Picking division winners is a nice way to profit off a futures ticket. Here's a look at three NFL sleepers which offer valuable odds to win their division.
Betting the Indianapolis Colts to win the AFC South makes plenty of sense barring an Ace Ventura-like crisis with Andrew Luck, but at -425, you’re not going to derive any value from that bet. And while it’s difficult to imagine any of the other teams in Indy’s division surpassing the Colts, almost every other NFL division offers a juicier value.
Last season, four of the eight divisions saw new division winners from 2013. In fact, since the NFL adopted the current divisional alignment in 2002, there have been at least four new division winners every single season. And yet, the current NFL odds favor six of the eight reigning division champs to repeat. History strongly suggests that this chalk won’t hold. To exploit this, let's take a look at these teams which offer the best value based on current lines from 5Dimes.
San Diego Chargers (+475):
The Denver Broncos have won the AFC West in each of Peyton Manning’s three seasons with the team and sit at -185 to win their fourth straight division crown. However, even if you don’t buy into the Peyton-on-the-decline narrative, the Broncos experienced significant coaching and personnel turnover that could lead to some hiccups. The marriage between Gary Kubiak’s under-center passing game and Manning’s limited mobility is an uncertain one. Playing behind an offensive line with four new starters, including a potential tackle tandem of Ty Sambrailo and Michael Schofield with 0 combined career snaps, might only exacerbate the situation.
If the favorites do stumble, the Chargers look like a slightly better value than the Kansas City Chiefs at +435.
Though Antonio Gates will be gone for the first four games, San Diego made significant upgrades to a running game that finished 31st in yards per attempt last season. Drafting Melvin Gordon adds an infusion of speed to a running back corps that was alternately injured and plodding last year, while left guard Orlando Franklin, coincidentally signed away from the division rival Broncos, gooses a rather weak interior offensive line.
The biggest problem with San Diego lies along its defensive front seven, which finished 29th in both yards per rush attempt allowed and sack percentage. While the Chargers did draft thumping middle linebacker Denzel Perryman in the second round, Perryman doesn’t do much for a unit that was lacking in sideline-to-sideline speed. San Diego has shown faith in a young core, locking up Corey Liuget and Donald Butler to long-term extensions, but the defense badly needs edge-rushers Melvin Ingram and Jerry Attaochu to stay healthy after injury-riddled 2014 campaigns.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (+775):
The NFC South has long held a reputation for year-to-year fickleness. Prior to the Carolina Panthers repeating as division champs last year, the South had seen a new division winner every single season since its inception in 2002. Moreover, there have been six instances of the previous season’s last-place finisher coming back to win the division the next season.
The Bucs might not seem like a particularly likely candidate to become the seventh member of that club, but peripheral numbers suggest Tampa Bay was rather unlucky to finish with its wretched 2-14 record. Point differential has statistically shown to be a better predictor of future success than simple win-loss record, and based on their point differential from last year, Tampa had a win expectancy of 4.5 wins. That 2.5 win differential between their actual and expected record was the largest in the league, hinting at some positive regression to the mean in store. And lest you remain skeptical, the Houston Texans were in an almost identical spot at this time last year.
The 2013 Texans, having posted a league-worst 2-14 record, actually finished with a win expectancy of 4.2 wins. Behind better luck and stabilized quarterback play, the 2014 Texans squad rebounded to post a 9-7 season that had them one game out of the playoffs.
Tampa figures to experience significantly better luck in one-possession games, where it finished 1-9 in 2014, and Jameis Winston is likely to represent an upgrade over the abysmal Josh McCown-Mike Glennon platoon from last season.
Winston will have his share of issues like every rookie quarterback, but he has an extremely low bar to clear from what McCown and Glennon provided. The Bucs finished as a bottom-five team in virtually every passing stat last season, including yards per attempt, net yards per attempt and completion percentage. Even if Winston posts a season slightly below the league average, much like what rookies Teddy Bridgewater and Derek Carr turned in last year, that might boost Tampa into contention within the woeful South.
Philadelphia Eagles (+175):
The Eagles face only slightly longer odds than the Dallas Cowboys (+135) from 5Dimes despite an offseason full of personnel turnover. But the NFC East has not seen a repeat division winner in 10 seasons, so perhaps Philly stands to benefit from a little history.
Much of the offseason attention has focused on the Eagles’ offensive skill position turnover, but a more underrated change occurred on defense. Philadelphia turned over three-quarters of its starting secondary and added significantly more size in the form of Byron Maxwell, Eric Rowe and Walter Thurmond (who will transition to safety and play next to Malcolm Jenkins). The Eagles tend to play lots of single-high safety and pressure schemes, which forces the cornerbacks to hold up in man coverage.
Last year’s corners clearly cracked under that burden, as Philadelphia finished 31st in yards per completion. This year’s bigger corners, coupled with rangy middle linebackers Mychal Kendricks and Kiko Alonso, should give the Eagles much more freedom to execute Bill Davis’ aggressive defensive schemes.
The biggest offensive question might actually be health-related. In Sam Bradford, DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews, none of Philadelphia’s three biggest offensive acquisitions have ever played consecutive 16-game seasons. Chip Kelly’s fabled sports science injury prevention techniques have kept the Eagles among the healthiest teams during his two seasons at the helm, but that’s too small of a sample to know whether or not Kelly’s methods actually give Philly an advantage. If this year’s offense stays healthy in spite of some spotty history, that might give the Eagles the edge they need to reclaim the East from the Cowboys.