Hello folks welcome back to another season of NFL – possibly the best punting sport there is. As a general note before we get started with the picks, I’m taking a relatively cautious approach to staking early in the season, as I suspect none of us really know too much about these teams.
And to my eye, at last, the early part of the NFL season has become more random/volatile since they reduced the amount of practice time before the season.
Broadly that means I’ll be looking to take underdogs on the moneyline and take favourites on alternate handicaps because I just don’t think the lines are that accurate.
I’ll also be keeping a proper P&L for this column this season as befits a proper tipster, with bets on a 1-3 point scale.
Seahawks @ Broncos
So onto Week One. Our first bet is the Denver Broncos over the Seattle Seahawks. The line of -3 suggests we’ve got equal teams here, but I don’t agree. Let’s use the win totals as our starting point. Denver opened at 7 and has been bet up, while Seattle opened at 8 and has been bet down, again suggesting broadly similar teams, with perhaps a slight edge for the Seahawks.
However, I think the Broncos are better than that number, starting with the defense. On paper, it looked like the Super Bowl winning D of old was long gone last year, as the Broncos ranked 24th in points allowed per game. However dig a little deeper and it was still elite, ranking second in yards allowed per drive and three-and-outs forced per drive, and third in yards-per-play.
Essentially they were just repeatedly put in horrible spots by the offense, led by Brock Osweiler and a rotating band of pick-happy QBs who were second in the league in turnovers.
That should change in 2018 with the arrival of Case Keenum, who led the NFL in quarterback DVOA last year (pr Football Outsiders) and ranked fourth in interception rate. Now, he probably won’t match that season, but he is a huge upgrade over last year’s options and should drag the offense to middle-of-the-pack rather than 31st by DVOA which it was last year. Pair that with a still-elite defense and this looks like an 8 or 9-win team to me.
Conversely, the Seahawks look cooked. A few very shrewd football men think this is the worst roster in the league ex. Russell Wilson. In Fact, ESPN’s analytics guru Mike Clay has them as the 25th most talented roster in the league, even with Wilson under centre.
— Mike Clay (@MikeClayNFL) September 1, 2018
Winning for so long has taken its toll and the talent pool has dried up. Bobby Wagner is still there and still an all-pro, but Earl Thomas is currently holding out, while Chancellor, Sherman and Bennett are long gone, the offensive line is the worst in the league, and Wilson’s only real weapon, Doug Baldwin, is nursing a knee injury, albeit expected to play.
The defense ranked 26th in the league last year per Warren Sharp’s efficiency metrics, while offensively the 2017 Seahawks had the second-worst red zone rushing DVOA ever recorded. In short, the burden was on Wilson, and he shouldered it admirably, but I’m not sure he can do it again.
The passing game will be designed by new OC Brian Schottenheimer. Schottenheimer is on record talking utter bilge about a magic number of rush attempts needed to win football games, and the last four offenses he oversaw in the NFL ranked 20th, 21st, 22nd, and 25th.
He is essentially the anti-Kyle Shanahan. How about this from the Football Outsiders Almanac: “Schottenheimer has been a Football Outsiders punching bag for years at this point. By the end of his Jets tenure, we described his offense as “more wrinkles than substance” and noted that he used modern, three-receiver sets as rarely as any offensive coordinator in the NFL.
“By his last season, more than 65 percent of the Rams’ runs came out of two-back sets as if it were still the 1980s and pro formations were still all the cutting edge of offensive philosophy. He’s the last coordinator in football to ever have that high of a ratio; only the 49ers were even over 50 percent last season.”
We’ve seen with Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan how important coaching can be and it appears the Seahawks have a dinosaur calling the shots on offence.
Now, the kicker here – and the reason this is the Week 1 nap is Denver’s home field advantage early in the season. Many of you will know Mile High stadium is, erm, really high, and the altitude seems to be a killer for opponents, especially early in the season. It may be because of the heat as well as the altitude or the fact opponents are not quite in tip-top shape yet.
The Broncos have won 78% of their September home games since 1978. Even in recent years when the team has been poor, the advantage holds true. They are 14-18 in the last two season but 5-0 in home games before October 1.
I’m having a good old wallop on Broncos -3 and just about every alternate handicap you can find.
Bears @ Packers
My second bet for the weekend is a little less strong, but still decent value, on the Bears +7.5. Now I fancied this before the Khalil Mack news, but as long as we’re still getting the hook with no extra juice, I’m happy to play.
This is basically all about the Bears, who I believe are a fringe playoff team if everything goes right. As noted in the NFL ebook, they were hamstrung last year by chronically conservative play-calling from now-departed head coach John Fox. Per Warren Sharp, the Bears were the most run-heavy team in the NFL on first down in the first half (66%) meaning they faced 9.2 yds-to-go on average on 2nd down, by far the most in the NFL.
By contrast, incoming HC Matt Nagy had KC pass the ball 55% of the time on 1st and 10 in the 1st half last year, 3rd most in the NFL. He also ran lots of innovative pistol and college style concepts which will be like manna from heaven for Trubisky after suffering through last year’s conservative gubbins.
I think we can project as massive improvement from last year’s 28th ranked offense, especially with the addition of new weapons like the now-healthy Kevin White, Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel and tight end (Trey Burton).
I think this is at worst a mid-pack offense. Defensively, they were already good last year, ranking 14th in DVOA, and as Bill Barnwell notes, they will return the same four starters in the secondary for the first time since 2012.
Four of Chicago’s five primary defensive backs are 26 or younger, so it’s reasonable to expect them to improve with a deeper understanding of the scheme a la Minnesota Vikings.
Suddenly you add a truly dominant edge rusher in Khalil Mack, and this becomes elite in my view, and perhaps, more importantly, Mike Clay’s, who models and ranks very position unit in the NFL, and reckons the Bears are a top-6 defense.
Feel like there's now a clear group of 6 defenses that stand out about the rest: Jaguars – Vikings – Eagles – Rams – Saints – Bears
There are other very good Ds (eg LAC TEN BAL HOU DEN etc), but those 6 really jump off the page.
— Mike Clay (@MikeClayNFL) September 1, 2018
On the other side, we have the Packers who I don’t have a hugely strong opinion on. I’d agree broadly with projections from the likes of FO which have them around 9-10 wins. We know how bad they are without Rodgers, and there’s even some evidence to suggest Rodgers is no longer the QB king he once was.
From 2009 to 2014, Rodgers’ yards per attempt was 8.41, a mark that would rank higher than anyone born after World War II. Since 2015, his YPA has dropped to 6.99, which ranks 25th over the last three seasons and is below the NFL average of 7.24.
With the receiver cupboard getting very bare without Jordy Nelson, I’d expect the Bears to clamp down on Green Bay pretty well, and the 7.5 point headstart looks generous.
Good luck all, and enjoy the chaos of week one. I LOVE IT.
- Bronco’s -3 @ 2.08 – 2 units
- Broncos -4.5 @ 2.49 – 1 unit
- Bears +7.5 @ 1.91 1.1 unit