The NFL Draft has quickly become one of my favorite sports betting events of the year. Maybe it’s because it took place last year at the start of the pandemic, a time when all sports went on hiatus, which resulted in me focusing a lot of my time and energy trying to handicap it.
You’ll quickly notice that there aren’t as many bets being offered on this draft as compared to last season. Since other leagues are in action, the sportsbooks weren’t able to focus solely on the draft like they did last year.
There’s also some unpredictability regarding the 2021 NFL Draft because the league didn’t hold its traditional draft combine due to COVID-19, meaning teams likely won’t be as prepared as they usually are. Regardless, I’ve spent the better part of April learning about the NFL’s first-round prospects and individual team needs, while tracking line movements in the American betting market for the draft.
My biggest piece of advice when betting this event is to predict what a team will do — NOT what you would do. A lot of bettors will have a bias based on seeing a player perform well in college, but that doesn’t mean an NFL front office will feel the same way.
Based on the betting odds, here are some key points about the 2021 NFL Draft.
Welcome to Jacksonville, Trevor Lawrence
This basically became a guarantee in Week 16 when the Jaguars clinched the worst record in the NFL. They are -10000 ($100 to win $1) to draft the former Clemson star with the first pick, and he’s a huge reason why Urban Meyer took the job.
Zach Wilson will go No. 2 to the Jets
The Jets looked to be in pole position to earn the No. 1 pick when they started the season 0-13. Then they shocked the Rams in Week 15 and beat a short-handed Browns team in Week 16, disappointing many of their own fans who were dreaming of Lawrence in the Big Apple.
After trading Sam Darnold to the Panthers, New York will be selecting their quarterback of the future with the second pick. BYU’s Zach Wilson has emerged as a -5000 favorite ($50 to win $1) to be the No. 2 overall pick, so that should be who Jets GM Joe Douglas takes next Thursday night.
49ers are leaning toward Mac Jones with the No. 3 pick
The 49ers traded up with the Dolphins to get the third overall pick last month. Analysts immediately assumed that San Francisco would take the third quarterback of the draft.
What they didn’t expect was for Alabama’s Mac Jones to become the odds-on favorite to land in San Francisco after the 49ers made the shocking move up. Keep in mind that not long after the trade, Jones and Ohio State’s Justin Fields held their first pro days on the same day, and the 49ers opted to go to Jones’ workout.
When I started tracking NFL Draft odds, Jones was as high as a -300 favorite to be the No. 3 overall pick. Fields was +200, while North Dakota State’s Trey Lance was a distant third. Things changed last Thursday, which was a day after Fields held his second pro day in Columbus — with the 49ers brass in attendance. Fields quickly became a -160 favorite, and it looked like the previous Jones-to-the-49ers reports were all a smokescreen.
Things got more complicated earlier this week as Lance started to pick up some steam ahead of his second pro day on Monday, which the 49ers also attended. On Monday, Fields was +100 to be the third overall pick, while Jones and Lance were both +175. But Lance’s pro day must have been underwhelming because on Tuesday he dropped to +400 to be the third pick, and Jones moved into a tie with Fields at +100.
As of Wednesday night, Jones is the favorite at -150 to be the third overall pick (Fields is +160 and Lance is +350). There’s obviously a lot of drama and intrigue surrounding San Francisco’s decision, so keep an eye on the news this week as this selection will help forecast the next several picks of the draft.
Kyle Pitts, Ja’Marr Chase and Penei Sewell are the top non-QBs
The three non-quarterbacks with an over/under draft position between 5.5 and 6.5 are Florida tight end Kyle Pitts, LSU wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase and Oregon offensive tackle Penei Sewell. The Falcons, Bengals and Dolphins hold the No. 4, 5 and 6 picks, respectively, and it seems that two — or maybe all three — of these players will go in those spots.
The Falcons have a lot of options and influence in the draft with the No. 4 pick. They can trade out of the spot if a team wants to give up the necessary package to land the fourth quarterback in this draft. They could also draft a quarterback of their own, and if the 49ers take Jones at No. 3, then having a chance to take the Georgia-born Fields could be appealing for new Falcons head coach Arthur Smith.
Atlanta could also keep the pick and take a non-quarterback to try to maximize the final years of Matt Ryan’s career. If Fields ends up as the No. 3 pick, then there’s a better chance that Pitts goes No. 4 because I doubt the Falcons would take Jones. Pitts would make the most sense if the Falcons don’t take a quarterback, and the betting market agrees with that potential selection. He’s a -121 favorite to be the first non-quarterback selected and a -140 favorite to be the No. 4 pick.
The Bengals have the No. 5 pick and are in play for Chase or Sewell. They have their franchise quarterback in Joe Burrow, who desperately needs to be protected by a quality offensive line. But based on questionable front office decision-making in the past and Burrow’s college connection with Chase, there’s a chance they go with the wide receiver.
If the Bengals don’t draft Chase, then it seems very unlikely he’ll get past the Dolphins with the sixth overall pick. Last week, Chase’s draft position prop was 6.5 with the under juiced to -128 and now under 6.5 is juiced to -200. Don’t expect Chase to fall past No. 6 unless the Dolphins trade back again.
Rashawn Slater has closed the gap on Penei Sewell
Sewell is still regarded as the top offensive lineman in this draft, but Northwestern’s Rashawn Slater has definitely closed the gap in the betting market.
Two weeks ago, Sewell was -715 to be the first offensive lineman drafted, and Slater was sitting at +350. Now Slater is as low as +200 in that market, and his draft position number has moved from 10.5 to 8.5 at some books.
Jaylen Waddle or DeVonta Smith will be the second wide receiver drafted
This year, Chase is clearly the favorite (-625) to be the first wide receiver drafted, but Alabama’s Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith are projected to be the second and third wide receivers selected — in some order.
Both wideouts have a draft position number of 11.5 and are also matched up against each other in a “player to be drafted first” prop; The first draft bet I made is Waddle -112 to be drafted first over Smith. Waddle is now a -150 favorite in that bet so betting Smith over 11.5 is another option to attack it.
Waddle is regarded as the faster player and NFL teams love speed, as we saw last year when the Raiders took Henry Ruggs over Jerry Jeudy and CeeDee Lamb. There are also concerns about Smith’s size after he reportedly weighed in at 166 pounds at the NFL’s recent medical check in Indianapolis.
Patrick Surtain II’s stock is climbing while Micah Parsons’ stock is dropping
The first round of the draft is primarily dominated by offensive players, especially when there’s five quarterbacks projected to go high. The over/under for offensive players drafted in the first round is currently 18.5 and the number for defensive players is 13.5.
Alabama cornerback Patrick Surtain II and Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons were just co-favorites at +150 to be the first defensive player drafted. Now, Surtain II is a -125 favorite and Parsons has dropped to +300 in that market.
The under on Surtain II’s draft position of 10.5 has moved from -115 to -159, so there’s an expectation that he won’t make it past the Cowboys with the tenth overall selection.
Parsons’ draft position prop has moved from 11.5 to 13.5, so there’s a chance he could slide farther down the draft board than we originally thought.
Najee Harris and Travis Etienne are the best running backs
The battle for first running back drafted is between Alabama’s Najee Harris and Clemson’s Travis Etienne. We’ve seen the running back position devalued in both the NFL and in the betting market, as Harris’ draft position is between 28.5 and 29.5, while Etienne is between 32.5 and 33.5, depending on the sportsbook.
Etienne’s number is trending down, which would imply that he could get drafted at the end of the first round. I’m going to take a shot at Etienne +150 to be the first running back drafted because I think there isn’t much separating him from Harris, who is a -150 favorite to be the first running back selected.
Both backs have different skillsets, so individual team opinions on who is better will definitely vary, but I really like the fact that Etienne’s draft position is trending toward the end of the first round. I think each player has a 50 percent chance of being taken first, so I’ll roll with the +150 odds here.
It is unlikely that a sixth quarterback will be drafted in the first round
There’s a clear top five in this quarterback class with Lawrence, Wilson, Jones, Fields and Lance. Then it’s a drop-off, which is indicated in the “over/under of 5.5 total quarterbacks drafted in the first round” prop. The under is heavily juiced, but if you think a sixth quarterback will be drafted next Thursday, then the payout is as high as +460.
A team at the end of the first round could always take their quarterback of the future, securing the fifth-year option on the player by drafting him then. But the candidates for the sixth quarterback spot are Davis Mills, Kellen Mond and Kyle Trask — so maybe hold off on that bet.
The plus money on over 5.5 is obviously tempting, but I would be surprised if six quarterbacks had their name called next Thursday night.