With the NFL draft behind us, the picture becomes even clearer as we digest what has changed and dissect the direction in which teams are headed. Like all lines Vegas offers, some season win totals are universal, while many may vary by half a win, depending on where you look. Shopping for the best number can often turn a loss into a push or a push into a win. In other words, swinging at the right pitch gives you a much better chance of hitting for a higher average.
Panthers Over 5.5. An impressive new regime and a really low number. Not often are owners discussed when analyzing teams, but David Tepper is considered among the most successful hedge fund managers of all time. After losing their last eight games, the Panthers are being remodeled in Tepper’s vision. They lured highly sought Baylor coach Matt Rhule, who has experience with turnarounds. Rhule tidied up a colossal mess at Baylor, turning a 1-11 team in 2017 into an 11-win team in ’19 and nearly beating Oklahoma for a trip to the College Football Playoff. Joe Brady comes from LSU to run the offense. The Panthers’ new offensive coordinator flourished in Baton Rouge, reinvigorating a program that was perennially loaded with talent. The new coach and the new coordinator will have a new quarterback. It’s not often that a second-year QB goes 11-5 and then has to wait half a decade to get back to the top of the depth chart, but that is the case with Teddy Bridgewater. The last time we saw Bridgewater as a full-time starter, he was leading the Vikings to a playoff victory over the Seahawks until Blair Walsh’s chip-shot field goal went sideways — as did Bridgewater’s career months later. The gruesome injury in late August 2016 set off a chain of events and a QB carousel that is begging to be an episode of “30 for 30.” The Vikings traded multiple picks for Sam Bradford (bumping Carson Wentz into the role of Eagles starter), one of which turned into Nick Barnett, who haunted Minnesota in the ensuing NFC championship with a strip sack that swung the game. Bridgewater has won 22 of 34 career starts and will take over a team with one of the league’s elite running backs in Christian McCaffrey as well as a very underrated receiving duo of D.J. Moore and Robby Anderson. The other side of the ball will be a concern, but spending all seven draft picks on defense will help, including adding potential defensive rookie of the year Derrick Brown. The Panthers were 5-3 last year before the wheels fell off, and while they are still rebuilding, I like the direction in which they are headed too much to pass on such a low number.
Eagles Under 9.5. The Eagles enter the new season in the unfortunate position of having to rely on key players who have a hard time staying on the field. They’ve made three consecutive postseasons, but their $100 million quarterback, Carson Wentz, has been on the field only long enough to complete one pass for 3 yards in those six playoff games. While it’s unfair to discredit him for being concussed by a Jadeveon Clowney cheap shot, his injury history is well documented, dating to his time at North Dakota State. Two of his top targets have also become quite popular names on the injury report. DeSean Jackson hasn’t played a full season since his first stint with the team in 2013. After catching eight passes for 154 yards against the Redskins in Week 1, he went on IR shortly thereafter, finishing the season with 159 yards. Alshon Jeffery hasn’t played a full year since the Eagles’ Super Bowl season in ’17 and might not be ready for the start of the season as he completes a nine-month recovery after surgery to repair a foot injury. Both players are not only injury-prone but are now in their 30. The Eagles also face a daunting schedule. The defending division champs will play a first-place schedule, with one game against each opponent from the two toughest divisions in football. If you add up the four season win totals from every team in each division, Vegas projects the NFC West as the toughest with 35.5 wins for the combined Over/Unders. The AFC North is tied for second toughest at 35 wins. The Eagles play each team in both divisions in addition to the other two first-place teams in the NFC. A tough schedule and durability concerns make this a vote for the Under.
Lions Over 6.5. You might want to plug your nose for this one. While the Lions’ lineage doesn’t muster confidence, an ugly pick often is a good pick. The unpopularity of a team like the Lions can create value. Who’s rushing to bet the Over for a team with one playoff victory since Eisenhower was president? Despite being a three-win team and a perennial loser, this number is too low. Matthew Stafford had a career-best 106 career passer rating at the time of his injury last season. Though they lost both, the Lions controlled both games against the Packers, and a last-minute drive by Patrick Mahomes was the only thing that kept the Lions from entering October undefeated. While I don’t think a three-win team with plenty of issues on defense should be spending a top-35 pick on a running back, that is one position where rookies can typically contribute right away. D’Andre Swift will help the Lions in a division where it’s possible the three other teams will take a step back. The Packers have an aging, unhappy quarterback. The Vikings lost some significant players and will rely heavily on rookies. The Bears still give Mitch Trubisky a uniform and a key to the building. The Lions should be around .500 and might flirt with a chance to join the newly expanded playoffs.
Jets Over 6.5. On Sept. 8, the Jets led the Bills 16-0 late in the third quarter, and the season was filled with promise. An hour later, the Jets were 0-1. Four days after that heartbreaking loss in the season opener, they announced starting quarterback Sam Darnold would be out several weeks with mono. On Sept. 16, they lost 23-3 to the Browns after backup quarterback Trevor Siemian was ruled out for the year after a first-half injury. That is how fast the season went sideways. Eight days and it was over. Yet the Jets still clawed their way to seven wins and added two players early in the draft whom many thought would be long gone, Mekhi Becton and Denzel Mims. But getting outscored 98-24 in three prime-time appearances stained the perception of this team. When a team loses on Sunday in the early slate, it can go relatively unnoticed. During standalone games, everyone sees. The ’20 schedule isn’t friendly. The Jets play both Super Bowl participants, and they visit Indy and both L.A. teams. But the home games are manageable, and the division should come to back them a bit. The days of needing 12 or more wins for a division title are over, or at least on pause. Like the Lions, this is another instance in which lack of public appeal provides a good value.
Redskins Under 5.5. Three wins last year, and I simply have a difficult time seeing how this team will double its win total. The Redskins might have the worst quarterback situation in the league and are in the mix with the Jaguars as frontrunners in the Trevor Lawrence sweepstakes. Interesting hypothetical Vegas prop: Jaguars/Redskins vs. the field for who will pick first in ’21. New coach Ron Rivera inherits a mess. While the hire has been widely lauded for providing a sense of stability to one of the league’s most dysfunctional franchises, 2015 is all that separates Rivera from being a sub-.500 coach. He is an adult in the room and should eventually make Washington more competitive (it would be hard to be less competitive). He follows a long line of coaches whom owner Daniel Snyder has hired to save the team. Mike Shanahan, Marty Schottenheimer, Steve Spurrier and Joe Gibbs have tried to resurrect this once-proud franchise, and Rivera might start with less talent than any of them. The Redskins face eight games against the difficult AFC North and NFC West a year after going winless in their six NFC East games. Another top-5 pick will be joining the Redskins in 2021.