If Vegas Predicts Your NFL Team For Six Wins, You May Be In Luck

Every year, we look back on preseason win totals produced by forecasters and betting markets and chuckle at some of the more egregious misses. Last season, the Chicago Bears were initially forecast for seven wins by Las Vegas, then traded for Khalil Mack and somehow won 12. The Green Bay Packers’s predicted win total was 10, but they melted down in spectacular fashion and ultimately ended up winning just six games.

We’ve already published our Elo projections, and we think they’re the best we’ve ever produced for the NFL, but there will still be lots of misses to grouse about come January. Forecasting a sport as luck-driven as the NFL is rough that way.

It raises the question: How good are betting markets at predicting team wins? To find out, I got my hands on a tranche of win prediction data stretching back to 1989, courtesy of Sports Odds History, and checked how well Vegas preseason win totals predict actual team wins. While Vegas overall does a good job identifying good and bad teams, it turns out that at the lower end of the range of projected wins, Vegas predictions don’t seem particularly well calibrated — through the confidence intervals at the lower end are large because of the small sample size, so the results aren’t statistically significant.

Projected win totals of six and fewer undersell teams’ prospects by about a win on average, with the exception of teams forecast for five wins.

Win totals don’t change as frequently as the moneyline odds, so we probably shouldn’t take win totals at face value — at least for teams with low projected wins. What does this mean for non-bettors? It should be decent news for the Cincinnati Bengals, New York Giants, Oakland Raiders and Washington Redskins — teams that both Elo and Vegas have pegged for six wins in 2019 — since we should be more bullish on their chances than we currently are.

Optimism for these probable cellar dwellers might feel forced. But we should fight the urge toward overconfidence, especially in the face of history. A few of these teams will end up surprising us — in a good way — at the end of the year for reasons inscrutable to us now.

Which NFL teams might beat expectations?

Average actual wins (1989-2018) by Vegas preseason expected wins, and the 2019 teams at each number of expected wins

wins
Expected Actual 2019 teams
11.0 10.2 New England
10.5 9.9 Kansas City, L.A. Rams, New Orleans
10.0 8.8 Philadelphia
9.5 9.0 Chicago, Green Bay, L.A. Chargers
9.0 8.5 Cleveland, Dallas, Indianapolis, Minnesota, Pittsburgh
8.5 8.9 Atlanta, Baltimore, Houston, Seattle
8.0 7.4 Jacksonville, San Francisco, Tennessee
7.5 7.6 Carolina
7.0 6.9 Buffalo, Denver, N.Y. Jets
6.5 6.4 Detroit, Tampa Bay
6.0 6.7 Cincinnati, N.Y. Giants, Oakland, Washington
5.0 4.6 Arizona, Miami

Sources: SportsOddsHistory.com, Greg Guglielmo, Pinnacle, Betfair, William Hill, Bet365, BetOnline

Well … maybe not the Bengals. Not only is Cincinnati saddled with an injured A.J. Green, who appears to be out until around Week 8, the Bengals have an offense that is bereft of top talent at nearly every position. Cincinnati replaced head coach Marvin Lewis after 16 seasons of on-again, off-again contention and turned instead to Zac Taylor, a coach best known for being friends with L.A. Rams wunderkind Sean McVay. The hope must be that Taylor can revitalize the career of quarterback Andy Dalton, who sports a middling career yards per attempt of 7.2 and is one of the few starting quarterbacks who Vegas believes wouldn’t move a line if he were to be replaced in the lineup. The defense doesn’t offer a compelling reason for optimism: The Bengals ranked 28th in defensive Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) last season. Perhaps we should view that as a reason to be bullish on their prospects in 2019 simply due to regression, since defensive performance year to year isn’t terribly stable. If that seems like a bridge too far, magic might be the answer: Taylor may give lip service to the notion that he isn’t trying to be like his mentor McVay, but McVay’s brand of QB sorcery seems like the best hope for the Bengals to crest seven wins this year.

The Giants are more interesting. After a promising preseason performance by first-round pick Daniel Jones, New York fans are clamoring for a change of the guard at quarterback. As big of a reach as many believed Jones to be, I still see him as a better use of first-round draft capital than “generational talent” Saquon Barkley. Hailed as a potential savior and the missing piece for Eli Manning’s final championship push, Barkley helped the Giants improve from a terrible three-win team in 2017 to a merely bad five-win unit in 2018.

The Giants were second-worst in the league on Expected Points Added per play on first-down play-action passes after adding Saquon to the backfield,1 and prospects for a bounceback in play-action efficiency seem bleak. After trading all-world wideout Odell Beckham Jr. to the Browns, the Giants lost free agent acquisition Golden Tate to a four-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs and their expected No. 3 wideout Corey Coleman to a season-ending ACL injury. Their best hope for a productive season may rest in ownership’s willingness to bench Manning for good this time.

The other team to somehow accumulate negative value on first-down play action was Oakland. In what seems to be a pattern for teams at the bottom of the win total forecast, Vegas sees Derek Carr as a quarterback worth just 1 point to the spread. The stats back up that view. Carr’s career yards per attempt is, at 6.7, below league average, and his best season as judged by QBR is an anemic 54.6. His weapons are improved from a year ago, but they are volatile. New Raiders wideout Antonio Brown sat out of practice because he wasn’t allowed to wear a helmet the NFL deems dangerous and is now likely to be suspended for some period of time, and Tyrell Williams is a boom or bust weapon who likes to be targeted deep — something Carr may be reluctant to do given his career average depth of target of just 7.7 yards. Meanwhile “Hard Knocks” captured head coach Jon Gruden disparaging “all the football stats and all the fantasy bullshit” in favor of running backs that will “BOOF” the opposing team in pass protection. Of all the six-win teams, Oakland may be the most unpredictable — and that unpredictability could manifest itself in good ways, as well as bad. Brown’s antics could end with a fashionable and safe new helmet, Carr might be coaxed into throwing the deep ball to a talented field stretcher, and Gruden might use rookie running back Josh Jacobs optimally, leading to wins we simply can’t foresee at this point.

The final team projected for six wins in 2019 is Washington, a team that somehow came to the determination that Mark Sanchez and Josh Johnson were better choices than Colin Kaepernick to take over for quarterback Alex Smith when his 2018 season — and perhaps his career — ended with a gruesome leg injury.

In the draft, Washington team president Bruce Allen added Ohio State QB Dwayne Haskins in the first round but then failed to surround him with receiving weapons. Jamison Crowder left via free agency, former first-round bust Josh Doctson was released at the end of the preseason and tight end Jordan Reed suffered another concussion heading into Week 1. Their current starting wide receivers are third-round pick Terry McLaurin — also from Ohio State — and Paul Richardson.

The outlook at running back is brighter with the return of Derrius Guice from an ACL tear that derailed his rookie season, but there is little evidence to suggest they will put him in advantageous spots to run the ball. With the ageless, tackle-breaking cyborg Adrian Peterson in 2018, Washington lined up against neutral or stacked boxes on first-and-10 or second and long 174 times, decided they liked the look and ran right into the scrum 72 percent of the time. But if Washington can flip the script on downs tailor-made for passing and eke out some yards where they should come easy, the duo of Guice and Peterson could be enough to protect current starter Case Keenum or rookie Haskins while he learns on the job — and possibly beat the team’s six-win projection.

Which Picks Did NFL Mock Drafts Get Most Wrong?

With the first round of the NFL draft complete, it appears that the wisdom of the crowds wasn’t particularly wise. The first three picks went relatively as expected, but the draft went off script with the Oakland Raiders’ pick at No. 4 overall: defensive end Clelin Ferrell of Clemson — a player who mock drafters believed would go somewhere in the middle of the first round. The Raiders’ pick was the first of many that defied expectations and left amateur GMs scratching their heads.

In the case of the New York Giants, some fans were banging their heads against the wall and collapsing in tears. New York, which passed on many quarterbacks a year ago to take running back Saquon Barkley, took Duke QB Daniel Jones at No. 6. Jones averaged a 20.4 pick in mock drafts taken in the last 30 days before the draft but came off the board an eyebrow-raising 14.4 picks earlier. The Giants seemed to be trying to get ahead of a quarterback run that didn’t exist: Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins lasted until Washington took him at No. 15 (6.2 picks later than expected), and no subsequent QBs were taken on Thursday night.

But the New York football Giants, armed with three picks in the first round alone, weren’t finished reaching. Using the 17th overall pick they acquired when they dealt Odell Beckham Jr. to the Browns, the Giants selected DT Dexter Lawrence of Clemson, 10.5 picks earlier than expected. The Giants were able to capture some surplus value with their third and final pick of the first round, however: Georgia CB Deandre Baker lasted 3.2 picks longer than expected and should help fill the void in the Giants secondary that was left when Eli Apple was traded to New Orleans last October for picks in the fourth and seventh rounds.

The NFL draft has been full of surprises

The first round of the 2019 NFL draft by each player’s pick and his average draft position (ADP) in mock drafts since March 26, 2019

team player Position pick ADP diff
Arizona Kyler Murray QB 1 1.8 -0.8
San Francisco Nick Bosa DE 2 2.1 -0.1
N.Y. Jets Quinnen Williams DT 3 3.7 -0.7
Oakland Clelin Ferrell DE 4 19.0 -15.0
Tampa Bay Devin White LB 5 7.0 -2.0
N.Y. Giants Daniel Jones QB 6 20.4 -14.4
Jacksonville Josh Allen LB 7 3.7 +3.3
Detroit TJ Hockenson TE 8 13.0 -5.0
Buffalo Ed Oliver DT 9 9.3 -0.3
Pittsburgh Devin Bush LB 10 15.5 -5.5
Cincinnati Jonah Williams OT 11 13.3 -2.3
Green Bay Rashan Gary DE 12 11.2 +0.8
Miami Christian Wilkins DT 13 19.0 -6.0
Atlanta Chris Lindstrom G 14 29.3 -15.3
Washington Dwayne Haskins QB 15 8.8 +6.2
Carolina Brian Burns LB 16 16.0 +0.0
N.Y. Giants Dexter Lawrence DT 17 27.5 -10.5
Minnesota Garrett Bradbury C 18 25.7 -7.7
Tennessee Jeffery Simmons DT 19 29.5 -10.5
Denver Noah Fant TE 20 22.9 -2.9
Green Bay Darnell Savage S 21 54.7 -33.7
Philadelphia Andre Dillard OT 22 17.6 +4.4
Houston Tytus Howard OT 23 60.7 -37.7
Oakland Josh Jacobs RB 24 27.2 -3.2
Baltimore Marquise Brown WR 25 25.4 -0.4
Washington Montez Sweat DE 26 10.6 +15.4
Oakland Johnathan Abram S 27 33.6 -6.6
L.A. Chargers Jerry Tillery DT 28 31.6 -3.6
Seattle L.J. Collier DE 29 62.9 -33.9
N.Y. Giants Deandre Baker CB 30 26.8 +3.2
Atlanta Kaleb McGary OT 31 43.3 -12.3
New England N’Keal Harry WR 32 29.3 +2.7

Sources: NFL, Ben Robinson

The selections of Lawrence and Ferrell were part of a larger trend: NFL GMs appear to have been particularly enamored with Clemson players. Three Tiger defensive standouts from the national championship team were selected in the first round, and they went 10.5 slots earlier on average than mock drafts predicted.

A dominant theme of the night, as expected, was NFL teams trying to find the next star pass rusher. But it was a pass rusher who had the biggest slide down the board among the first-round selections. Washington appears to have gotten a substantial value when it selected Mississippi State DE Montez Sweat 26th overall. In a draft class stacked with edge rushing talent, Sweat came off the board 15.4 picks later than expected.3

When we look at all 32 first-round picks, the correlation between what mock drafters expected and what actually occurred was about the same in 2019 as it was in 2018. In 2019, the average draft position in mock drafts explained 48 percent of variance, down slightly from 49 percent of variance explained in 2018. This year’s first round skewed toward reaches, with six teams trading up on draft day to get their guys. Overall, players came off the board six picks earlier than expected; last year, that difference was five spots.

As a result, Day 2 of the draft should be one in which savvy teams can find more value than they may have initially anticipated. That could even drive more pick swapping, as teams look to swoop in and grab coveted players like mock draft darling D.K. Metcalf on the cheap.


From ABC News:
Biggest picks from the 1st round of NFL Draft