As is the case in any NFL offseason, lockout-shortened as 2011 was or otherwise, plenty of players out there are unhappy with their current contract or looking for a long-term deal to avoid playing under the franchise tag. The New Orleans Saints and quarterback Drew Brees agreed to a five-year, $100 million deal on Friday ahead of Monday’s deadline for teams to agree to long-term contracts with players who they have designated as franchise players, so one major chip is off the board as Brees had said he would not report to training camp on time without a long term contract in place.
Still, there are plenty of players who are seeking long term contracts with their current teams ahead of Monday’s deadline, such as running backs Matt Forte (Chicago Bears) and Ray Rice (Baltimore Ravens) as well as wide receiver Wes Welker (New England Patriots) and there are players with a couple seasons left on their current contract that are seeking new deals (Maurice Jones-Drew, Percy Harvin).
So the question for fantasy football owners is how do you handle players who are seeking new contracts and could possibly hold out when training camp starts? Let me provide some guidance, with some key points I feel are essential to consider.
1. Is the player threatening to hold out rather than play under the franchise tag, which is essentially a one-year deal?
Though recent news suggests a long-term deal could be reached prior to Monday’s deadline, Forte has to be considered a potential long-term holdout right now under the current circumstances with nothing concrete. If Forte holds out of training camp or into the preseason without a contract extension in place, there is simply no way to simulate football-type contact work on his own and that presents increased risk for injury or at minimum poor performance early in the season. The 2011 campaign of Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson serves as a template here, as he never really got on track after a holdout, though the lockout eliminating offseason work played a role as well. Brees, as previously mentioned, said he would not report to camp on time without a long-term deal, but that is a moot point now.
2. Does the player have more than one year left on his current deal, perhaps opening the door for an extension?
Jones-Drew and Harvin both fit this model, as each guy has two years left on his current contract. Both have reportedly shown displeasure with their current circumstances, though Harvin admittedly was vague when citing things he was not happy with during minicamp, but both guys have the opportunity to prove they are worthy of a significant pay increase with a strong 2012 season. It can be argued Jones-Drew has already proven himself worthy of more money by leading the league in rushing in 2011, but he is likely to be plenty motivated to have another big season this year. Reports have suggested Harvin views 2012 as a contract year, so his motivation level should be high as well. Fantasy owners should take note of players with time left on their current contracts that feel they are worthy of a lucrative extension, as motivated players can usually perform at a very high level if they stay healthy.
3. Does the player have a significant injury history? Or are they coming off an injury?
Forte fits the second mold here, as he missed the final four games of 2011 with a knee injury and the Bears apparently have concerns over the continued health of his knees due to a heavy workload going back to his college days at Tulane. That said, Forte does not have a history of injuries and is fully healthy at this point. Harvin had offseason shoulder surgery, has a history of migraine issues and has a history of missing mid-week practices with an assortment of minor ailments, so that has likely made the Vikings cautious in terms of offering him a lucrative contract extension and should also give fantasy owners some pause as well.
4. Did the team bring in a potential replacement?
Forte fits this as well, as the Bears signed running back Michael Bush during free agency as a potential backup plan to a possible contentious contract negotiation and holdout with Forte. Otherwise, none of the other previously mentioned players (Brees, Rice, Welker, Harvin, Jones-Drew) have any concerns over an immediate threat to their jobs or workload, though Brees has value to the Saints far beyond his new contract with the team’s bounty scandal from this offseason and the subsequent fallout.
So overall, how should fantasy football owners handle players who are unhappy with their contract situation? I think each case should be looked at individually, with things like how contentious contract negotiations are, public comments (or lack thereof) from one or both sides and a player’s personal stance (threatening a holdout?) all rising to top of the list of possible red flags. I personally think players who hold out into training camp, missing time with their teammates (new systems, under new coordinators or head coaches?) and possibly preseason games, present a huge risk for fantasy owners and tremendous downside potential. Those players are not undraftable by any means, but most wind up not coming close to justifying how highly they were drafted when it’s all said and done. If a player is not threatening to miss time as the season gets closer, despite any desire for long-term security, those guys can be drafted as normal as long as that stance continues.