I’m really excited about this post for the following reasons:
- It will interest you whether you are looking for real NFL analysis, fantasy football analysis, or both.
- It shows using real data that running backs perform differently based on their contract status.
- I can – and will – apply this same analysis to each position group on the field.
It’s common to see ‘player entering a contract year’ as a reason to predict a higher performance level on the field. I’ve seen it for every position from time to time, but especially for running backs.
I have yet to see real data on the subject, and that’s what I’m going for here. Time to put on your *nerd alert* statistical caps.
Contract year players try harder. They stay on the field more and they do more with the ball.
Once they get a contract, players get lazy. They don’t try as hard in the offseason or during the season, meaning they are more injury prone and are less effective with the ball.
Good old-fashioned human nature.
Note: if you are a casual fan and just want to see the results, feel free to skip this section and go straight to “Results”. This section is more for the math gurus out there so that they can understand (and poke holes in) my logic and statistical reasoning :).
Unlike baseball, which provides a borderline-unlimited amount of statistically significant data, you often have to be some combination of creative, shrewd, and bold with data analysis in the NFL. There just aren’t that many games and plays in a given football season.
I wanted to see how NFL running backs performed in these three areas:
- The years leading up to their contract year (at least two, preferably three or four)
- Their contract year
- The year immediately after their contract year
These three defined periods of performance sound nice and all, but they raise several questions, such as: What age and years of experience for RBs are we going to use? What about players who were undrafted or were traded? What about players who sign extensions while still under contract? And what about injuries?
And with these questions come my set of assumptions to narrow this down:
We are only looking at drafted RBs during their rookie contracts
By limiting our data to rookie contracts of drafted players, we remove any issues of declining performance due to age. We also get rid of undrafted players who only had a very short contract (2 or 3 year deal) at first (such as Arian Foster) as well as players who were traded in the middle of their original contracts (such as Chris Ivory and Reggie Bush). By using these limitations, we can look at a set of players who have the three phases of performance I defined above (2-4 years leading up to contract year; contract year itself; and year after contract year).
Players who sign an extension while still under their rookie contract are included
If a player signs a new contract in the offseason after their rookie contract was completed, then their contract year was the final year of their rookie contract. Simple enough.
If a player signs a contract extension in the offseason prior to the final year of their rookie contract, then that player’s contract year was the second to last year of their rookie deal. Not quite as simple, but still easy enough to get behind, because contract negotiations in the NFL take a long time – on the order of months. They can even take over a year – that’s why some of the top players end up playing out seasons under the franchise tag. The thinking is that, if a player signs an extension during the offseason (even if they are still under contract for the upcoming season), odds are that 1) negotiations were ongoing for a long time prior, and 2) the player knew it.
For example, take LeSean McCoy, who signed a large extension with the Eagles the offseason prior to the final year of his rookie deal. You better believe that his agent was working on that contract for months prior – and you better believe that McCoy knew it (and had appropriate motivation).
Injuries are included
Running backs are among the most injured players in football, so trying to exclude injuries from this data set would have reduced it to zero. As it happens, I think that including injuries is actually critical to this data set – going along with our hypothesis, a more motivated player will spend more time on strength, conditioning, and flexibility during the offseason, and will, in the long run, be less injury prone. Conversely, a fat and happy player with a new contract might be lazier and thus will be more prone to injury.
Only players with significant contracts (roughly $2.5 million annually or greater) are included
We are focusing on financial effects, so looking at players with the biggest financial upticks makes sense.
Relatively underutilized players are not included
Guys like Michael Turner, Darren Sproles, and James Starks aren’t worth looking at because they weren’t given a consistent, featured role under their rookie deals.
We’ll look at players who were drafted within the last 10 years
If someone wants to pay me to crunch numbers back to 1970, I’m listening. Until then…
Using the assumptions and scope limitations above, we have 13 players who meet the criteria:
Adrian Peterson (MIN), LeSean McCoy (PHI), Jonathan Stewart (CAR), Jamaal Charles (KC), DeMarco Murray (DAL), Shane Vereen (NE), Matt Forte (CHI), C.J. Spiller (BUF), Mark Ingram (NO), Ryan Mathews (SD), DeAngelo Williams (CAR), Chris Johnson (TEN), Ray Rice (BAL).
In the table below,
- “Pre-CY Avg” represents a player’s average statistics over their rookie contract, leading up to their contract year.
- “CY” represents a player’s statistics during their contract year.
- “CY+1” represents a player’s statistics the season immediately after signing their contract.
Drum roll please…
I’ll be honest – I didn’t think the results would be this telling.
I also feel like I barely even need to discuss these results, as they speak for themselves.
=> The difference in rushing attempts is simply staggering. After averaging 192 carries per season, contract-year RBs get 207 carries during their contract year, and then it drops all the way to 154. And that’s despite being on the field for nearly the same number of games.
=> The difference in yards per carry isn’t huge, but the drop is still significant, as it helps explain why these players wouldn’t touch the ball as much. As a supplement, 9 of our 13 players averaged fewer YPC in CY+1 than they did in their pre-CY average.
=> The uptick in targets and receptions is interesting, and not something I would have necessarily predicted. But when you think about it: an agent tells their player, “Hey, RBs who are involved in the passing game tend to get more money.” Then, the player is more vocal about wanting to be involved in the passing game, and poof. Of course, as soon as they get their contract, their passing game involvement returns to their baseline level of production, at least in terms of targets and receptions.
=> At first, I didn’t think that yards per reception told us anything. After thinking about it though: RBs catch the majority of their passes close to the line of scrimmage, so it makes sense that, the higher their reception total, the lower their average yards per reception would be. For the CY, we see this very phenomenon: receptions go up, and yards per reception go down. For the CY+1, receptions go down, so yards per reception should go up again; however, if you look at the results, it dropped again! To me, that means the RBs were less productive with their catches after signing their contracts.
=> The best for last: Look at the touchdown difference. 6.8, up to 8.4, and all the way down to 5.7. RB touchdowns often come down to effort plays at the goal line, so this goes right in line with our hypothesis that RBs will try harder during their contract years, and become more lax after the fact.
I said at the top that these results would interest you whether you are an NFL team or a fantasy football player.
If you are an NFL team, you should avoid shelling out big contracts to RBs at the end of their rookie deals. If you do shell out the contracts, you should mitigate that risk by investing more into the position.
The notion of ‘avoiding paying RBs a lot of money’ is talked about relentlessly, but clearly it still happens, as evidenced by the likes of Doug Martin, Lamar Miller, and the players in my data set.
Investing more resources in the RB position – in the form of a draft pick or free agent signing – seems counterintuitive after giving your current RB a bunch of money, but just look at the data. On average, your guy will carry and catch the ball less, and he’ll be less productive with those touches.
If you are a fantasy football player, bet on contract-year RBs and fade RBs who just signed big deals.
To give you an idea of how many fantasy points we’re talking about: if you calculate the total fantasy points for each of the three cases – adding yards, receptions, and TDs – you end up with an average season of 197 points (Pre-CY), 220 points (CY), and 167 points (CY+1). The CY to CY+1 difference is more than fifty points! That comes out to anywhere from 15-30% of an RB’s season point total – for perspective, Devonta Freeman scored 316.9 total points last year; AP was second with 260.7 points. The point being – you can expect a significant drop-off in production after a big contract is signed.
Bet: Eddie Lacy, Le’Veon Bell, Gio Bernard, Latavius Murray
Fade: Lamar Miller, Doug Martin, Chris Ivory
Loves data-driven, analytical approaches to NFL analysis.
Also loves pizza, gin, and taking co-ed sports too seriously.
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