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3 rookie QBs will test NFL betting systems

By Steve Makinen  (Point Spread Weekly editor) 

June 16, 2020 10:17 PM
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Joe Burrow is already a hit in Cincinnati.
© Imagn

Since first releasing rookie quarterback betting systems several years ago, I’ve gotten more reaction to them than perhaps any other form of NFL analysis. Endorsed by my guy Brent Musburger, the foundation of these angles has proven sound enough for even the most savvy bettors to use as the basis for wagering. It’s inarguable that quarterback is the most important position in sports when it comes to wagering. Knowing how first-year starting quarterbacks perform historically is of great advantage in taking on the bookmakers. Thankfully, discernible patterns have emerged in regard to rookie quarterback performance, and bettors should take notice and take advantage.

According to most experts, three quarterbacks drafted in April should get a chance to start at least seven games this season: Joe Burrow of the Bengals, Tua Tagovailoa of the Dolphins and Justin Herbert of the Chargers. Last year there were four, and three others started five games or more. In fact, the significant number of games started by rookie QBs proves that understanding when they perform at their best and worst is crucial. Starts by rookie QBs last year accounted for over 25% of the contests.

Burrow, the top pick in the draft out of LSU, figures to be a lock for the Bengals job. Tagovailoa, from Alabama, will have to battle Ryan Fitzpatrick and Josh Rosen as the Dolphins’ starter. But before his injury woes late in college, he was thought to be a surefire star at the pro level. Herbert of Oregon steps into a situation in which the quarterback job would seemingly be wide open, with Tyrod Taylor the veteran at the top of the depth chart after Philip Rivers moved on to Indianapolis. We never know when we’ll see the rise of the next Gardner Minshew, who capitalized on an injury to Nick Foles last season to become the Jaguars’ QB of the immediate future. Several candidates could step up in similar situations in 2020.

Of course, not all these guys will succeed. Some may become Super Bowl champion quarterbacks. Others may settle in as solid starters. Some will flounder and have short careers. Others might become career journeymen. Whatever the case, without foundation-based historical analysis, football bettors typically have their hands full in getting to know these new players at the most crucial position. 

I’ve logged all rookie quarterbacks from recent years who have started at least seven games in their first seasons. The NFL has had 43 such players since 2004, including four in 2019. I chose 2004 because that is the first season when a quarterback who is still active started as a rookie. That player is Ben Roethlisberger, an eventual Super Bowl MVP winner. In addition to analyzing the player-by-player performance for all 43 players, I’ve uncovered some betting systems using these rookie quarterbacks. As a bettor, you should look to employ some of the more noteworthy systems when anyone in the 2020 rookie class is inserted as a starter.

As you look at the chart, one of the first things you’ll want to digest is that most of these rookie quarterbacks do help their teams improve. In fact, only 14 of the 43 teams showed a worse winning percentage in games started by the new QBs than they did the previous season. Four maintained the same percentage, while the other 25 helped their teams improve. The combined success rate of the 43 rookies was 241-330-1 SU (42.2%) and 288-270-14 ATS (51.6%). Clearly, you can’t profit by simply backing these rookies and their teams blindly. That is where these systems come in, guiding you to the spots in which they are best backed or faded.

Betting Systems Involving Rookie Quarterbacks

Using the 43-player sample, I came up with several definitive betting systems, considering variables such as line ranges, home/road dichotomy, depth into the season and type of opponent faced. Let’s dig in.

System No. 1: Rookie quarterbacks are trending downward

I indicated winning percentages of 42.2% straight up and 51.6% ATS for rookie quarterbacks since 2004. The results of late are far worse. Since the start of the 2013 season, rookie QBs who started at least seven games in a season are just 103-194-1 SU (34.6%) and 137-157-4 ATS (46.6%). In addition, only two of 24 rookie QBs in that span produced a winning record or made the playoffs — the Cowboys’ Dak Prescott in 2016 and the Ravens’ Lamar Jackson in 2018.

Analysis: Many rookie quarterbacks coming out now are leaving college too early or being drafted into situations with little or no chance to succeed. Be careful with that logic this year, especially with Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa. Both were studs in college and have exorbitant expectations as they begin their pro careers. But their team situations are not what they were in college —an overabundance of offensive weapons and physically dominant blocking. How do these guys respond with plenty of adversity to overcome? They haven’t seen much of that to this point. Guaranteed they will in the NFL.

System No. 2: Rookie quarterbacks are a risky bet in the postseason

In their last 13 playoff games, rookie quarterbacks are just 4-9 SU and ATS. Take away Joe Flacco’s 2009 run and the record drops to 2-8 SU and ATS, including 1-7 in their last eight.

Analysis: Postseason pressure is a lot to bear for a rookie quarterback, and the best resumes are typically built on playoff success. For elite quarterbacks, this usually comes later in a career. In four of those last seven losses, the rookie’s offense was held to 14 or fewer points. The most recent such loss came after the 2018 season, when Lamar Jackson and the Ravens lost 23-17 to the Chargers.

System No. 3: Rookie quarterbacks have been solid bets as early-season starters

Despite their overall recent struggles, rookie quarterbacks have fared well for bettors as early-season starters, going 14-22 SU but 24-12 ATS (66.7%) in their last 36 games in Weeks 1-3 —including 20-4 ATS (83.3%) as underdogs of three points or more.

Analysis: Typically, oddsmakers side against rookie starters early simply because of their inexperience. However, with little tape for defensive coordinators to use in preparing for them, they have proven more competitive than the experts have figured. They have struggled later down the road when more of their play has been dissected. In addition, teams with rookie quarterbacks are often motivated by a cohesive sense of optimism and grateful to flush the previous season.

System No. 4: Rookie quarterbacks have experienced major midseason woes

Recent results of rookie quarterbacks in Weeks 4-15 have been eye-popping. Those starting games during that stretch have combined for a record of 74-146 SU and 93-122-5 ATS (43.2%).

Analysis: Most coordinators are slow to trust rookie quarterbacks in expanding their offenses, making it much easier on opposing teams to study and prepare for them. And some might hit the “rookie wall” after a few months in the league. This system maintained almost its exact pace last season, with the four regular starters combining to go 15-19 ATS (44.1%).

System No. 5: Rookie quarterbacks have struggled on the road

Recent results of rookie quarterbacks on the road are startling. Since the start of the 2013 season, rookie starters have combined to go 37-108 SU and 66-75-4 ATS (46.8%) in road games. In later-season road games, Weeks 10-17, they are just 17-61 SU and 31-45-2 ATS (40.8%).

Analysis: This system is all about the increasing pressure on NFL quarterbacks, and typically only the most seasoned pros can thrive in late-season road contests. Rookie QBs are a definite play-against in such games. However, this trend could be turning as bookmakers account more greatly for previous inequities, as the 2018-19 groups combined for a record of 25-17 ATS. I’m going to watch this system more closely in 2020 before committing to investing.

System No. 6: Don’t fall for the big underdog point spreads with rookie quarterbacks

Since 2012, rookie starting quarterbacks facing underdog lines of seven points or more have won just 16 games, going 16-92 SU and 44-58-6 ATS (43.1%).

Analysis: As much as NFL bettors like to think a large point spread can provide the necessary cushion for betting a rookie quarterback, it simply isn’t true. As underdogs, these QBs (and teams) are simply overwhelmed. These teams are scoring just 16.9 PPG in those contests, and consistently backing teams with production that low is just not a sound strategy. Remember, only the league’s most woeful offenses are assigned large underdog lines like that.

System No. 7: Rookie quarterbacks have fared well in larger favorite roles

Since 2011, rookie starting quarterbacks are 38-12 SU and 28-21-1 ATS (57.1%) when favored by more than a field goal.

Analysis: Oddsmakers can prove to be a reliable guide for when to back and fade rookie starting quarterbacks. System No. 6 details why to fade them as large underdogs. Alternatively, when surrounded by solid teams worthy of playing as bigger chalk, these rookies perform admirably. While not exactly on a juggernaut team in 2019, Gardner Minshew did go 2-0 SU and ATS for the Jaguars when his team was favored by at least 3.5 points.

System No. 8: Scoring more than 14 points is a key benchmark for outright and ATS success for rookie quarterbacks

Since 2009, rookie starting quarterbacks whose teams have scored 14 or fewer points in a game are a brutal 8-146 SU and 24-127-3 ATS (15.9%), as opposed to 170-140-1 SU and 198-102-11 ATS (66%) when topping that benchmark.

Analysis: The number of points a team scores is obviously not all on its quarterback, so this is more of a team system. Still, projecting a team’s points in a given game is a key part of handicapping football, and using a good simulator can be of great value when you consider systems like this one. Don’t force the issue if rookie quarterbacks are facing stout defenses; it rarely pays off. For those new to VSiN, my Strength Ratings published in each issue of “Point Spread Weekly” and on VSiN.com throughout the NFL season project scores for every game based on a couple of time-tested models. These are a great place to start.

System No. 9: By type of opponent, divisional matchups have been tough for rookie starting quarterbacks

The breakdown of success level against division, conference and nonconference opponents has been definitive for rookie starting quarterbacks. Since the start of the 2013 season against divisional foes, they are 31-76 SU and 45-61-1 ATS (42.4%). As home divisional dogs of 4.5 points or more, rookie QBs are just 3-19 SU and 6-15-1 ATS (28.6%) in their last 22 games.

Analysis: Familiarity with the opponent plays a big role in determining the level of success a rookie QB will have. Divisional foes are more familiar and probably put more urgency into studying opposing quarterbacks’ play. Nonconference foes see teams once every four years, and the urgency isn’t nearly as great.

System No. 10: High totals, low scores for rookie starting quarterbacks in divisional games

In the last 30 divisional games since 2012 featuring at least one rookie starting quarterback expected to be higher-scoring (totals of 47 or more), the Under is on a 21-9 (70%) run.

Analysis: Overestimating rookie quarterbacks’ ability to produce has proven costly for Over bettors, especially in divisional games. Typically, oddsmakers trap bettors into expecting better results with inflated totals.

Looking at the schedules of the potential rookie starting quarterbacks

Joe Burrow, Cincinnati

Week Opponent (Projected Line)

Week 1: LOS ANGELES CHARGERS (+ 3)

Week 2: at Cleveland Browns (+ 7.5)

Week 3: at Philadelphia Eagles (+ 11)

Week 4: JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS (-4)

Week 5: at Baltimore Ravens (+ 13)

Week 6: at Indianapolis Colts (+ 7.5)

Week 7: CLEVELAND BROWNS (+ 1)

Week 8: TENNESSEE TITANS (+ 4.5)

Week 10: PITTSBURGH STEELERS (+ 3)

Week 11: at Washington Redskins (+ 1)

Week 12: NEW YORK GIANTS (-1.5)

Week 13: at Miami Dolphins (+ 2.5)

Week 14: DALLAS COWBOYS (+ 5.5)

Week 15: at Pittsburgh Steelers (+ 7.5)

Week 16: at Houston Texans (+ 6)

Week 17: BALTIMORE RAVENS (+ 8.5)

When considering the systems discussed previously, this looks to be a fairly difficult schedule for Burrow and the Bengals. Should Herbert start for the Chargers in Week 1, that would negate any plays in that game. Otherwise, Cincinnati would be the option. The next two weeks, while still in the Week 1-3 range, pit the Bengals in historically tough spots for rookies — in divisional games and as large underdogs. That said, the 20-4 ATS in No. 3 warrants plays on the Bengals against the Browns and the Eagles. The rest of the season is littered with divisional contests and large underdog point spreads. The games at Baltimore in Week 5 and Pittsburgh in Week 15 look like prime wagering opportunities to fade Burrow and the Bengals.

Tua Tagovailoa, Miami

Week Opponent (Projected Line)

Week 1: at New England Patriots (+ 6.5)

Week 2: BUFFALO BILLS (+ 3)

Week 3: at Jacksonville Jaguars (+ 0)

Week 4: SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (+ 5.5)

Week 5: at San Francisco 49ers (+ 13)

Week 6: at Denver Broncos (+ 5)

Week 7: LOS ANGELES CHARGERS (+ 0.5)

Week 8: LOS ANGELES RAMS (+ 1.5)

Week 9: at Arizona Cardinals (+ 4.5)

Week 10: NEW YORK JETS (-0.5)

Week 12: at New York Jets (+ 4.5)

Week 13: CINCINNATI BENGALS (-2.5)

Week 14: KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (+ 9)

Week 15: NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (+ 6)

Week 16: at Las Vegas Raiders (+ 5)

Week 17: at Buffalo Bills (+ 7.5)

It remains to be seen whether Tagovailoa will be the opening-day starter. But if he gets the nod, all three early games have some backing potential. The Weeks 4-15 games are typically fade plays for rookie quarterbacks, with the games at the Jets in Week 12 and at home versus the Patriots in Week 15 showing the best fade potential. The Week 13 matchup against the Bengals could be an intriguing game matching Tagovailoa against Burrow but would offer no rookie wagering system leans.

 

Justin Herbert, L.A. Chargers

Week Opponent (Projected Line)

Week 1: at Cincinnati Bengals (-3)

Week 2: KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (+ 7)

Week 3: CAROLINA PANTHERS (-4.5)

Week 4: at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (+ 6)

Week 5: at New Orleans Saints (+ 9)

Week 6: NEW YORK JETS (-3)

Week 7: at Miami Dolphins (-0.5)

Week 8: JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS (-7)

Week 9: LAS VEGAS RAIDERS (-2)

Week 11: at Denver Broncos (+ 2)

Week 12: at Buffalo Bills (+ 4)

Week 13: NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (+ 1.5)

Week 14: ATLANTA FALCONS (-2)

Week 15: at Las Vegas Raiders (+ 2)

Week 16: DENVER BRONCOS (-2)

Week 17: at Kansas City Chiefs (+ 11)

We know the least about Herbert among the three rookie quarterbacks who might start. I would say it’s most unlikely he’ll get the nod in any early-season game, as the Chargers have realistic turnaround hopes in 2020. Inserting a rookie at the most key position would likely squelch that opportunity, especially when Tyrod Taylor is a legitimate starting option. Herbert also doesn’t seem as certain to be a starter in terms of his long-term future. But should he become an option in the second half of the season or a post-bye-week choice, the season finale at Kansas City stands out immediately as a bad spot for him and his team. The Chargers are expected to be good-size favorites in a couple of games earlier in the season, and should the former Oregon standout be under center by then, they would be good options.

To view the chart with this story, visit Point Spread Weekly at VSiN.com

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