With the opening of free agency and the 2015 NFL Draft in the rearview mirror, we've seen some major player movement that has both on-the-field and fantasy football implications. However, smart fantasy fans will also keep tabs on those players who will be entering the 2015 campaign in contract years. While a Super Bowl championship is the ultimate motivation for most players, professional sports is now a business that's based on contracts loaded with dead presidents. So when a player is playing for a new deal, he has extra incentive to find statistical success. As a result, that player could also have added fantasy value.
Here's a look at the most notable fantasy players who are slated to become free agents in 2016 ... and could be your heroes next season.
1. Matt Forte, RB, Chicago Bears: One of the league's top fantasy running backs, Forte is coming off a huge statistical season with more than 100 catches, 1,846 scrimmage yards and 10 touchdowns. The fact that he's 29 makes being in a contract year even more notable, as Forte is closing in on that dreaded age of 30 for runners. He's going to be a top-five overall draft pick in most leagues regardless.
2. Demaryius Thomas, WR, Denver Broncos: The Broncos have placed their franchise tag on Thomas, so he's in a contract year for all intents and purposes. While part of his value will be determined by Peyton Manning's decision to return or retire, Thomas should remain one of the elite wide receivers in fantasy football. He's a virtual lock to be picked among the top 20 players in 2015 fantasy drafts.
3. Dez Bryant, WR, Dallas Cowboys: Much like Thomas, Bryant will be going into the 2015 campaign under the franchise tag. There's a chance the two sides will come to agreement on a new deal before the start of the regular season, but for now Bryant makes our list. No wideout has scored more touchdowns since 2012, and he won't last past Round 2 in drafts ... regardless of his contract situation.
4. Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta Falcons: Locking Jones into a long-term deal is a huge priority for the Falcons, so the talented Alabama product will no doubt be motivated to post his best season in the stat sheets for 2015. Playing the "X" position in the offense of new coordinator Kyle Shanahan, Jones could easily push to become one of the top three wide receivers in fantasy football next season.
5. Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis Colts: Luck is the best young quarterback in the league, and recent reports suggest the Colts will extend him at some point in the offseason. In fact, Luck could end up being the highest-paid player in the entire NFL. The lone signal-caller to throw for 40 touchdowns last season, Luck is going to be a surefire first- or second-round selection in all 2015 drafts.
6. A.J. Green, WR, Cincinnati Bengals: Green is coming off a disappointing 2014 season, as he missed three games and was affected in a few others due to injuries. Don't let his recent totals fool you, though, as Green remains one of the NFL's elite receivers. Playing in a contract year does nothing but increase his value in drafts as well, so I'm looking for Green to rebound across the board.
7. Alshon Jeffery, WR, Chicago Bears: An athletic wideout with some of the stickiest hands in the league, Jeffery will be entering the last season of his rookie deal with the goal of earning a major contract extension. With Brandon Marshall now in New York, locking up Jeffery to a long-term contract will be a priority for the Bears. He's easily one of the top-10 fantasy wide receivers.
8. Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks: I have a better shot to date Margot Robbie than Wilson has of hitting the free-agent market. In fact, NFL Media's Ian Rapoport tweeted there's a "very real" chance that the Seahawks give him a fully guaranteed contract. The versatile quarterback is likely to be one of the first players drafted at his position in 2015, regardless of his contract situation.
9. T.Y. Hilton, WR, Indianapolis Colts: Hilton has the tools to be one of the top players at his position, and playing alongside a superstar like Luck does nothing but make him more attractive from a fantasy perspective. He's also entering a contract year for the Colts, so Hilton will have added motivation to succeed. He could bring back second-round value as a low-end No. 1 fantasy wideout in 2015.
10. Alfred Morris, RB, Washington Redskins: Morris has seen his carries and rushing yards decline in each of his first three seasons, but he's still cemented into his spot as a No. 2 fantasy back. I also like that he's entering a contract year, not to mention he's also a good fit for new offensive line coach Bill Callahan's power running system. Morris will have third- or fourth-round draft appeal.
11. Lamar Miller, RB, Miami Dolphins: Coming off a breakout campaign in 2014, Miller's re-draft value has never been higher. Entering his age-24 season and with little wear and tear on him, fantasy fans should also be aware that he's also going to be playing for a big contract next season. Like Morris, Miller is going to be one of the first 40 overall players selected in 2015.
12. Michael Floyd, WR, Arizona Cardinals: The Cardinals have reached an agreement on a new deal with Larry Fitzgerald, but Floyd is the team's best fantasy wideout. While his numbers were more than a bit disappointing in 2014, it didn't help that the quarterback position was a mess once Carson Palmer went down. Floyd should rebound and get back into the 1,000-yard conversation in his pre-walk year.
13. Antonio Gates, TE, San Diego Chargers: Gates was one of the top draft bargains of 2014, scoring 12 touchdowns while finishing second in fantasy points among tight ends. Entering his age-35 year, however, owners should be more concerned about a potential (maybe expected) decline in the stat sheets rather than the fact that Gates is entering his contract campaign. He's a risk-reward proposition.
14. Philip Rivers, QB, San Diego Chargers: While he isn't among the elite quarterbacks in fantasy football at this point in his career, Rivers has still re-established himself as a regular starter in most leagues. He's also a virtual lock to remain with the Chargers beyond his contract year, and Rivers' overall draft value won't be altered if the two sides agree on an extension this offseason.
15. Doug Martin, RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Martin has been a massive disappointment since his impressive rookie season, so much in fact that he's barely even on the radar as a low-end No. 2 fantasy runner despite entering a contract year. The "Muscle Hamster" is going to be part of a backfield committee with Charles Sims, who could actually turn out to the be the better of the two Tampa Bay runners.
16. Stephen Gostkowski, K, New England Patriots: How is a kicker ranked among the top contract-year players in fantasy football? Well, look at his numbers over the last few seasons ... he is the one example of how kickers can make a huge impact in fantasy football. In 2014, Gostkowski scored more fantasy points than Frank Gore, Giovani Bernard, DeSean Jackson, Calvin Johnson and Jimmy Graham.
17. Dwayne Allen, TE, Indianapolis Colts: The Colts have a slew of players entering contract years, including Allen and fellow tight end Coby Fleener. I like the Clemson product a bit more from a fantasy standpoint, though, as he's become a trusted red-zone target for Luck. Still, Allen will have a ceiling on his statistical potential as long as he's sharing targets with Fleener in Indianapolis.
18. Eli Manning, QB, New York Giants: Though he was inconsistent, Manning still ranked 10th in fantasy points among quarterbacks last season. He also finished fewer than nine fantasy points behind Tom Brady. There's a chance the G-Men could allow him to play out the final year of his current deal, but Manning is clearly going to be a Giant beyond 2015. He'll be a high-end No. 2 option in 2015.
19. Sam Bradford, QB, Philadelphia Eagles: Bradford might have found a career rebirth after being traded to the Philadelphia Eagles, where he'll work with Chip Kelly in a system that could allow him to thrive. He'll be on the QB2 sleeper radar for 2015, but as has been the case his whole career, injury will be a big risk.
20. Nick Foles, QB, St. Louis Rams: Foles quickly went from being a legitimate No. 1 fantasy quarterback in 2013, to one with plenty of question marks after a mediocre 2014 campaign that saw him traded to the Rams in the offseason. Foles figures to be the Day 1 starter in St. Louis and will still be playing for his future, as the team has yet to offer him any sort of extension.
21. Coby Fleener, TE, Indianapolis Colts: Like Allen, Fleener is coming into a contract year for the Colts. He's also coming off a career campaign that saw him finish in the to 10 in fantasy points among tight ends. With Reggie Wayne no longer in the mix, there should be plenty of targets for both Allen and Fleener in the pass attack, though I see the latter as more of a No. 2 option.