Solid systems for betting rookie QBs

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Bettors are always extremely intrigued by the potential of rookie NFL quarterbacks since they have such a huge impact on the game. Their performance alone can dictate their teams’ success or lack thereof, making them integral parts of the handicapping recipe.

Over the years I have been able to center on a group of betting systems involving rookie QBs that can provide the foundation for even the most savvy bettors. It’s inarguable that the quarterback position is the most important in all of sports when it comes to wagering. Knowing how first-year starting QBs perform historically is of great advantage. Thankfully, some discernible patterns have developed in regard to rookie quarterback performance, and bettors should take notice and take advantage.

According to most experts, five quarterbacks who were drafted in the first half of the first round should get chances to start a good portion of their teams’ games this season — Trevor Lawrence of Jacksonville, Zach Wilson of the Jets, Justin Fields in Chicago, Mac Jones for New England and Trey Lance of San Francisco. Last year featured three rookie QBs who started nine or more games — Joe Burrow of Cincinnati, Tua Tagovailoa of Miami and Justin Herbert of the Chargers. Four started at least seven games in 2019, and six started eight or more in 2018. That 2018 figure was a 17-year high. 

If all five of this year’s rookies started the full 17-game schedule, that would represent 85 of the NFL’s 272 games, or more than 31%, further proof that it’s crucial to understand when these key players perform at their best and worst. 

It’s unlikely that all five will succeed, and their levels of achievement will vary greatly. Some might go on to become Super Bowl champions, others could settle in as solid starters, some may flounder and have short careers, while others might become career journeymen. But without foundation-based historical analysis, football bettors typically have their hands full in getting to know these new players at the sport’s most crucial position.

To get a jump on handicapping rookie quarterbacks, I’ve looked back at how rookies have fared in recent seasons. Each new player will have to be evaluated on his own strengths, weaknesses and team situation, but knowing how players in similar spots have done or how those setting the odds judge these guys can only help.

I’ve logged all rookie quarterbacks in recent seasons who have started at least seven games in their first seasons in the league. There have been 46 such players since 2004. I chose 2004 because that is the first season that a quarterback who is still active started as a rookie. As you can see from the chart, that player is Ben Roethlisberger, an eventual Super Bowl MVP winner. In addition to analyzing the player-by-player performance for all 46, I’ve uncovered some betting systems that have developed using these rookie quarterbacks. As a bettor, you should look to employ these systems when any member of the 2021 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 QBs do in fact help their teams improve initially. Only 14 of the 46 teams showed a worse winning percentage in the new quarterback’s games than in the previous season. Four maintained the same winning percentage, while the other 28 improved. The combined success rate of the 46 rookies was 255-349-2 SU (42.2%) and 307-284-15 ATS (51.9%). Since you can’t profit by simply backing these rookies and their teams blindly on moneylines or point spreads, that is where the systems come in, guiding you to the spots in which they are best backed or faded.

Betting Systems Involving Rookie Quarterbacks

Using the 46-player sample and their individual game logs, I came up with several betting systems, considering variables such as line ranges, home-road dichotomy, depth into the season and type of opponent faced. Let’s dig in.

Betting System 1: Rookie quarterbacks are trending downward

Though I indicated winning percentages of 42.2% straight up and 51.9% 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 are just 117-213-2 SU (35.5%) and 156-171-4 ATS (47.7%). In addition, only three of 27 rookie QBs in that span produced winning records, and only two made the playoffs, Dak Prescott with the Cowboys in 2016 and Lamar Jackson with the Ravens in 2018.

 

Analysis: In my opinion, many rookie quarterbacks coming out now are leaving college too early or being drafted into situations with little chance to succeed. Be careful with that logic this year, especially in the cases of Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson. Both were studs in college but face exorbitant expectations as they begin their pro careers. Their team situations are not what they were in college, when they were loaded with an overabundance of offensive weapons and physically dominant blocking. How will these guys respond when they have plenty of adversity to overcome? They haven’t seen much of that to this point. Guaranteed they will in the NFL.

Betting System 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: The pressure of the postseason 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 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 Jackson and the Ravens lost 23-17 to the Chargers. When looking at this year’s crop of rookies, the quarterbacks most likely to play in the postseason figure to be Fields, Jones and Lance.

Betting System 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 14-26-1 SU but 27-14 ATS (65.9%) in their last 41 games in Weeks 1-3. That includes 23-4 ATS (85.2%) as underdogs of 3 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. Later, when more of their play has been dissected fully, they have struggled. In addition, teams with rookie quarterbacks are often motivated by a cohesive sense of optimism and are grateful to flush the previous season.

Betting System 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 85-160 SU and 107-132-6 ATS (44.8%).

Analysis: Most coordinators are slow to trust their rookie quarterbacks in expanding their offenses, making it much easier on opposing teams to study and prepare. The QBs might also hit the “rookie wall” after a few months of being in the league. However, the three regular-rookie starters of 2020 combined to go 14-10-1 ATS on this angle.

Betting System 5: Rookie quarterbacks have struggled on the road

 

The results of rookie quarterbacks on the road lately are startling. Since the beginning of the 2013 season, they have combined for a record of 41-120-1 SU and 73-84-5 ATS (46.5%). In road games from Weeks 10-17, they are just 20-67 SU and 33-52-2 ATS (39.3%).

Analysis: This system is all about the increasing pressure on quarterbacks, and typically only the most seasoned pros can thrive in late-season road contests. Rookie quarterbacks are a definite play-against in such games. The three qualifiers last year went 2-7 ATS in Weeks 10-17 on the road.

 

Betting System 6: Don’t fall for the big underdog point spreads with rookie quarterbacks

 

Since 2012, rookie starting quarterbacks facing underdog lines of 7 points or more have won just 17 games, going 17-98 SU and 49-59-7 ATS (45.4%).

Analysis: As much as bettors like to think a large point spread can provide the equalizer and act as insurance for betting a rookie quarterback, it simply isn’t the case. As underdogs, these quarterbacks (and teams) are simply overwhelmed. These teams are scoring just 17.3 PPG in those contests, and backing teams with production that low is just not a sound strategy. Remember, only the most woeful offenses are assigned large underdog lines like that.

 

Betting System 7: Rookie quarterbacks have fared well in larger favorite roles

 

Since 2011, rookie starting quarterbacks are 42-15 SU and 31-24-1 ATS (56.4%) 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. In System 6, I detailed the reasons 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 2020, Justin Herbert did go 3-1 SU and 2-2 ATS for the Chargers in the role of a 3.5-point favorite or greater.

Betting System 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 are a brutal 8-152 SU and 24-133-3 ATS (15.3%), as opposed to 184-153-2 SU and 217-110-12 ATS (66.4%) 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 No. 8. Don’t force the issue if rookie quarterbacks are facing stout defenses, as it rarely pays off. 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 several time-tested models. These are a great place to start.

Betting System 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 clear for rookie starting quarterbacks. Since the start of the 2013 season, they are 35-84 SU and 52-66-1 ATS (44.1%) against divisional foes. As home divisional dogs of 4.5 points or more, rookie QBs are just 3-20 SU and 7-15-1 ATS (31.8%) in their last 23 games.

Analysis: Familiarity with an opponent (and quarterback) 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.

Betting System 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, with totals of 47 or more, the Under is on a 24-12 (66.7%) 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.

Checking schedules of 2021 potential rookie starting quarterbacks

Trevor Lawrence (Jacksonville)

Week, Opponent, Projected Line

Week 1: at Houston (-0.5)

Week 2: Denver (-0.5)

Week 3: Arizona (+ 1.5)

Week 4: at Cincinnati (+ 1)

Week 5: Tennessee (+ 1.5)

Week 6: vs. Miami (+ 2.5)

Week 8: at Seattle (+ 7.5)

Week 9: Buffalo (+ 6.5)

Week 10: at Indianapolis (+ 8.5)

Week 11: San Francisco (+ 4.5)

Week 12: Atlanta (+ 0)

Week 13: at Los Angeles Rams (+ 9)

Week 14: at Tennessee (+ 6.5)

Week 15: Houston (-5.5)

Week 16: at New York Jets (+ 1)

Week 17: at New England (+ 5.5)

Week 18: Indianapolis (+ 3)

For as much as new coach Urban Meyer has insisted he has not decided on the winner of the battle between Lawrence and incumbent Gardner Minshew, Lawrence is one of the most intriguing prospects in many years. Blessed with a strong arm, physical size, athleticism, maturity and championship pedigree, among other superlatives, Lawrence figures to be a starter and building block for the Jaguars from day one. Jacksonville has some winnable games right out of the gate, and the new quarterback’s play will have a huge hand in whether the team rebounds immediately from last year’s 1-15 finish. In terms of our systems, the Week 4-15 games, in which rookies have struggled, figure to be the toughest contests for Meyer and Lawrence. For a few road games in that stretch, you’ll probably want to fade the Jaguars or avoid them.

Zach Wilson (New York Jets)

Week, Opponent, Projected Line

Week 1: at Carolina (+ 4.5)

Week 2: New England (+ 3)

Week 3: at Denver (+ 6.5)

Week 4: Tennessee (+ 3)

Week 5: vs. Atlanta (+ 3.5)

Week 7: at New England (+ 6.5)

Week 8: Cincinnati (-2)

Week 9: at Indianapolis (+ 9.5)

Week 10: Buffalo (+ 8)

Week 11: Miami (+ 1.5)

Week 12: at Houston (+ 0.5)

Week 13: Philadelphia (+ 0)

Week 14: New Orleans (+ 5.5)

Week 15: at Miami (+ 6)

Week 16: Jacksonville (-1)

Week 17: Tampa Bay (+ 8.5)

Week 18: at Buffalo (+ 12.5)

New coach Robert Saleh has been effusive in his praise of Wilson, leaving fans eager for the coming season. It’s been pretty dismal for football lately around New York, and Saleh expects to see Wilson lead the Jets out of the funk. Oddsmakers don’t seem to agree, and my power ratings concur, as my projected schedule shows New York being favored in only one game. But we’ve seen in System No. 3 that rookie QBs are great bets in the early going, especially when underdogs of + 3 or more in the first three weeks. Saleh and Wilson figure to be in that situation in each of the first three games. The Jets also are expected to be huge dogs at Buffalo in the season finale. Don’t you dare bet on them in that one after all we’ve seen.

Justin Fields (Chicago)

Week, Opponent, Projected Line

Week 1: at Los Angeles Rams (+ 7)

Week 2: Cincinnati (-5.5)

Week 3: at Cleveland (+ 8)

Week 4: Detroit (-6)

Week 5: at Las Vegas (+ 1.5)

Week 6: Green Bay (+ 3.5)

Week 7: at Tampa Bay (+ 10)

Week 8: San Francisco (+ 2.5)

Week 9: at Pittsburgh (+ 4.5)

Week 11: Baltimore (+ 4.5)

Week 12: at Detroit (-2)

Week 13: Arizona (-0.5)

Week 14: at Green Bay (+ 8.5)

Week 15: Minnesota (-1)

Week 16: at Seattle (+ 5.5)

Week 17: New York Giants (-3.5)

Week 18: at Minnesota (+ 3.5)

Despite Fields’ success in the first preseason game and the amount the Bears gave up to get in position to draft him, it appears that Andy Dalton is on track to be the Week 1 starter for coach Matt Nagy. If Fields does get the nod at some point in the season, pay attention to the road contests from Week 7 and beyond, as the five in that stretch would seem to lay out quite tough on paper. The Bears project as underdogs of 3.5 points or more in all five. In Weeks 1-3, the rookie quarterbacks make for strong plays in that scenario. Later on, not so much.

Mac Jones (New England)

Week, Opponent, Projected Line

Week 1: Miami (-3)

Week 2: at New York Jets (-3)

Week 3: New Orleans (+ 1)

Week 4: Tampa Bay (+ 4)

Week 5: at Houston (-4.5)

Week 6: Dallas (-1.5)

Week 7: New York Jets (-6.5)

Week 8: at Los Angeles Chargers (+ 1)

Week 9: at Carolina (-0.5)

Week 10: Cleveland (+ 2)

Week 11: at Atlanta (+ 1.5)

Week 12: Tennessee (-1.5)

Week 13: at Buffalo (+ 7.5)

Week 15: at Indianapolis (+ 4.5)

Week 16: Buffalo (+ 3.5)

Week 17: Jacksonville (-5.5)

Week 18: at Miami (+ 1.5)

It seems as if coach Bill Belichick has already made the commitment to veteran Cam Newton as the opening-day starter. This will likely infuriate New England fans, who endured an ugly offensive season in 2020 with Newton under center. The passing game was virtually nonexistent. Jones was a prolific passer and won a national title in his only season as the Alabama quarterback and seems to have the poise, arm and decision-making ability it would take to succeed in the NFL. The Patriots figure to be in a ton of competitive games, with nine contests showing point spreads in the + 3 to -3 range. This could be a reason Belichick seems to be siding with experience, as he’s relying on his defense to do the heavy lifting and perhaps looking to avoid putting additional pressure on that unit with rookie mistakes.

Trey Lance (San Francisco)

Week, Opponent, Projected Line

Week 1: at Detroit (-6.5)

Week 2: at Philadelphia (-3.5)

Week 3: Green Bay (-1.5)

Week 4: Seattle (-4)

Week 5: at Arizona (-0.5)

Week 7: Indianapolis (-4)

Week 8: at Chicago (-2.5)

Week 9: Arizona (-5.5)

Week 10: Los Angeles Ram (-1.5)

Week 11: at Jacksonville (-4.5)

Week 12: Minnesota (-6)

Week 13: at Seattle (+ 1)

Week 14: at Cincinnati (-5.5)

Week 15: Atlanta (-7)

Week 16: at Tennessee (-0.5)

Week 17: Houston (-12.5)

Week 18: at Los Angeles Rams (+ 2)

If any of the five potential star rookie quarterbacks would be considered the wild card, it would have to be Lance. In his time at North Dakota State, he demonstrated huge playmaking ability with his arm and legs. His first preseason contest was scintillating yet concerning, and that type of inconsistency has left coach Kyle Shanahan adamant about Jimmy Garoppolo as the best option to start the season. I would guess that if Lance starts, it wouldn’t be until at least after the two huge home games against Green Bay and Seattle in Weeks 3 and 4. That already puts Lance at a disadvantage in terms of recent rookie history of covering points spread better in the early weeks. Assuming the San Francisco defense picks up where it was in 2019 before the horrible injury woes last year, the pressure on Lance won’t be nearly as high as it will be for Lawrence and Wilson.

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