take off and Anquan Boldin remains steady. The Ravens are going to regret not locking Flacco up before he prices himself into the elite. That is where he is going to be when this year is said and done.

Matt Schaub, 31, Texans -- He is coming off an injury-plagued year that allowed the Texans to realize they can be a postseason contender with a mere game-manager. But Schaub has shown he can be far more than that and now he has to prove a lot of things to his team, including his health yet again. A healthy season will mean 4,000 yards, 25 touchdowns and a huge payday.

Running Backs

The life of a back is a short one, so pay very close attention to the ages of the backs below. The youngest are the ones to watch. There are plenty of backs we haven't yet seen the best of yet who could have that perfect career year right before earning a contract extension.

1. Shonn Greene, 26, Jets -- His progression has seemed frustratingly slow, but Greene's numbers have improved each of his three seasons. With a true ground-and-pound offense now in New York, he should finally take off -- just in time to make it expensive for the Jets to keep him around.

2. Reggie Bush, 27, Dolphins -- After his first 1,000-yard season, Bush has gotten to talking crazy about winning a rushing title. Under Joe Philbin's offense that will be a tall order, but Bush will at least be put in space to make bigger plays this year. It should add up to his best fantasy season as a pro, even if he has Daniel Thomas and rookie Lamar Miller behind him. Bush is the game-breaker of that bunch.

All-Contract Year Team
QB Joe Flacco
RB Shonn Greene
RB Reggie Bush
WR Wes Welker
WR Greg Jennings
WR Dwayne Bowe
TE Fred Davis
K Nate Kaeding

3. Rashard Mendenhall, 25, Steelers -- A career-high workload combined to take the legs out of Mendenhall last year, which ended with his major knee surgery. Expect the Steelers to bring him back slowly. Once healthy, though, Mendenhall is the type of back the Steelers want and he should re-earn his feature-back role.

4. Isaac Redman (RFA), 27, Steelers -- Sure, he is the back of choice at the start of the season, but he is older and not quite the talent Mendenhall is. If he were, he would have shown it by now. Whether or not he is a fantasy star out of the gate, the bet is Mendenhall is the man when things are said and done.

5. LeGarrette Blount (restricted), 25, Buccaneers -- Everyone loves rookie Doug Martin right now, but it should be reminded Blount is the incumbent and opened the preseason atop the depth chart. Blount had to fight to get where he was and now has to fight to stay there. He has the fight to make this a good year before getting paid.

6. Felix Jones, 25, Cowboys -- He was once the darling talent, now he's second fiddle to DeMarco Murray. Jones reported to the camp out of shape and could have taken advantage of Murray coming off an injury of his own. Instead, he'll bide his time as a backup initially. With a role, Jones still can take off. "We're going to see how his year goes and his health issues along the way and see where it works out," Cowboys VP Stephen Jones told <em>The Dallas Morning News.</em> "We certainly haven't ruled out re-signing him, but we'll see how the year takes us."

7. Kevin Smith, 25, Lions -- He was out of football once and returned last year to surprise down the stretch. With Jahvid Best (post-concussion syndrome) still not cleared and Mikel Leshoure (Achilles') still not up to speed, Smith opened the preseason as the starting back in a potentially awesome offense.

8. Tim Hightower, 26, Redskins -- This is supposed to be Roy Helu's breakout year. Instead, the Redskins list Hightower (coming off ACL surgery) as their starter and Evan Royster as the backup on the initial depth chart. The role is intriguing, if Hightower can hold off those young talents. Hightower needs to prove healthy enough to be worth the dollars of a starting back.

 
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