With the NFL’s draft and schedule-release bonanza now behind us, it’s a good time to assess the league’s betting market as we try to find value based on a team’s draft performance and strength of schedule for the upcoming season.
It’s challenging for bettors to evaluate the draft because teams are prioritizing the drafting of players who fit in with their future plans, which means they’re usually less concerned about if they make an immediate impact. While it’s very unlikely that one player can drastically make a difference for a team and change their squad’s betting odds in their rookie year, you can still get a sense of the direction that an organization is heading by looking closely at their draft haul.
The schedule is important to examine because of the different situations that teams face. For example, as soon as the schedule is released I always look at each team’s slate to see if their games are front-loaded or back-loaded for the season. That can be a big difference — especially for teams breaking in a new head coach or quarterback.
On top of the usual factors, handicapping this season will be more of a challenge due to the uncertainties surrounding COVID-19. But as long as football’s on the docket, let’s examine the four following teams…
Buy the Indianapolis Colts
Draft impact: Before the draft began, the Colts traded the No. 13 overall pick to the 49ers for defensive tackle DeForest Buckner and handed the 26-year-old a contract worth $21 million per season. It was a hefty price to get Buckner, but it’s the type of move a team makes when they know they can compete, and Buckner will help the defense immediately.
Indianapolis picked two potential day-one starters in wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. and running back Jonathan Taylor on the second day of the draft. Taylor is especially interesting for fantasy players, as he’ll be running behind one of the best offensive lines in the league and could play a huge factor in the offense if he wins the starting job from Marlon Mack.
Other factors: The Colts are a franchise I have been high on the last few seasons. GM Chris Ballard did a tremendous job building a team around Andrew Luck, and I greatly respect the coaching staff led by head coach Frank Reich.
The Colts were going to be my Super Bowl pick last season before Luck stunned the franchise and retired a few weeks before Week 1. Despite the last-minute loss of Luck, the Colts overachieved early in the season before injuries took a toll and their postseason hopes fizzled. I expect them to bounce back this season, and there’s betting value because they missed the playoffs last year.
Indy’s biggest offseason move was signing Philip Rivers. There is some concern that the 38-year-old quarterback won’t provide an upgrade over Jacoby Brissett, but I think he gives Indianapolis a much higher upside. Playing behind the strong offensive line will help, and familiarity with the coaching staff should provide a quick transition for Rivers in a shortened offseason. Reich coached Rivers as a quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator with the San Diego Chargers from 2013-15. Current Colts OC Nick Sirianni worked with Rivers for five seasons on the Chargers staff.
The schedule also sets up nicely for the Colts. When factoring in regular-season win totals from Las Vegas, Indianapolis has the easiest schedule in the NFL. The first eight weeks are especially soft, which can give Rivers some time to ease into his new surroundings.
How to bet on them: Betting the Colts over 8.5 or 9 wins is the safe bet, but I’m more interested in taking them to win the AFC South at plus money or better. I am obviously high on this team, but I’m also very down on their three division opponents.
The Jaguars are going to be favored to have the worst record in the league, and the Texans had a baffling offseason that was highlighted by trading wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. While the Titans are a very formidable team and playoff contender, I can see Ryan Tannehill regressing after his huge 2019 season.
The Colts are worth a bet to win the division, and they could compete for the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs.
Sell the Green Bay Packers
Draft impact: Almost every analyst buried the Green Bay Packers for the way they went about their 2020 draft. I’m not going to pile on because the players could end up contributing in the future, but I will say with confidence that their draft picks didn’t improve the roster for 2020.
Trading up for Utah State quarterback Jordan Love might have been a smart long-term move, but it didn’t send a good message to current quarterback Aaron Rodgers. The Packers’ offense is in desperate need of a receiver to complement Davante Adams, and Green Bay passed on that option in one of the deepest wide receiver draft classes ever.
And drafting a second-round running back in A.J. Dillon when Aaron Jones is already on the roster hinted that the team might have an eye on the future instead of winning in 2020.
Other factors: It seems odd that the Packers might be looking toward the future coming off a 13-3 season and NFC Championship Game appearance, but I think it shows that the front office knows how fortunate they were regarding last season’s success and is looking to mold their franchise around second-year head coach Matt LaFleur’s offensive philosophy.
Even before the draft, the Packers were a team I wanted to bet against in 2020 as there were many metrics that pointed to regression for this upcoming season, including their 2019 point differential only being +63 and a 9-1 record in games decided by one score.
As for free agency, Green Bay’s moves may have foreshadowed the direction they were going in the draft. They let steady right tackle Bryan Bulaga walk and only brought in Devin Funchess to try to compete for the No. 2 wide receiver spot. These are moves that appear to be made with 2021 and beyond in mind.
With the third-toughest schedule between Weeks 1 and 9, the Packers’ schedule is front-loaded. In that span, they have road games against the Vikings, Saints, Buccaneers, and a Thursday night matchup against the 49ers. If things start slow for Green Bay, the tension between Aaron Rodgers and his coaching staff could build and lead to drama throughout the rest of the season.
How to bet against them: The Packers’ win total has dropped from 9.5 to 9 during the offseason. Betting under 9 wins is my recommendation, and I’d look to fade them in individual games early this upcoming season.
Buy the Cleveland Browns
Draft impact: The Browns held the No. 10 pick in the NFL Draft, which meant they were in perfect position to take one of the top four offensive tackles. Many thought Andrew Thomas would be the perfect fit for their left tackle spot, but the Giants took Thomas earlier than expected. However, Cleveland didn’t panic and instead drafted Jedrick Wills Jr., making him the second offensive tackle to go off the board. Wills Jr. played right tackle at Alabama, where he protected left-handed quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s blindside, and is expected to make the switch to left tackle in the NFL.
The Browns traded back in the second round when the Colts drafted Jonathan Taylor, and Cleveland used their pick on safety Grant Delpit. The former LSU player had the pedigree of a first-round pick, but he fell after struggling during a storybook season for the Tigers. That being said, he could make an instant contribution to a Browns secondary that battled injuries in 2019.
Other factors: It’s not often that a team with a 16-year playoff drought enters the season as division favorites, but those were the expectations set on Cleveland last year after a strong finish to 2018. Unfortunately, QB Baker Mayfield and newly acquired wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. failed to live up to the hype, and the end result was a 6-10 season that led to the firing of Freddie Kitchens after one year in charge.
Most of the talented roster, which absolutely underachieved last season, returns in 2020 with another offensive-minded coach in Kevin Stefanski taking over for Kitchens. The Browns added to their offensive line in free agency by signing Jack Conklin from the Titans. They also won the sweepstakes for free agent Austin Hooper, who will fit in well with Stefanski’s two-TE sets.
Cleveland should be licking their chops because they have the easiest schedule in the league between Weeks 2-17. The Browns have six games against teams with a regular-season win total of 6.5 or lower, as well as a stretch from Weeks 5-11 where the only time they have to leave the state of Ohio is when they take a short trip to Pittsburgh.
How to bet on them: The Browns’ win total is anywhere from 8 to 8.5 depending on your book, and I’d personally bet the over on that number. You can also look at them to make the playoffs at plus money — having an extra Wild Card spot for the playoffs this year makes that bet more attractive. Considering that the Browns let down so many bettors last season, there could be early-season point spread value on Cleveland before the market catches up to them.
Sell the Las Vegas Raiders
Draft impact: The Raiders had a huge opportunity to make a splash in this draft, but I wasn’t impressed with their first-round selections of wide receiver Henry Ruggs III and cornerback Damon Arnette. Ruggs III got people’s attention with his 40-yard dash at the combine, but he may have been the fourth-best receiver on Alabama’s roster last season. I think CeeDee Lamb or Alabama teammate Jerry Jeudy would’ve been a better fit for Las Vegas’ offense this season. Arnette was a total reach in the first, as I saw him going in the third round in multiple mock drafts. Neither pick will make much of a positive impact in 2020.
Other factors: The Raiders finished 7-9 in their final season in Oakland and had a point differential of -106. That’s the point differential of a five- or six-win team, so they did overachieve last year.
And after years of speculation, the franchise is finally in Las Vegas. It’s always a tough adjustment when you relocate a team to a new city — especially for coaches and players. The COVID-19 pandemic makes things even more complicated for everyone involved in the organization, which means the Raiders will have a difficult time acclimating to a new city and focusing on preparing for the season.
The Raiders have the fourth-toughest schedule in the NFL this season. If you take out the Week 1 game at the Panthers, they then have the toughest schedule from Weeks 2-17. Las Vegas also has six games scheduled in the Eastern or Central Time Zone, including four in the first eight weeks.
How to bet against them: I liked the Colts because I was down on the other three teams in their division. Conversely, I’m selling the Raiders because I’m high on the remaining three teams in their division. The Chiefs return almost every starter from a team that won the Super Bowl. The Chargers have a very talented roster, and I’m expecting them to exceed betting market exceptions. The Broncos bolstered their roster in free agency and had some exciting draft picks to make Denver a playoff contender if they can get quality quarterback play. All that leads to me taking the Raiders under 7.5 wins.