Baseball has begun, and the NBA is in the dog days of a long but condensed regular season. Which leads me to one question: Are you ready for some football? The draft is fast approaching, so now is the time to start studying for the exam that begins this September with a new 17-game regular season. The Buccaneers won the Super Bowl after being + 6000 in March 2020. Washington won the NFC East as a + 2000 dog, Aaron Rodgers was the NFL’s most valuable player at + 2500 preseason odds and Kevin Stefanski helped cash + 1800 odds for coach of the year bettors. You get the point: Hidden gems are there to be found. Now we just have to search for them. Let’s find some value plays for a football season that will be here before you know it.
Minnesota Vikings (+ 3000) to win NFC championship
Once it became clear that full stadiums would be banned last year, I immediately downgraded the Vikings. They have one of the more raucous home crowds in the league and have a distinct edge when that dome is full. That was not their only disadvantage from last year’s unusual circumstances. The Vikings had a draft class that included 15 picks upon whom they were relying heavily. With an atypical offseason and no preseason, those rookies did not get the standard development throughout the spring and summer. They started two rookie cornerbacks and were ravaged by injuries on defense. Anthony Barr missed most of the season, Danielle Hunter missed all of it, and Erik Kendricks missed the last four games, while Michael Pierce opted out of the season altogether. Mike Zimmer is neck and neck with Bill Belichick for the greatest ATS coaching record in history and has formed an interesting pattern since taking over as Vikings coach in 2014.
Zimmer missed the playoffs that season followed by 11 wins and a division title in ’15. After missing the playoffs in ’16, the Vikings went 13-3 and made the NFC title game in ’17. In 2018, you guessed it, they did not make the playoffs, followed by a 10-win season and a playoff win in ’19. Missing the playoffs again in ’20 was just following the script, I suppose. They will get back a ton of talent on defense as well as some improvement from younger players who now have a year-plus of seasoning. Dalvin Cook, Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson form an offensive trio about as good as any in the league. The Vikings’ biggest NFC North competitor is a Packers team that has a quarterback who will be 38 by season’s end and might have missed its window after two straight NFC title game losses. The Vikings are live in the division and could compete for the only bye in the wide-open NFC if things break right. Look for the Vikings to follow the pattern and get back to their winning ways in odd years.
Brandon Staley to win coach of the year (+ 2000)
Last year I gave out Kevin Stefanski to win this award at similar odds (you’re welcome). I thought the new kid in town who turned around the bad-luck franchise and got them into the playoffs was an angle the media would eat up, since narrative is a major factor in who wins these awards. Stefanski is young and analytically inclined, which is popular with the media. And all these traits apply to new Chargers coach Brandon Staley, or even Sean McVay, who won the award in ’17 after turning around the other team in Los Angeles. That is really what this award is — coach of the team with the best turnaround. Very seldom does a coach coming off a playoff appearance win this award. Bill Belichick has won this award only three times, and do we really think there have been better coaches than Belichick all but three times in the last two decades?
This award is about turnarounds and narrative, and Staley is set up for both. He has an outstanding young quarterback who shattered a bunch of rookie records last year, and he takes over a team that has been snakebitten in close games, suffering 16 one-score losses in the last two seasons. If the Chargers can reverse their luck in close losses, they will be headed for a double-digit-win season and a playoff berth, and Staley will be lauded as the catalyst for their improvement. The Chargers are a great bet to improve drastically, and that will give yet another first-year coach a chance to win this award, following in the footsteps of Stefanski and McVay.
New England Patriots (+ 400) to win AFC East
Buy low on Belichick and the Patriots? Yes, please. Speaking of buying, the Patriots uncharacteristically went shopping last month, adding two productive tight ends in Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith to join wide receiver Nelson Agholor to kick-start an offense that was impotent for long stretches last year. Cam Newton looked like the steal of the offseason in September but played poorly the rest of the year. Newton will be back, and I’m sure he will have a veteran or a highly drafted rookie to compete with for the job. The Patriots will almost certainly be improved in 2021. The question is whether they can be better than the Bills.
Josh Allen and his crew were impressive last year, but we’ve seen plenty of instances in which growth is not linear in the NFL. The ’19 Ravens had the best record in football with a young quarterback in Lamar Jackson. The ’20 Ravens needed to rally to win four straight in December just to qualify for the playoffs. A first-place schedule, regression or an injury that sidelines Allen for even a few weeks could knock the Bills down a few pegs and bring an improved Patriots squad into the mix. The Jets are in the midst of a full rebuild, and the Dolphins are good but have plenty of questions to answer at quarterback. At this number, this is worth a shot. In Bill we trust.