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Contract Year Player Research

After averaging 800 receiving yards the previous three seasons with the Denver Broncos (including a seven-TD effort in 2004), Lelie wound up in Atlanta--which may soon simply be known as the place where decent receivers go to die if Michael Vick isn't ran out of town.

Remember Peerless Price?

Lelie totaled 430 receiving yards and one TD last season.

Of course, that doesn't seem bad to owners who thought Rod Gardner had sleeper potential in Kansas City last year. After averaging 700 yards and six TDs his last three years in Washington, Gardner almost turned invisible in Green Bay in 2005-- totaling only 12 receptions.

The thinking of some owners was that you could throw out his lost season with the Packers. But it turned out that was a sign of things to come, as Gardner totaled two catches in 14 games with the Chiefs.

Jabar Gaffney was only slightly better with the Patriots. After he averaged more than 500 receiving yards and two TDs each of his last three seasons with the Houston Texans, he managed just 142 receiving yards and one TD with the Patriots last season.

Deion Branch was a contract-year receiver when many leagues drafted. But he got a six-year, $39 million deal last September after forcing his way out of New England and to Seattle. But his apparent happiness didn't enhance his performance.

Throwing out Branch's 2004 campaign, when injuries limited him to nine games, he averaged 900 yards receiving and four touchdowns his last two full seasons with the Pats. In 2006, he had 724 receiving yards and four touchdowns.

So, while he wasn't a disaster, Branch certainly didn't have the breakout campaign many fantasy owners were hoping for.

Three-year averages for veterans who finally got a shot at starting have to be smaller in scope; in the case of running backs, one of the best barometers of their effectiveness is yards per carry.

The top two players in this category in 2006 were Dominic Rhodes, who took over for the departed Edgerrin James in Indianapolis and Ladell Betts, who got an opportunity when Clinton Portis went down early in the season.

Rhodes didn't meet expectations. After averaging right at four yards per carry the previous two seasons, he produced a paltry 3.4 average in 2006 and was obviously outclassed by Joseph Addai in the Colts' backfield.

Betts, however, excelled. He had never received 100 carries in a season before last season and he averaged about 325 rushing yards a season the previous three years. But with 245 carries, Betts rushed for 1,154 yards and (much more telling) averaged 4.7 yards per carry-- a full yard better than his three-year average.

While the above mentioned players stood out from the free agent list as likely fantasy draft picks among veterans, there were numerous upcoming free agents the caliber of Ernest Wilford and Ben Troupe -- players with less than three years in the league who had shown signs of having the potential to be top-tier talents but just haven't produced consistently. And not surprisingly, none of them exceeded their career averages, though Troupe may have bested his past efforts if he hadn't suffered a broken ankle.

And then there are the Michael Pittmans on the list, players who excelled in the recent past to have respectable three-year averages, but no longer fill a role in which they can come close to achieving past success. Statistical analysis isn't needed to know that fond memories are all they offer now.

But regardless of what situation the contract-year players found themselves in, one truth emerged: With very few exceptions, the idea that contract-year players outperform their three-year averages had no basis in fact last season.

Who knows? Maybe money isn't the greatest motivator. Or maybe it just doesn't cure getting old.

 
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