In the past, we have seen some players deliver outstanding seasons when they are playing for a new contract. In 2005, Shaun Alexander had a career year and MVP campaign as he sought a new deal with the Seahawks. Muhsin Muhammad
came through with his best year ever before he hit the free-agent market in 2004. Here's a list of the guys who are worth watching as they play in the final year of their current contracts in 2007 or make the most of situations that could lead to free agency.
Jamal Lewis, Browns: He signed a one-year deal with Cleveland in the offseason, and while he appears to be past his prime, Lewis will get regular work as long as he stays healthy. He can run with good power and should score a decent amount of touchdowns over the full year. Lewis can be an adequate No. 2 fantasy running back in 2007 and provide you with respectable totals when you consider there will no longer be high expectations for him.
Julius Jones, Cowboys: He signed a six-year deal with the Cowboys as a rookie in 2004, but he can void the final two years of his contract if he reaches certain performance incentives. Jones is also happy that Bill Parcells is gone and he can be more of an instinctive runner under new offensive coordinator Jason Garrett. Jones should have a few impressive outings, but injuries often seem to be an issue with him and the presence of Marion Barber III as a touchdown-stealer will keep him from being a reliable fantasy starter.
Larry Johnson, Chiefs: He signed a seven-year deal as a rookie in 2003, but can void the final two years of his contract after reaching certain performance incentives. Johnson has been hoping to work out a contract extension with the Chiefs, but the two sides have not been able to come to terms yet. A similar situation occurred with Alexander during his memorable 2005 campaign, and Johnson could be rewarded with a new deal by the Chiefs after the season, or he will be highly sought after as a free agent. Despite some perceived negatives surrounding Johnson, he will be a very good bet to have another terrific season if he is playing for a new deal by the time the regular season starts.
T.J. Duckett, Detroit: He signed a one-year deal with the Lions in the offseason and could become more than just a goal-line runner for them. Detroit intends to use more power-running packages this year and Duckett will be a big part of the offense in such situations. He's a fine later-round pick as he tries to regain the form he displayed in Atlanta.
Vernand Morency, Packers: The contract he signed as a rookie with the Texans in 2005 will expire after this season. Morency also has the opportunity to nail down a starting job in Green Bay, another motivating factor. Yet he simply isn't built for the regular pounding of a featured back and will have trouble holding off a push from rookie Brandon Jackson. Morency should not be drafted as a fantasy starter if you can help it.
Chris Brown, Titans: He signed a one-year contract with the Titans, and has a good chance of regaining a top spot on the depth chart after he fell from grace last season. Brown will be playing with something to prove and should have some good games, but he has been an injury risk and it's very likely he will share carries with LenDale White or rookie Chris Henry, because the Titans don't want to overwork him. Brown can be a good flex player and top backup in many fantasy leagues this year.
Michael Turner, RB, Chargers: He signed a one-year tender in the offseason and was never traded as expected. He'll be an unrestricted free agent after the 2007 season and if LaDainian Tomlinson suffers an injury, you can bank on Turner to make the most of extended playing time. He already has proven he can play very well when called on and he would be a prime free-agent addition. He is a great holdover in dynasty leagues.
Other Running Backs: Mike Alstott, Buccaneers; Musa Smith, Ravens; LaBrandon Toefield, Jaguars; Michael Bennett, Chiefs; Mewelde Moore, Vikings; Ciatrick Fason, Vikings; Aaron Stecker, Saints; Justin Fargas, Raiders
Marc Bulger, Rams: He signed for four years with the Rams in 2004, and now he is clearly one of the top quarterbacks in fantasy football. Not only is he coming off the best statistical season of his career, Bulger will have even more quality targets in the passing game this year. The additions of Drew Bennett and Randy McMichael give the Rams great new balance in the passing game. Bulger will be able to spread the ball around more effectively this year, and he should have another outstanding statistical season. He'll be one of the top-5 quarterbacks selected in most yearly fantasy drafts.
Rex Grossman, Bears: He signed a five-year deal in 2003 with a club option for 2008. Grossman is very streaky and unreliable in fantasy leagues. You can never tell when he is going to explode for a big game or totally tank statistically. Grossman should play well enough overall in 2007 to keep his starting job, but you certainly won't be able to trust him. He took the Bears to the Super Bowl, but he certainly is not capable of helping you win a fantasy championship. He's nothing but a headache.
Tony Romo, Cowboys: He signed an extension last year that carries him through this season, and while there have been rumblings Dallas would like to sign him to another extension soon, nothing has happened yet. Romo still has yet to prove himself over a full season. Working towards a new deal seems like a perfect incentive for him in 2007. Romo won't be one of the top fantasy quarterbacks picked in most drafts this year, but he can stamp himself as a fully dependable starter as he settles in more comfortably this season.
Byron Leftwich, Jaguars: His contract is set to expire after the 2007 season and an extension appears very unlikely. Even without the contract angle, this is likely Leftwich's final opportunity to keep the starting job in Jacksonville. While the Jaguars plan to open up the passing game this year even more, the thin receiving crew could hinder such efforts. At best, Leftwich can regain respectability if he can stay healthy, but he will be a fantasy reserve in a best-case scenario.
Josh McCown, Raiders: He is the final season of a two-year-deal Oakland inherited from Detroit, and is expected to win the starting job as the Raiders bring along prized rookie JaMarcus Russell very slowly. McCown, who has been erratic as an NFL starter in the past, has a shaky supporting cast in Oakland and will be far from reliable for fantasy purposes. He's a very risky pick, even as a fantasy backup.
Randy Moss, Patriots: He is on a one-year deal with New England, yet another reason to look for a rebound year. Moss must not only prove the Raiders chapter of his career must be forgotten, he will want to net another nice payday or at least stay in New England for longer than just one year. Not only must Moss regain respect, he also wants to show he can still play at a high level. While he won't be quite as explosive as he was during his Minnesota days, Moss still can contribute a lot on offense. He'll be a prime red-zone target for Tom Brady, and you can bet the Patriots will devise many ways to get him the ball. Moss will re-emerge as a quality fantasy starter, and you'll be very satisfied with his output as long as you don't set your expectations too high. Double figures in touchdowns is definitely attainable, and he should surpass the 900-yard mark in receiving yardage.
Bernard Berrian, Bears: He's in the final season of a four-year deal and essentially heads a very thin class of contract-year players at the wide receiver position. Berrian is definitely Chicago's top big-play threat and he isn't afraid to make tough catches, either. There are concerns about his durability. When healthy in 2007, though, Berrian will continue to be the Bears' top downfield pass-catcher and a very good fantasy starter. If he avoids any major injuries, Berrian should be a very good No. 2 fantasy receiver this season.
Devery Henderson, Saints: He was a boom-or-bust fantasy option in 2006, and now he will enter the final season of a four-year contract. The Saints will groom rookie Robert Meachem to start with Marques Colston, so Henderson could be motivated not only by contract status, but competition from a newcomer as well. Henderson is a great deep threat for Drew Brees, and he is going to have some more big games in 2007. Teammate Terrance Copper also signed a one-year deal to stay with the Saints, but don't expect him to contribute much to fantasy teams.
Justin Gage, Titans: He signed a one-year deal with Tennessee during the offseason and can win a starting job on a receiver-starved team. Gage does have the ability to get downfield for considerable gains, and has shown a knack for making important grabs in the red zone in the past. He'll get open and make some plays for Vince Young, but Gage will not produce enough to be a reliable fantasy starter. He might have a few good games when the matchup is right, but he will be a fantasy reserve at best.
Reche Caldwell, Patriots: He signed a two-year deal with New England in 2006 and became Tom Brady's favorite target among a crew of misfits. Caldwell, however, will get buried on the depth chart this year behind more notable new acquisitions. He was occasionally useful last season as a fantasy reserve, but he won't be worth your attention in 2007 unless injuries become a major issue for the New England receivers.
Brandon Stokley, Broncos: He signed a one-year deal with Denver, yet even if he can get past his Achilles problems, Stokley doesn't figure to be quite the weapon he once was with the Colts and likely won't have any real fantasy value.
Keary Colbert, Panthers: He is in the final season of a four-year contract and looked good in minicamp workouts. Yet he likely won't be able to land a starting job with the Panthers again, even if he plays much better than he did in 2006. Don't expect Colbert to be useful in fantasy leagues.
Other Wide Receivers: Jerome Mathis, Texans; Bryant Johnson, Cardinals; Tim Carter, Browns; Rashied Davis, Bears; Antonio Chatman, Bengals; Patrick Crayton, Cowboys; Dante Hall, Rams; Cortez Hankton, Vikings; Taylor Jacobs, 49ers; Kevin Kasper, Lions; LeRon McCoy, Cardinals; Darius Watts, Giants; Az-Zahir Hakim, Dolphins
Chris Cooley, Redskins: He has established himself as one of the very best tight ends in fantasy football, and now Cooley is entering the final season of a four-year contract. He is definitely going to be a regular target for young quarterback Jason Campbell, who can only list Santana Moss as his other trustworthy pass-catcher. Cooley should be a fine source of touchdowns again when compared to many other players at his position, and he should have one of the best seasons of his career in 2007.
L.J. Smith: He has shown signs of considerable promise in the past, yet Smith has yet to deliver the prime breakthrough season that some expect of him. Now in the final season of a five-year deal, Smith should post the best numbers of his career so far. A healthy Donovan McNabb will look to Smith often on key passing downs and in red-zone situations. Smith declined an extension last year and will be ready to post his best numbers yet as he looks forward to a nice payoff after the season.
Jerramy Stevens, Buccaneers: Stevens was an overall disappointment in Seattle and can now look to make a fresh start in Tampa Bay. He certainly isn't a top fantasy tight end, but he gets open often in the red zone and can certainly be an adequate fantasy starter if you don't land one of the best players at the position in your draft. If Stevens can curb his drops, he can improve and become a more reliable fantasy option.
Eric Johnson, Saints: He signed a one-year deal with New Orleans, as he became expendable in San Francisco. Johnson has battled injuries, but he will be a nifty addition to a potent offense if he stays healthy this year. Johnson can be a very good add at some point early in the year if you need a plug-in player at the tight end position.
Marcus Pollard, Seahawks: Stevens' replacement signed a one-year deal with Seattle. Pollard's best years are certainly behind him, but he doesn't have much competition for playing time. He will catch some occasionally important passes in the red zone, but at this point of his career, he's not even a sure thing as a fantasy reserve.
Ben Troupe, Titans: He's in the final season of a four-year contract, but Troupe has never lived up to his potential and there is little reason to believe he suddenly can turn it around in 2007. Bo Scaife will be the top pass-catching tight end for Tennessee.
Jason Elam, Broncos: Denver might extend his contract soon, and he'll remain one of the most dependable kickers in fantasy football.
Josh Brown, Seahawks: He is likely to get an extension after signing a one-year tender, and Brown will continue to be one of the top kickers available when the very elite guys are gone in your draft.
Lawrence Tynes, Giants: He fell out of favor with Kansas City, but he will still be pretty good and is a fine final pick in some larger leagues.
Dave Rayner, Packers: He had a good initial run with the Pack last year, but you should go with a more established guy.
Scott Engel covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can contact Scott here.