After the last 6+ months of dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic and a major question as to whether the NFL season will even be played, I for one can’t wait for this weekend of games to start. With that as a backdrop, I am back to hit on some of my favorite season-long props and Week 1 wagers.
I think there is value on a couple of player/coach futures that are still available at good prices.
- Matt Patricia to win Coach of the Year at 33-1 on Draftkings.
Let’s break down the recent history of this award. The last 12 COTY winners all were coaches on teams that won 10+ games, with the average preseason win total at 7.3. No coach has won this award with a win total above 9.5 and no coach in the last 12 years has won the award after winning more than 10 games the prior season. The average win improvement from prior season was 6.2 wins.
Coming off of a 3-win season, Patricia will be the leader in the clubhouse if Detroit can win at least 10 games. The Lions are rightfully receiving lots of buzz from sharp bettors who saw the dynamic downfield passing attack from Detroit when Matthew Stafford was healthy last season. The Lions were one of the best offenses in the NFL with Stafford, ranking seventh in yards per play prior to his injury. The offense retains all of its top skill position players and has most of the offensive line returning.
If the Lions can upgrade from their 28th-ranked DVOA pass defense and 29th- ranked pressure rate to anything resembling least mediocrity, the Lions have a chance to make the playoffs.
Detroit also should see significant positive regression in some luck factors. They finished 3-8-1 (29%) in one score games last season and somehow lost twice to Green Bay after never trailing in either game during regulation. In addition, the Lions finished 27th in fumble luck, only recovering 42.8% of fumbles on the ground. All of that bad luck should hopefully regress to the middle of the pack.
- Adam Thielen to lead the NFL in Receptions 28-1 on Draftkings.
I fully expect a bounce-back season from Thielen, after a disappointing 2019 campaign. Where he only caught 30 passes in 10 games. This is after 91 and 113 receptions in the prior two seasons. Thielen never received more than eight targets in a single game last season after hitting that mark in 10 of his 16 games in 2018.
Some of this was clearly due to a nagging hamstring injury that cost him six full games and parts of two others. Prior to the injury, Thielen was on pace for a 70-reception season even after receiving a much lower target rate.
Outside of the injury, his numbers were completely misunderstood. His targets were lower, not because of anything he did or didn’t do, but mainly because Kirk Cousins threw a low number of attempts. For example, in Week 1 last season, Thielen was only targeted three times and caught all three passes, but Cousins only attempted 10 total passes all game.
In the first six games while he was healthy, Thielen received a 25% target share from Cousins which was the exact same target share percentage in his 153-target, 113-reception 2018 season. All that really changed last year was the lack of attempts from Cousins. An emphasis on the run game and positive game scripts, where the Vikings held big early leads, helped reduce the attempts from Cousins.
Now add in that Stefon Diggs is no longer in Minnesota and gone with him go 243 targets over the last two seasons. A chunk will be made up for by the addition of rookie Justin Jefferson as well as increased roles for Irv Smith Jr. and Bisi Johnson but Thielen should benefit the most.
We can look at the three games Diggs missed in 2017 and 2018 to see that Thielen saw a monster 35% target share in those games. To put that in perspective, Michael Thomas led the NFL in targets last year while receiving a 32% target share.
Overall Early Season Thoughts:
Before discussing specific Week 1 games, I think it’s important to step back and process what we may see early in this NFL season. After an offseason with no mini camps, limited practices, and no preseason games, the initial thought from many nationally is that offenses will be extremely rusty. I believe in a few cases with teams sporting inexperienced quarterbacks, new offensive coordinators, and a lack of returning continuity from offensive lines that could be the case.
However, in general, I believe that narrative is overblown and, in fact, we could see offenses well ahead of defenses early in the season. With teams limiting tackling sessions and padded practices, it will be very difficult for defenses to simulate live tackling until they hit the field in Week 1. This could lead to many broken tackles and explosive plays for the offense.
In addition, tackling on special teams will be a big issue and there may be long returns. Typically, many of the guys playing on special teams are backups and rookies and typically those are the players who see the most on field work during preseason games. Having to tackle live for the first time in many careers in Week 1 could be a shock.
The closest comparison would be the 2011 season, which saw offseason labor negotiations between the players and owners. By the time the new CBA was agreed upon, the players missed out on an offseason of mini camps. In addition, there was language included in the new CBA which limited on-field activities during training camp.
They did end up playing a full preseason but there was clearly a lack of preparation teams would normally be accustomed to. What we ended up seeing was the market discounting the lack of tackling and the offenses generally being ahead of the defenses.
Weeks 1 and 2 saw the over hit at a 72% clip before pulling back in Week 3. Overall, the average point total scored in the first five weeks was 46.3 before it dropped to 43.5 for the remaining weeks. What we also saw was a complete mess in regards to tackling on special teams. In the set of Week 1 games, there were eight total punt and kickoff return touchdowns allowed. This compares to an average of only 1.6 return touchdowns in Week 1 games since 2005 with no other Week 1 season having more than four total return touchdowns.
Favorite Week 1 Picks:
- Kansas City/Houston over 54:
Based on the above theory that offenses with continuity and good veteran quarterbacks are ahead of defenses, I like this over. The last three matchups between these two teams have produced 55, 76, and, 82 points so clearly these quarterbacks have figured out the defenses.
Houston did absolutely nothing to improve their 26th-ranked DVOA pass defense. None of the starting Houston cornerbacks were graded above 67 by PFF last season. Patrick Mahomes is in an offense that hasn’t changed since he entered the league and he should have a field day.
Assuming the Chiefs are able to take an early lead, I also expect Deshaun Watson to throw often to help get this over the total. In that 2011 Week 1 season mentioned above, the first game of that season was also on a Thursday night featuring two of the best quarterbacks in the league. Green Bay and New Orleans combined for 76 points.
- Washington +6 vs Philadelphia:
After a tumultuous offseason, I think Washington will be thrilled to be on the field. But most importantly, Washington matches up well against the Eagles. Philadelphia has seen a shuffling along their offensive line with the season ending injury to guard Brandon Brooks, who rated as the No. 1 guard last season by PFF, and the recent loss to last year’s first-round pick Andre Dillard.
This is not the team you want to face with questions along the line. Washington brings in the third-ranked pressure rate from last season and added second overall pick Chase Young to an underrated defensive line.
Dwayne Haskins struggled early in his career last year but showed many signs of improvement as the season ended. He only threw just one interception in his final 107 pass attempts and tossed up a solid 2 TD, 0 INT, 9.3 ypa game in Week 15 against Philadelphia.
Washington also has a recent trend of in-division Week 1 underdogs covering on their side. In the last 10 years, in-division underdogs in Week 1 have an ATS record of 38-16-1 (70%). If you take a look at a subset of these games and only back Week 1 home underdogs in division games, the underdog has covered at a 76% clip (16-5 since 2010) and are on a 10-2 ATS run since 2012. I fully expect this game to be tight throughout.
- Las Vegas/Carolina over 47:
This is my favorite total of Week 1 and should feature some sneaky DFS stacks. Las Vegas comes in with a veteran quarterback in Derek Carr, second-year running back Josh Jacobs, and an offensive line returning all five starters from last season. This is definitely an advantage in Week 1 as their familiarity and continuity should help an offense that already ranked in the top 10 last year in both yards per play and DVOA.
Now add in speedster Henry Ruggs to the mix and we could see some fireworks from the Raiders offense. Ruggs has the potential to take a 10-yard slant all the way for a touchdown and if the theory is correct that tackling will be an issue, he could explode on Sunday.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the return of a healthy Hunter Renfrow as a reliable slot receiver. Carr clearly enjoyed having Renfrow in the lineup, as the Raiders averaged 21 offensive points per game with him in the lineup and only 15 ppg when he missed games. Carr threw 17 touchdowns and only six interceptions with Renfrow in the lineup and his numbers dropped to four touchdowns and two interceptions without.
It will help that the Raiders will be facing a porous Carolina secondary. A secondary that features starting cornerbacks in Donte Jackson, who ranked 111th among cornerbacks last year in quarterback rating allowed with six touchdowns on only 60 targets in coverage, as well as fourth-round rookie Troy Pride Jr.
It’s hard enough starting Day 1 as a rookie but Pride grades as a below average athlete, as he produced the fifth-worst SPARQ score among 20 cornerbacks that participated at the combine.
On the other side of the ball, Teddy Bridgewater will lead an offense led by new hot shot offensive coordinator Joe Brady, who was in charge of an unstoppable offense from LSU last season. I fully expect a lot of up-tempo from this offense leading to lots of plays.
Bridgewater does have some interesting weapons on the outside with D.J. Moore and speedster Robby Anderson. Add in the unstoppable Christian McCaffery and the Panthers have what it takes to put up lots of points.
The Raiders didn’t do much to improve the 31st-ranked DVOA pass defense this offseason either, as free-agent signee Prince Amukamara was recently cut. That leaves rookie Damon Arnette and second-year corner Trayvon Mullen as the starting outside duo.