You’re very welcome back to a special preseason edition of ‘Inside Slant’, a column normally reserved for the bumpy ride of the regular season dipping its foot into the comparatively calm waters of the offseason. As our football hibernation comes to a shuddering halt, it is about time to dust off our punters’ caps and turn our attention to the season ahead – and specifically, how we can get ahead of the pack with our wagers and mine some real value.
While we discussed over/under totals for wins in the previous column, this week we will delve deeper on the seasonal awards.
What makes an MVP candidate? Who are the favorites for each and where can we pick a few diamonds in the rough? Invariably the odds are more favourable for these bets; the issue lies in the big field you are betting against. It’s an inexact science at the best of times, but this column will be taking ‘gut feeling’ to a whole new level.
Nevertheless, let us try to logically dissect these odds and make sure we don’t look silly come January.
Note: My source for these odds was www.paddypower.com, an Irish bookmaker
Regular Season MVP
Leaders in the clubhouse: Ben Roethlisberger/Cam Newton/Aaron Rodgers 7/1; Andrew Luck 8/1; Tom Brady 9/1; Adrian Peterson 10/1
No massive surprises here, although Ben Roethlisberger’s status as a joint-favourite seems a little out of place. If the Steelers offense fires on all cylinders – pending the return from suspension of Le’Veon Bell – then a ridiculous season is well within Roethlisberger’s capabilities. However, the loss of Martavis Bryant is a blow and this position seems like a bit too much respect (controversial, I know).
The dark horse: Ezekiel Elliott 80/1
Allow me to paint you a little picture of the 2016 regular season. The Dallas Cowboys, America’s team, wreak havoc on opposing defenses with their balanced attack based on a punishing ground game and a steady, Romo-directed passing attack that takes few chances and maximises opportunities. A rookie running back keys this drive to a division championship and possibly a first-round bye. His 20 all-purpose touchdowns lead the league, which he has taken to like a duck to water. The spotlight provided by the Cowboys hype machine lends credence to the notion that Ezekiel Elliott may be the best back we’ve seen since Adrian Peterson. You see it, right? That glimmer of a chance that this scenario could indeed unfold. To me, 80/1 is a really nice price if you can get it.
My pick: Odell Beckham Jr. 33/1
This is going out on a bit of a limb if you take recent award winners into consideration. There hasn’t been a wide receiver MVP since 1987, when the inimitable Jerry Rice took the prize. It has been dominated by quarterbacks and wide receivers since then. Odell Beckham may not yet belong in the same talent sphere as the vaunted Rice, but he is steadily making his way to that level with his stellar play. A 2,000-yard season would be a big step towards making this unlikely dream a palatable reality for the uber-talented Beckham, whose quarterback will continue to force feed him the football. The Giants defense may be improved, but let’s be real: they are not going to be world-beaters. Beckham will remain a part of the game plan in Ben McAdoo’s pass-heavy offense. If you are feeling brave, Beckham makes a nice bet to break the streak at 33/1.
Most Passing Yards
Leaders in the clubhouse: Drew Brees 6/1; Ben Roethlisberger 15/2; Philip Rivers 9/1; Matt Ryan/Aaron Rodgers 10/1
Drew Brees is consistently a big threat to take this title, and achieved the feat last season in a losing campaign for the Saints. Roethlisberger’s offense will provide him plenty of opportunities. The theme here is better the devil you know, although last season’s fourth-ranked passer in terms of yardage, Carson Palmer, has no place among the top contenders.
The dark horse: Russell Wilson 33/1
In the second half of the 2015 season, Russell Wilson threw 25 of his 34 touchdown passes as the Seahawks shifted from a power-based ground attack to a high-flying aerial assault. The diminutive passer was the architect of the metamorphosis. The Seahawks have increased their passing attempts year by year since Wilson took over as the starter, and with the departure of Marshawn Lynch there is reason to believe this pattern will continue. Reaching the heights of Brees, Roethlisberger and Rivers might be tough, but Wilson’s talent is such that he could produce a breakout campaign in terms of passing yardage, making this 33/1 seem a generous price.
My pick: Blake Bortles 22/1
The Jacksonville quarterback exploded for 4,428 yards in his second season, tacking on 35 touchdown passes and a regrettably large total of 18 interceptions. The Jaguars offense, on paper, is run-first behind Chris Ivory and T.J. Yeldon, but in practice we are looking at a high-octane passing attack. With talented pair Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns on the outside, the underrated slot receiver Rashad Greene and the inconsistent but physically gifted Julius Thomas in the arsenal, Bortles has plenty of toys to play with. My point is, although the Jaguars want to play balanced football, there comes a time when a team must look itself in the mirror and accept what it is. I believe Gus Bradley, with the pressure on him this season, will see the light and hand the keys to Bortles. The only question is will he be ready to take them?
Most Rushing Yards
Leaders in the clubhouse: Adrian Peterson 7/1; Todd Gurley 15/2; Lamar Miller 9/1; Doug Martin 9/1; Ezekiel Elliott 10/1
There are a few household names among the contenders, with the curious addition of new Texans back Lamar Miller to the mix. The former Dolphin has question marks over his durability, but could be a pleasant surprise in a Bill O’Brien offense that relies heavily on ball control and running the football. Ezekiel Elliott, admittedly a favourite of mine, is tempting at 10/1.
The dark horse: C.J. Anderson 20/1
The more I listen to my Footballguys colleague Cecil Lammey talk about C.J. Anderson’s prospects for this season, the more I begin to buy in. Anderson is a classic workhorse back capable of taking over a game and grinding down an opponent. The smoke signals from Dove Valley surrounding Anderson’s contract certainly leave room for uncertainty over his role, but with only Devontae Booker as realistic competition, this is Anderson’s job to lose. The offense around him, likely to be led by Mark Sanchez, will rely heavily on the run. The Broncos defense is not going anywhere; in fact, they should remain a dominant unit. All this adds up to positive game scripts for a pounding back like Anderson. He is the very definition of a dark horse, but don’t rule him out.
My pick: Jamaal Charles 14/1
Home-run threat Jamaal Charles should be fully recovered from the ACL tear he sustained in October 2015 when training camp begins next week. How much he will be involved in practices is hard to predict, but the expectation is that he will suit up Week 1. Charles was on pace for a typical dominant season in 2015 before the injury stopped him in his tracks. Still likely to be the centrepiece of the Chiefs’ attack, Charles’ game-breaking skill attaches additional upside to his rushing yardage total. The presence of Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West, who both performed admirably in Charles’ absence last season, could make some punters nervous about a bet like this, but at 14/1 it is well worth a shot.
Most Receiving Yards
If you’ll excuse the pun, the field for the most receiving yards award is wide open this year. Among the top tier talents, certainly it is difficult to discount the Antonio Brown, whose game-breaking talent has put him firmly in the conversation as a future Hall of Fame player. The price on Odell Beckham Jr. at 15/2 is tempting; the presence of Sterling Shepard should really help Beckham out. The safe bets are these names, but I like to be a bit more adventurous.
The dark horse: Kelvin Benjamin 50/1
This one may seem like a bit of a reach, but that is why I have it pegged as a dark horse. Let me take you back to the 2015 preseason. The scene is a muggy August night in Buffalo, New York, where the Panthers have just scored a touchdown after a zipped Cam Newton pass to top target Kelvin Benjamin. All the reports leading up to this game suggested Benjamin had made massive strides in camp and was ready to take over in 2015. An ACL tear in a joint practice put paid to that potential explosion in production. The Panthers offense was a juggernaut last year and returns the same cast apart from one or two role players. Benjamin is a sneaky field stretcher and will be peppered with targets by Newton. The drawback is Newton’s upside in terms of passing yards; the Carolina offense is so balanced that Newton has yet to exceed 4,100 yards in his career. Benjamin will have to rely on a big target share, but laying a dollar on this bet might yield big rewards if the young receiver’s breakout is poised to happen.
My pick: Dez Bryant 20/1
The betting public seems to be sleeping on Dez Bryant. The foot injury is a concern, but if we see Bryant look like his usual self in camp and preseason, we should assume he is ready to roll. In 2012, he produced his best season in terms of yardage, racking up 1,382 in a strong Cowboys offense. Ezekiel Elliott could certainly play a big role this season, limiting Bryant’s upside – but do you really want to bet against this fearless competitor? If you want to grab a bit of value and feel a bit risky, betting on Bryant seems like a no-brainer.
Offensive Rookie of the Year
The race for the Offensive Rookie of the Year award is always one of the more fascinating. Seasoned draft analysts who have poured hours into studying these prospects have a leg up on the pile, but understanding how their talent fits within the context of their new team is a crucial part of the battle too. We can instantly rule out offensive lineman; the position has never won the award. There is a great crop of players to choose from this year, with the value on Ezekiel Elliott winning pretty good despite his clear favourite tag.
The dark horse: Devontae Booker 25/1
There is a scenario whereby Devontae Booker, who is already reportedly in the frame to see time as a third-down back, takes the starting job outright from C.J. Anderson. Earlier in the piece I painted the picture of this being Anderson’s job to lose – and it is – but Booker has the change of pace and power mixture to turn heads and give defenders headaches. What this award comes down to is situation and splash plays over talent and substance of contribution. We live a world defined by moments you can fit in Sportscenter highlights packages, and Booker could produce a lot of those on a team that will have plenty of rushing attempts.
My pick: Sterling Shepard 20/1
My colleague Matt Harmon has done an excellent job breaking down the immense potential of New York Giants receiver Sterling Shepard. His game is predicated on winning at the catch point and defeating defensive backs early in routes with suddenness and change of direction. Eli Manning is going to love this guy. In fact, reports from minicamps have Shepard as a firm favourite of the coaching staff already. If he works hard and stays assignment-sound on the field, he could easily produce a 1,000 yard season in a high-powered offense led by Odell Beckham Jr. I’m a huge fan of Shepard’s talent, so this is one bet I’ll be making sooner rather than later.
Coach of the Year
Leaders in the clubhouse: Bill Belichick 15/2; Ron Rivera 6/1; Bruce Arians 13/2; Mike McCarthy 11/1; Mike Zimmer 12/1
A safe threesome of names headlines the coaches list, with two-time winner Ron Rivera second only to the great Bill Belichick. We have the possibility that Belichick gets extra credit if the Patriots start fast despite Tom Brady’s absence. Bruce Arians at 13/2 is tempting as he has won the prize two of the last four years.
The dark horse: Chuck Pagano 28/1
After a tumultuous offseason, Chuck Pagano was retained by Jim Irsay and the Colts front office. Rumblings from the coaching cognoscenti had suggested all was not right in Indianapolis between Pagano and general manager Ryan Grigson, but apparently things have been smoothed over. What Pagano has in his favour is an offense that will score a lot of points behind a once-in-a-generation talent at quarterback poised for a bounce back. The AFC South is bound to improve this year – or at least it should – so the Colts will have their work cut out. A division title is not out of their reach, though they need to shore up the defense with excellent coaching – enter Pagano – or they’ll lose games they should be winning.
My pick: Gus Bradley 25/1
I’m going back to the AFC South well for my selection, where Jacksonville’s Gus Bradley may be entering last chance saloon despite a patient owner in Shahid Khan. Simply put, there is an onus on Bradley to produce this year with this group of players, or his services will no longer be required. There is a narrative here for a redemption story, whereby Bradley leads his rag tag bunch of fresh-faced Jaguars players into a new era, capturing the AFC South title en route to an improbable playoff berth. The division appears to be wide open; why can’t Bradley take advantage?
Be sure to check back leading up Week 1 of the regular season when Inside Slant will return. You can follow my musings on Twitter @davlar87.