For part 2 of our early season betting preview I look at teams that I think we will get value betting against, teams where I believe the perception of how good they are is greater than what I expect from them this year.
Again like in part 1, the point is not that we bet against these teams blindly but these are teams that I think will underperform their expectations and therefore offer more value in betting against them than on them.
Also like the previous post there will be a lot of discussion of luck or randomness, the fact that a team had good luck doesn’t mean they weren’t also a very good team it just means the added benefit of luck overstates their quality.
- Carolina Panthers
Its hard to have a better season than the Panthers had last year. Obviously losing in the Superbowl takes some of the shine off the season but really it shouldn’t, the Panthers had a remarkable season on both sides of the ball.
In what was a breakout year for both Cam Newton and the Panthers defense led by Luke Kuechly and Josh Norman, the Panthers mauled teams with a league high 32.88 rush atts per game and had the #1 scoring offense.
What was interesting about the Panthers last year is through the first 6 weeks, even though they were undefeated a lot of the key analytics didn’t reflect it, they were outside of the top 10 in DVOA through week 6 and outside of the top 10 in most passing stats.
The one place they were in 1st start to finish besides the standings is in toxic differential. Toxic differential is basically your turnover differential plus your explosive play (pass plays of 25 yards+, rushing plays of 10+ yards) differential. The Panthers finished with the best turnover margin and the 2nd best big play differential.
Early Season Betting: Bet Against
There is no question the Panthers are an elite team and I still expect them to win the NFC South this year but it is basically impossible for them to perform at the level they did last year because last year everything went right for them.
We start with the fact that their record last year outperformed their score differential more than any other team in the league as their Pythagorean Wins came in at 12.1. Essentially this means they outperformed their expected results by 2.9 wins. Only 1 other team in the league had a difference of more than 2 and that was the Broncos.
We discussed the Toxic ratio and while the big play differential maybe repeatable, it is absolutely unlikely that the Panthers enjoy the type of turnover differential in 2016 that they did in 2015. Carolina was +20 in turnovers, KC was next best at +14 which is just insane, think about the fact that Carolina was at +6 better than 2nd place team and exactly half of the league finished between +5 and -5. In 2014 the Panthers were +3 in turnovers and I think it is very reasonable to think they will swing back to a similar number which alone means their results will regress.
The Panthers also enjoyed some of the best luck in terms of injuries in 2015, in Football Outsiders Adjusted Games Lost metric the Panthers were the 4th healthiest team in 2015 and the 6th healthiest in 2014. Maybe they have great doctors and trainers but I would be surprised to see that trend continue in ’16.
Finally, the Panthers were great in close games which I guess is no surprise when you finish 15-1, Carolina was 7-1 in one score games.
Finally there will be major impact early from the fact that Carolina is expected to start rookie corners James Bradberry and Daryl Worley in place of Josh Norman who was rated as the top cornerback in the league by PFF. Sometimes we can as fans overrate player departures but the gap here seems to be enormous and even if they become quality NFL starters it probably will take most of the season to get there.
2. Atlanta Falcons
Being a Falcons fan is never easy, one of my best friends is one and watching him live through this 2015 season was something. In the start he didn’t quite believe the results and when he finally did jump on board after the 5-0 start they went on to lose 7 of their last 8 on their way to about as painful an 8-8 season as you can have.
The bright spot of the season for Atlanta outside of Julio Jones being healthy and awesome was the emergence of Devonte Freeman and the Falcons run game. Freeman tallied over 1500 total yards and was especially good in the first half of the season.
Atlanta was the definition of mediocre in 2015, they finished 8-8 (6-10 ATS) 23rd on offense, 22nd on defense all while playing the easiest 2015 schedule in the league.
Early Season Betting: Bet Against
The idea of this exercise is to find teams where the public perception of that team is over or under rated. The Falcons are a team that is perennially overrated especially on offense and I think it has to do with the fact that they have one of the best fantasy stars in Jones and that Matt Ryan was a #1 overall pick. Last year Atlanta was 23rd in DVOA offense 21st in points despite playing the easiest schedule in the NFL. 9 of Atlanta’s first 11 games were played against teams that finished under .500.
While Atlanta was unlucky in turnover margin (-7) and we would expect some positive movement there, they were extremely lucky in terms of injuries as they finished both 2nd overall in AGL overall and on offense, contrast that to 2014 when they were 25th. Injuries will be extra harmful to the Falcons because they simply do not have a lot of depth due to their cap situation.
For 2015 the Falcons have 25% of their cap ($39,000,000) allocated to 2 players, Ryan and Jones. Add to that another 13.5% of their cap which is dead money, meaning the remainder of the roster was built with 61% of the cap.
Defensively the Falcons are so devoid of pass rushers that 36 year old Dwight Freeny made the team this year, last year they finished with the lowest sack percentage in the league at 3.3%. This will prove problematic as they move up in quality of competition from the easiest schedule to the 3rd most difficult.
The Falcons should see an improvement in their line with addition of Alex Mack and maybe that helps their offense improve but they will be playing a much more difficult schedule and if the regression in the run game we saw in the 2nd half of 2015 continues into 2016 I think the Falcons will have a difficult time covering the number early.
Washington was the team with the longest odds to win the NFC East at the start of the season and by the end was the only one with a winning record and hosted a playoff game. Much of the success in Jay Gruden’s 1st year at coach can be attributed to the decision to place Kirk Cousins as his starting QB and the year he went on to have.
Cousins finished with a QBR of 70.1 which was 6th best in the NFL and a passer rating of 101.6 which was 5th best leading Washington to the 12th best offense in football.
Defensively the team struggled vs the pass and the run finishing 22nd vs the pass and 29th vs the run. The defense was greatly benefited by 27 takeaways which was 8th best in the league.
Early Season Betting: Bet Against
Unlike all the other teams in these posts this bet is one against a single player rather than a team over performing or getting lucky/unlucky.
Kirk Cousins played at an elite level last year and for Washington to live up to last years mark, he will have to do it again. The Washington run offense last season 32 in DVOA and I’m not sure it has improved by losing Alfred Morris and putting more on the shoulders of Matt Jones.
So the question is who is the real Kirk Cousins, the one last year who ranked in top 6 in QBR and Passer rating and passed for 29 TDs and 11 Ints in 543 attempts? Or the Kirk Cousins from the previous 3 seasons who in 407 pass attempts passed for 18 TDs and 19 Ints?
It is possible that it took Cousins a couple of years to find his feet and the combination of coach/system/opportunity and talent around him brought out the real Kirk Cousins and that’s what we saw.
I just have a hard time believing that and am willing to bet against it. Maybe it’s because I am an Eagles fan and remember the cautionary tale of Nick Foles. Foles like Cousins was a late round draft pick that ended up getting the starter job after limited, middling play.
In Foles first season he passed for 6 TDs 5 Ints on 265 attempts and had a QBR of 48.9, then in 2013 he went nuts, 27 TDs 2 Ints, QBR of 73.8 on 317 attempts. Since that season Foles has 20 TDs 20 Ints on 648 attempts and was cut by the Rams who are starting Case Keenum instead.
Now I’m not saying Cousins is going to end up like Foles he in fact may be much better but with this roster he will have to be elite for them to play at last years level because outside of the pass catchers and Oline this is a very thin team. I think it is more likely that he moves back into the middle of the pack of starting QBs and if he does Washington will struggle.
Denver and Minnesota
Originally when looking at all the teams both the Broncos and Vikings were on my bet against list. Both teams outplayed their Pythagorean win totals and both teams were especially good in close games. The problem is with the current starting QB’s in place I am not sure the perception of these teams is the same as last year. We will have to wait and see but now it feels like most betters would expect a regression due to QB play.
In Denver’s case I’m not sure how much worse QB play can be from last year when Manning finished 28th in QBR. Denver may actually move to a bet on team if the change in QB gets overrated by the market.