When the NFL preseason kicks off Thursday, the only action Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger might get is a TV interview with a sideline reporter. It’s no surprise that Roethlisberger, 39 and seemingly entering his final season, is not expected to play much in August.
Even before he strained his right shoulder in practice last week, Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott was unlikely to play Thursday night in the Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio. In a battle of backup quarterbacks, Pittsburgh is a 1.5-point favorite against Dallas, and the total is 33.
The probability is high the game will be boring, but a lot of wagering action will take place simply because the NFL is back and the betting public is more than ready for football season. The curtain-raiser in Canton is typically a coin-flip game that’s rarely worth more than an entertainment bet. Some will say that’s true of the entire preseason, but that’s a false, uneducated perception.
Believe it or not, several sharp bettors are getting ready to aim and fire, contrary to a common theory that only degenerates and the insane wager on preseason games.
“I don’t think anybody is crazy for betting it,” DraftKings sportsbook director John Avello said. “Not at all. I disagree. There are some edges to preseason, and I think there are advantages to playing it.”
For the most part, preseason games are not about analyzing statistics or star quarterbacks, so forget about Roethlisberger, Prescott, Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers and focus elsewhere. This is a different world.
When handicapping games in August, angles are far more important than analytics, and motivation for coaches is the biggest question mark. This is the angle to watch: Who wants to win and who couldn’t care less?
Winning always means more to Ravens coach John Harbaugh, who’s riding a 17-game exhibition winning streak (15-1-1 ATS) since 2016. Vikings coach Mike Zimmer has a 20-5 preseason record.
“The first concern for handicapping the preseason would be the coaches’ approach to the games,” professional handicapper Marc Lawrence said. “It’s always about the way they choose to attack the preseason.”
Saints coach Sean Payton is 7-14 in his last 21 preseason games, yet his cavalier attitude could change this year due to a quarterback duel between Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill. Payton might make his game-plan info transparent.
Chuck Edel, a professional bettor from Las Vegas, said he spends several hours each week during the preseason watching news conferences and reading newspaper stories in a search for insightful quotes about how coaches plan to use their starters and how much emphasis might be put on winning a particular game.
“It’s all about the information because that’s where there’s an advantage,” Edel said. “With a new coach, I could see Urban Meyer playing his cards differently. He’s changing the whole system. I would assume somebody like that is going to play his starters more than a veteran coach.”
The Jaguars’ Meyer is one of seven new coaches in the league. The others are Dan Campbell (Lions), David Culley (Texans), Robert Saleh (Jets), Nick Sirianni (Eagles), Arthur Smith (Falcons) and Brandon Staley (Chargers).
No preseason was played in 2020 because of COVID-19, and this year’s shortened schedule — reduced from four games to three for all teams except the Cowboys and Steelers — could mean veteran quarterbacks will see less playing time than usual. It also could mean the dress-rehearsal game, when the starters routinely play the most and games get more realistic to what is seen in the regular season, will move to the second week instead of the third or be eliminated completely by some coaches.
“Expect to see backup QBs get plenty of time during the first two weeks,” Lawrence said. “Exposure for starting quarterbacks is less likely, especially with concern for injury, aside from rookie starters or those adapting to a new team and a new playbook.”
It will be intriguing to see how Meyer utilizes quarterback Trevor Lawrence, the No. 1 overall draft pick. In theory, Lawrence is competing with Gardner Minshew for the starting job in Jacksonville, and Lawrence will win it barring injury.
The Colts, who lost starter Carson Wentz to a foot injury last week, need to trade for a starter or develop one immediately from a depth chart including Jacob Eason, Sam Ehlinger and Brett Hundley. Indianapolis coach Frank Reich said Eason is No. 1 for now and will get extensive playing time this month.
Quarterback rotations are crucial to handicap. The Jets have weak backups behind rookie Zach Wilson, the No. 2 overall pick. Behind Wilson are Mike White and James Morgan, who also have zero games of NFL experience. The 49ers have a strong situation behind starter Jimmy Garoppolo with rookie Trey Lance and veterans Josh Rosen and Nate Sudfeld.
Dallas backups Garrett Gilbert, Cooper Rush and Ben DiNucci rank as mediocre. Pittsburgh appears to have a better backup plan with Mason Rudolph, Dwayne Haskins and Josh Dobbs. Haskins, a first-round pick in 2019 with a 3-10 record in Washington, is competing to beat out Rudolph for the No. 2 spot.
Sharp money is more fact than fiction in the preseason, but it’s on a relative scale. The wagering limits at most books are about $2,000 for sides and $1,000 for totals, meaning bookmakers are tapping the brakes. If bettors were always losing, the limits would not be so low.
Trey Wingo, a former NFL studio host for ESPN, posted this on Twitter in August 2019: “If anyone is actually betting a preseason game, seek immediate help. No one has a CLUE about who will be on the field, how it’s being called, etc.”
Wingo was clueless, and that type of nonsense will fade as many in the mainstream media begin to get more educated on the truths of sports betting in general.
“I think you have a better chance of winning in preseason than in the regular season because the regular-season market is so good and every line is about where it should be, for the most part,” Westgate SuperBook director John Murray said.
It’s wise to consider first-half wagers when information indicates one coach is playing his starters more than the other and attacking the first half like it matters. Bettors should monitor line moves — some numbers will run as much as five points based on smart money — yet don’t bet the worst numbers and chase steam if you arrive too late to the party. Also, remember not to obsess as much about 3-point lines because the field-goal spread is not as key in the preseason since coaches want to avoid overtime.
“It’s important all the time, but getting your best number is very important in the preseason,” Avello said.
With backup quarterbacks and reserves fighting for roster spots deciding most games, betting results are sometimes as random as the spin of a roulette wheel. Still, there’s no need to see a psychiatrist because you’re betting the NFL preseason — there are plenty of sharp ways to cash tickets.
“I love preseason,” Edel said. “If the whole year is like preseason, I’d be happy.”
NFL PRESEASON QUARTERBACK ROTATIONS
ARIZONA: Kyler Murray, Colt McCoy, Chris Streveler
ATLANTA: Matt Ryan, AJ McCarron, Feleipe Franks
BALTIMORE: Lamar Jackson, Trace McSorley, Tyler Huntley
BUFFALO: Josh Allen, Mitchell Trubisky, Jake Fromm, Davis Webb
CAROLINA: Sam Darnold, P.J. Walker, Will Grier
CHICAGO: Andy Dalton, Justin Fields, Nick Foles
CINCINNATI: Joe Burrow, Brandon Allen, Kyle Shurmur, Eric Dungey
CLEVELAND: Baker Mayfield, Case Keenum, Kyle Lauletta
DALLAS: Dak Prescott, Garrett Gilbert, Cooper Rush, Ben DiNucci
DENVER: Drew Lock, Teddy Bridgewater, Brett Rypien
DETROIT: Jared Goff, David Blough, Tim Boyle
GREEN BAY: Aaron Rodgers, Jordan Love, Kurt Benkert
HOUSTON: Tyrod Taylor, Jeff Driskel, Davis Mills, Deshaun Watson
INDIANAPOLIS: Jacob Eason, Sam Ehlinger, Brett Hundley, Jalen Morton, Carson Wentz (injured)
JACKSONVILLE: Trevor Lawrence, Gardner Minshew, C.J. Beathard, Jake Luton
KANSAS CITY: Patrick Mahomes, Chad Henne, Anthony Gordon, Shane Buechele
LAS VEGAS: Derek Carr, Marcus Mariota, Nathan Peterman
LOS ANGELES CHARGERS: Justin Herbert, Chase Daniel, Easton Stick
LOS ANGELES RAMS: Matthew Stafford, John Wolford, Bryce Perkins, Devlin Hodges
MIAMI: Tua Tagovailoa, Jacoby Brissett, Reid Sinnett
MINNESOTA: Kirk Cousins, Kellen Mond, Jake Browning, Nate Stanley, Danny Etling
NEW ENGLAND: Cam Newton, Mac Jones, Brian Hoyer, Jarrett Stidham
NEW ORLEANS: Jameis Winston, Taysom Hill, Ian Book, Trevor Siemian
NEW YORK GIANTS: Daniel Jones, Mike Glennon, Clayton Thorson
NEW YORK JETS: Zach Wilson, Mike White, James Morgan
PHILADELPHIA: Jalen Hurts, Joe Flacco, Nick Mullens
PITTSBURGH: Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph, Dwayne Haskins, Josh Dobbs
SAN FRANCISCO: Jimmy Garoppolo, Trey Lance, Josh Rosen, Nate Sudfeld
SEATTLE: Russell Wilson, Geno Smith, Sean Mannion, Alex McGough
TAMPA BAY: Tom Brady, Blaine Gabbert, Kyle Trask, Ryan Griffin
TENNESSEE: Ryan Tannehill, Logan Woodside, DeShone Kizer
WASHINGTON: Ryan Fitzpatrick, Taylor Heinicke, Kyle Allen, Steven Montez