Fifteen players with something to prove
By Michael Fabiano Fantasy Expert

(June 18, 2007) -- The ultimate motivation for most athletes in the National Football League is to take home that coveted Super Bowl title and hoist the Vince Lombardi trophy high above their heads at the end of the season. But since pro football has become much more of a business over the past decade, another immense motivator for a player's on-the-field success is the almighty dollar. This scenario holds particular relevance in the case of those players whose contracts will come to an end or contain clauses that will terminate the deal with their current teams after the 2007 season and make them free agents.

Since we want to allow fantasy football owners every possible advantage in their drafts, we've examined 15 players who will have some added motivation to perform at a high level next season based on their potential free-agent status.

Larry Johnson, RB, Kansas City: Johnson has three years left on his current deal, but the contract can be voided at the end of the 2007 season. The Penn State product would like a contract extension, but the Chiefs don't seem too keen on the idea because of his age (28 in November) and the fact that he carried the football an NFL-record 416 times last season. As a result, L.J. should be motivated to produce monster numbers in the event that he becomes a free agent.

Marc Bulger, QB, St. Louis: The Rams would love for Bulger to finish his career with the franchise, but the two sides still need to work out the terms of a new deal. The fact that he could be playing for a contract is one more intangible that will make Bulger a terrific choice for fantasy footballer owners. He also has two new solid options in the pass attack in Drew Bennett and Randy McMichael, and he will face the easiest schedule vs. pass defenses in the entire NFL in 2007.

Julius Jones, RB, Dallas: Jones is in the midst of a six-year contract but the final two years can be voided based on certain incentives, so he can become an unrestricted free agent after the 2007 season. While his backfield mate, Marion Barber, will be the more attractive choice in most drafts due to his nose for the end zone, Jones seems to be much more comfortable with Wade Phillips at the helm and will look to produce well for his own professional (and financial) reasons.

Tony Romo, QB, Dallas: There has been much talk about an extension for Romo after the Cowboys showed faith in his skills and decided to pass on Brady Quinn in the NFL Draft, but at this time he is still without a long-term deal. Considered the heir apparent to Troy Aikman, Romo threw an impressive 17 touchdown passes in 10 starts last season and should be motivated to prove his success was no fluke. He'll no doubt be a borderline No. 1 or 2 fantasy quarterback in all formats.

Chris Cooley, TE, Washington: Cooley has been more than impressive over the past two seasons -- he has averaged 64 receptions and better than six touchdowns in that time -- so the Redskins should look to lock him into a long-term deal soon. If he does enter the regular season without a contract, however, the former Utah State standout will be even more motivated to produce solid numbers. Whatever the scenario, Cooley will be a surefire No. 1 fantasy tight end in all drafts.

Vernand Morency, RB, Green Bay: The Packers backfield situation looks to be a competitive battle between Morency and Brandon Jackson, so a potential sleeper could emerge from the Land of the Cheeseheads. Morency appears to be the favorite to start at this time, and the fact that is scheduled to become a restricted free agent at season's end should serve as motivation. Morency, who has put on 10 pounds of muscle in the offseason, will be worth a middle-round selection.

Bernard Berrian, WR, Chicago: Berrian produced career bests in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns in 2006, and the Bears would like to ink him to a long-term deal in the near future. A true burner who can stretch defenses and has become a nice downfield threat for Rex Grossman in the pass attack, Berrian has the skills to produce solid numbers at times but lacks the sort of consistent production required to make him more than a No. 3 fantasy wide receiver.

Devery Henderson, WR, New Orleans: The release of Joe Horn (Falcons) has opened the door for Henderson to win a prominent role for the Saints, and reports indicate he is the favorite to start opposite Marques Colston now that rookie Robert Meachem will miss time due to an injured knee. New Orleans should have one of the more explosive offenses in the NFL next season, so Henderson will have both contractual motivation and a plethora of chances to record solid totals.

L.J. Smith, TE, Philadelphia: Smith, who could miss the start of training camp as he recovers from a recent surgical procedure to repair a sports hernia, would like to secure a long-term deal but has told the Eagles he won't hold out if one isn't reached. He has the tools to be a borderline No. 1 or 2 fantasy tight end, and the fact that he wants a new contract should serve as a personal spark to return to 100 percent sooner than later and produce well between the white lines.

Michael Turner, RB, San Diego: Turner's time on the field will of course be limited with LaDainian Tomlinson ahead of him, but he will look to open eyes when he does land opportunities in order to secure his status as a top free agent in 2008.

Rex Grossman, QB, Chicago: Grossman has a club option for 2008, so it would be in his best interests to make better decisions and become a more consistent quarterback. Still, he won't be much more than a fantasy reserve in most cases.

Byron Leftwich, QB, Jacksonville: While he would remain the starter next season even if the Jaguars do add Daunte Culpepper, Leftwich's tenure with the team could be close to an end. He'll need to produce well to secure his NFL future.

Eric Johnson, TE, New Orleans: A legitimate sleeper candidate at the tight end position, Johnson signed a one-year deal with the Saints in the offseason and will be motivated to produce in the offensive attack of head coach Sean Payton.

Josh McCown, QB, Oakland: McCown doesn't have long-term value with the Raiders due to the presence of JaMarcus Russell, so he will look to perform well in order to have a chance at a prominent role with another team in 2008.

Chris Brown, RB, Tennessee: NFL Network analyst Adam Schefter reports that Brown, 26, will be the highest-paid runner on the Titans roster after he agreed to a one-year, $1.85 million deal. That should mean the veteran back will be given a chance to beat out LenDale White and Chris Henry for the top spot on the depth chart. It also means that Brown could improve his stock on the open market after the season if he can avoid injuries and finish with attractive numbers.