How to handicap the NFL first touchdown scorer odds
I believe it was the wise poet Cornell “Nelly” Haynes who once said, “I am number one. Two is not a winner, and three, nobody remembers.” And I couldn’t have said it better myself when it comes to my favorite NFL prop bets. It doesn’t matter to me who scores second or third in a game, just let me predict who’s No. 1 and I’m ecstatic. It wasn’t a perfect science, but in an effort to get better at betting the first touchdown market, I tracked who scored the first touchdown for every team all last season. It began as an experiment to see if there was even anything to be learned, and wound up being a pretty helpful tool. There were some clear trends that helped me make some cash.
My “system”, as I refer to it, focuses on three aspects of each and every first touchdown -
- Was it the first TD of the game (or just the first for the team)?
- Which player scored it?
- Which position do they play?
This information allowed me to find mismatches between teams’ success rates when it comes to scoring first, and then bet on their most popular targets.
Before I give some predictions for Week 1, I’d like to remind everybody about some common misconceptions about first touchdowns:
First, throw away the notion that high-powered offenses are the always best teams to target in the FTD (first touchdown) market. Some of the most successful FTD teams from the 2022 season ranked in the bottom-third when it comes to total points scored in the regular season. I’m looking at you, Cleveland Browns. Believe it or not, the Brownies were the most reliable FTD team, scoring the game’s first touchdown in 13 of their 17 games, despite averaging just 21.2 points per game, which was only the 18th-most in the NFL. Another notable team? The Tennessee Titans. They scored first in 11 of their 17 games with an overall pathetic offense which ranked 28th in the league in terms of points per game. The moral of the story here is, don’t always assume the better offense does the better job at finding the end zone first. You can find the full list of teams ranked by success rates here.
Second, don’t worry about who gets the ball first. There is no way to handicap who will win the coin toss so you can’t factor that in when figuring out which team to focus on. Plus, based on my research from last year, the first trip into the end zone came from the better FTD team much more reliably than whichever one got the ball first.
Third, while it may feel like the most random player you’ve never heard of seems to find his way into the box score each week, many teams really do find the household-name guys time and time again. Last season, 14 different players scored at least five TFTD (team-first touchdowns), and 35 had at least four. Travis Kelce led the way with nine for the Chiefs, followed closely behind Ezekiel Elliott with eight for the Cowboys. The takeaway here is, many of the players with shorter odds have short odds for a reason and you should not be afraid to bet them. A full list of the top players from last year can be found here.
And lastly, eliminate the idea that you should bet on a receiving option and a rushing option for every team. Eleven different teams went to the same position for their FTD at least 9 times last season. Most notably, the Bengals, who scored their first touchdown via wide receiver 11 times in 2022. Knowing info like this helps narrow down the options when deciding who to bet. I’ve noted which position each team likes the most here.
Now that we have the right mindset, we can put this system to use by asking ourselves three questions ahead of each game.
For the sake of the exercise, I’ll use an imaginary matchup between the Vikings and Colts based on last year’s FTD stats:
Is there a noticeable difference between the teams’ success rates? The Vikings had a great FTD% at 66.7 including the playoffs, while the Colts were pathetic, with just a 23.5 FTD%. Clearly, it wouldn’t be too wise to bet on any Indianapolis players in this case. If you placed bets on Colts players last season, you threw away money in 13 games, when you could have just focused on their opponent. On the flipside, if teams are evenly matched, this is where you might look to bet a player or two from each squad.
Does the team with the better FTD% have a position they target most? In this example, the Vikings loved wide receivers last season, going to them first in eight games, which is more than double the next position. If you only bet on their wide receivers, you gave yourself a better shot at cashing than any other position.
Does the team look to a specific player most? No surprise here, Justin Jefferson had four of Minny’s first scores, all of which were the first of the game. No doubt his odds were short, but that’s clearly for a reason. If they love a certain player, stick with him.
NFL 1st TD scorer picks for Week 1
Now let’s get to the good stuff, the Week 1 matchups with their 2022 FTD success rates. Below I will give my thoughts on all of the opening matchups. I will say, while I give my recommendations, I definitely do not bet all of these players. Even with the slight edge I’ve given myself through my research, this is still a difficult thing to predict. But, the beautiful part about this market is, depending on the odds, you can bet on a number of players for each game and still make a profit if one of your picks is right. That said, let’s look at Week 1!
What a bummer. This matchup should have had 2 of last year’s best FTD players. But, Travis Kelce suffered a knee injury in practice this week and his status for this game is questionable. He was the No. 1 FTD player last season. When he’s healthy, he should be an auto-bet. And for the Lions, Jamaal Williams, Detroit’s first touchdown go-to guy last season is now in New Orleans. I’ll pivot to Jahmyr Gibbs who should be a solid replacement for him. He led Alabama position players last season with 11 touchdowns and Detroit should be anxious to feed the young running back with the fresh legs.
Not an attractive matchup and I will likely leave this one alone. Despite having the slightly better FTD record, the Panthers have a new head coach, a new QB, and their No. 1 FTD guy from last year, D.J. Moore, is now in Chicago. I can’t touch them. For the Falcons, I’d fade Bijan Robinson and go for guys with a little longer odds as either MyCole Pruitt or Tyler Allgeier were the only players to score first for Atlanta over the last six weeks of the season.
What a bummer! Last season’s best FTD team is going against another solid FTD team. If Cleveland had an even slightly bigger edge here, I would suggest only going with the Browns. But in this instance, I would suggest looking towards Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins, who surprisingly both had more TFTDs than Ja’Marr Chase did. For Cleveland, I’ll go with the easy pick, Nick Chubb who had 13 touchdowns last season, four of which were the first of the game.
Finally, a mismatch. Do. Not. Bet. A. Colt. They only scored the game’s first touchdown four times last season. Even worse, they failed to find the end zone entirely in FOUR different games last season. Until they prove me wrong, I can’t ever bet on them. For the Jags, Christian Kirk and Evan Engram led the way in 2022, so I’ll stick with them and add a little on Calvin Ridley in hopes of a revenge touchdown.
Another mismatch, so I’ve gotta go all Vikings here. Minnesota did find a lot of different players for their first touchdowns last season, nine to be exact. The only players who had at least three FTDs for the team were Justin Jefferson and Dalvin Cook. With Cook in East Rutherford now, I’ll expect his former backup Alexander Mattison to fill his shoes nicely. They’ll have short odds but I'll take him and Jefferson and feel good about it.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The Titans went to running backs first nine times last season and there’s no reason to think that will change with Derrick Henry still there. I’ll go with him and the rookie Tyjae Spears. Could be worth a sprinkle on DeAndre Hopkins as well; he should be motivated to show off, as he gets an extra $1M in salary incentives if he scores 10 or more TDs this year.
San Francisco became one of my favorite teams to bet on in this market last year because they were incredibly consistent down the stretch. Over their final four games, Christian McCaffrey scored first in all of them. And before he became their favorite, Brandon Aiyuk was their main guy. He had five FTDs for the Niners last season. I’ll look their way again this year.
Ohhhh, the Ravens. One of the best FTD teams last year, but so hard to bet on. The Ravens scored first with nine different players and had no player score first more than three times. The one useful trend we do have for them? They almost exclusively lean on running backs and tight ends - 14 of 18 times to be exact. I know they have Odell Beckham Jr. now and Lamar Jackson says he wants to throw more, but I need to see it in action before I stray from J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards.
I hate this matchup. Both teams look a lot different than last season so I can’t trust their 2022 trends. The only bet I’d make here is the Commanders D/ST as their defense is top-notch and the Cardinals appear to be in tank-mode considering their options at QB. Let’s see if we can get a pick-six for Washington early.
I’ll probably leave this matchup alone since neither team was very successful in this market. But if I had to pick anybody, it would be Justin Fields. He had eight rushing touchdowns last season, three of which were the Bears’ first of the game. Fields was the second-best QB in this market in 2022.
Speaking of QBs who can cash FTD tickets, Jalen Hurts was the No. 1 QB, scoring first for the Eagles seven times, four of which were the first of the game. I’ll have a ticket on him for sure. Their next most popular option was Miles Sanders, but he has moved on to Carolina. Replacing him is likely a mix of newcomers D’Andre Swift and Rashaad Penny, plus last season’s supporting cast, Kenneth Gainwell and Boston Scott. With a crowded RB room, I’ll pivot to the top wide receiver option and go with A.J. Brown, who connected with his QB for 11 TDs last season.
The Chargers are an interesting case this season as their favorite FTD target last year had a very testy offseason. After a trade request and contract concerns, Austin Ekeler is back with the team, but I can’t trust it to translate onto the field this season. I’ll turn to Keenan Allen and Mike Williams, who had two FTDs each for the Chargers last season. But if Ekeler scores first this week, we have confirmation that all is well. I’ll look for him in Week 2, as he scored first six times last season for LA.
This is another matchup I will probably leave alone as neither team is that great at scoring first. If I was forced to pick a player, I’d look towards Cam Akers who led this pitiful 2022 offense with seven touchdowns last season. Only two of them were FTDs, but with Cooper Kupp’s injury concerns, he’s the only player I trust in this one.
This matchup is a complete stay-away for me. Davante Adams was the Raiders’ top FTD target last season so that’s probably the best choice if you forced my hand. I need to see how the offense looks with Jimmy Garoppolo before I believe in them. The Broncos were pitiful last year for my purposes, scoring first just six times. Most people assume Sean Payton is going to completely fix this offense, but I am more skeptical. I’m just not sure I believe Russell Wilson’s only problem was coaching.
Just like the Lions, the Cowboys make me sad. They are also without their favorite FTD target this season as Ezekiel Elliott is now in New England. Zeke had eight firsts last season for Dallas, five of which were the first of the game. But, as the world of running backs seems to go, it’s on to the next. I’ll take Tony Pollard here, and because I’ve loved watching highlights of him this summer, the 5-foot-6 Deuce Vaughn. Short people can play football too!
I know Aaron Rodgers is supposed to come in and turn this team Jets around, but they do have most of the same players as last year and I just can’t get their pitiful 2022 FTD stats out of my mind. New York failed to score a touchdown AT ALL in five different games last season, including their final three. I can’t! I’m going to try to cash in on the apparent drama between the Bills star players, Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs, and assume the QB is going to look elsewhere. Believe it or not, despite having 11 touchdowns last season, none of Diggs’ scores were the first of the game. All the more reason to go with Gabe Davis who led the team with four TFTDs.
I’ll still use last year’s data until we get a few weeks of first touchdown scorers under our belts. I’ll track them here if you want to follow along and check out the tracker ahead of each game. Good luck this season and let me know if you’re going to, as Nelly would say, “Ride Wit Me”: @billzinmepocket on X.