Free Picks: 2014 NFL Futures

Free Picks: 2014 NFL Futures

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New Orleans Saints

I’m just going to go ahead and come out and say this, and it is a fairly popular opinion: The Saints are going to be good this year. Very good. With Drew Brees returning at quarterback and Jimmy Graham catching passes, this team is an offensive juggernaut. They enjoy one of the top two (along with Seattle) home field advantages in the league. The Saints are experienced, and have added several big names including All-Pro safety Jairus Byrd from the Buffalo Bills. It won’t be hard to convince anyone to play these futures, but I’ll lay out the case anyway:

1. Drew Brees. Brees has been a model of consistency since moving from San Diego to New Orleans, posting over 4,350 passing yards in each of his eight seasons with the Saints, including 5,000+ in the last three years. He routinely finishes at or near the top of the league in every major statistical category for quarterbacks, and has only improved with age as the rules have changed to benefit signal-callers across the league.

2. Home-field advantage. The rabid nature of the Saints fan-base and the tailoring of their roster to fit their indoor arena creates a unique situation where New Orleans is nearly indomitable when playing at home. For the Saints to win less than 6 games at home is a nearly impossible thought to even fathom, no matter the opponents. When you think of the fact that their first two home opponents are Minnesota and Tampa Bay… it becomes virtually certain.

3. The schedule. While the Saints do face a tough slate over October and November, the initial opening stretch sees them play Atlanta, Cleveland, Minnesota, Dallas, and Tampa Bay in weeks 1-5, none of whom had a winning record in 2013 and which could easily be translated into a 4-1 or even 5-0 opening mark. I feel that this is a lead that will be insurmountable for the rest of the NFC South.

This could be a snowball rolling downhill for New Orleans if they get off to a fast start, and I could easily see 11 or 12 wins and a first round bye.

PLAYS:

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS OVER 9.5 WINS (-190)
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS WIN NFC SOUTH (-110)
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS MAKE PLAYOFFS (-200)
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS WIN NFC (+750)

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Houston Texans

To put it lightly, the Texans did not have a very good season in 2013. They suffered one of the worst losing streaks of all time in the NFL, biting the dust in each of their final 14 contests. Frankly, they needed a pair of miracles to win their first two games and could have easily gone 0-16. However, there are plenty of reasons to be bullish on Houston’s prospects for 2014.

1. The schedule. Houston’s schedule for the upcoming season currently ranks as the 3rd-easiest in the entire league, ranking only ahead of division foes Tennessee and Indianapolis. However, using FiveThirtyEight’s regressive predictions, the Texans actually clock in with the easiest schedule in the entire league, ahead of (or behind) the Colts and Titans.

2. The roster. Houston still retains virtually all of the key playmakers from their playoff appearances in 2011 and 2012, aside from quarterback Matt Schaub. The most puzzling meltdown of 2013 happened behind center for the Texans, where Schaub was seemingly being intercepted for touchdowns at the will of the defense. He has been replaced by Ryan Fitzpatrick, who isn’t exactly known for being risk-averse himself. However, Fitzpatrick has proven himself to be a competent NFL QB who is capable of putting up big statistical numbers despite a mediocre supporting cast in Buffalo. He won’t have those same issues in Houston, where Andre Johnson, DeAndre Hopkins, Duane Brown, and Arian Foster currently hold court on the offensive side of the ball. Superstars J.J. Watt and Johnathan Joseph will be joined by much-hyped rookie Jadeveon Clowney on defense. Simply put, this is not a roster that represents a team coming off a 2-14 campaign.

3. Coaching. The constant flux surrounding former Texans coach Gary Kubiak has now been replaced by a semblance of stability in the form of Bill O’Brien, former Patriots offensive coordinator and Penn State head coach. Kubiak was given ample time to prove his mettle with great rosters year after year in Houston, but was never able to advance to a conference championship game. O’Brien represents the turning of a new leaf for the franchise, where simply making the playoffs will not be good enough. The culture of the team has been altered with this changing of the guard.

Houston has the schedule and the roster to make a playoff run this season, which makes it very easy to fire on a few valuable futures.

PLAYS:

HOUSTON TEXANS OVER 7.5 WINS (-150)
HOUSTON TEXANS WIN AFC SOUTH (+260)
HOUSTON TEXANS MAKE PLAYOFFS (+200)

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SPORTS WAGERS

Indianapolis Under 9½ -129

The sabermetrics revolution in baseball has been around long enough to warrant a bestselling book and a Hollywood film that had several Oscar nominations. Advanced statistics in football, however, has not even come close to a Moneyball moment. Sabermetrics looks under the hood of all stats to get a better barometer of what we’re dealing with and we mention this because you will see us using sabermetrics in our analysis of this wager and throughout the year. That brings us to Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA), a sabermetric that you will hear about much more in the coming months.

DVOA EXPLAINED

One running back runs for three yards. Another running back runs for three yards. Which is the better run? This sounds like a stupid question, but it isn’t. Several factors can differentiate one three-yard run from another. What is the down and distance? Is it third-and-2 or second-and-15? Where on the field is the ball? Does the player get only three yards because he hits the goal line and scores? Is the player’s team up by two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, and thus running out the clock; or down by two touchdowns, and thus facing a defense that is playing purely against the pass? Is the running back playing against the porous defense of the Raiders, or the stalwart defense of the Seahawks? Conventional NFL statistics value plays based solely on their net yardage. The NFL determines the best players by adding up all their yards no matter what situations they came in or how many plays it took to get them. Now, why would they do that? Football has one objective -- to get to the end zone -- and two ways to achieve that -- by gaining yards and achieving first downs. These two goals need to be balanced to determine a player’s value or a team’s performance. All the yards in the world won’t help a team win if they all come in six-yard chunks on third-and-10. Doing a better job of distributing credit for scoring points and winning games is the goal of DVOA, or Defense-adjusted Value Over Average. DVOA breaks down every single play of the NFL season, assigning each play a value based on both total yards and yards towards a first down, based on work done by Pete Palmer, Bob Carroll, and John Thorn in their seminal book, The Hidden Game of Football. On first down, a play is considered a success if it gains 45 percent of needed yards; on second down, a play needs to gain 60 percent of needed yards; on third or fourth down, only gaining a new first down is considered success. We’ll get back to DVOA later on in this write-up regarding the Colts and Andrew Luck.

When betting over/under win totals for the season we always look to go under because the win totals do not take into account the inevitable injuries that occur every week. Going over the number is actually a huge risk because any significant player or QB can be lost early in the season for several games or an entire year. It happens every week. That said, without a single injury these Colts will be hard pressed to go over 9½ wins. The reason that number is so high is twofold. First, the Colts have what is perceived as a franchise QB in Andrew Luck. Secondly, they won the division a year ago and therefore their stock is high and so is the htpe around them. Let us remind you that the Houston Texans and Washington Redskins both won their respective divisions in 2012. Last year, they combined to go 5-27. Teams turn over fast in the NFL, meaning that some of last year’s division winners could sink fast and we see the Colts as a team with a strong possibility of falling off miserably.

The Colts problems run deep. Indy has done a terrible job of putting other good young players around Andrew Luck and an even worse job of putting good young players on the defense that is supposed to keep opponents from outscoring Luck. This is a big part of why Luck has to keep coming back from such large deficits. But although Luck might truly be better than other quarterbacks when it comes to performing when down in the fourth quarter, there's no way he can maintain his current phenomenal numbers in late and close situations. Meanwhile, the team is heavily counting on two aging veterans. Reggie Wayne, who is coming off an ACL tear, and Robert Mathis, whose 2013 numbers stand out like a sore thumb when you look at his career progression. Oh, and he'll miss the first four games of the season with a suspension. Seriously, what is so appealing about this group? The 2010 through 2013 drafts have provided little in the way of foundational pieces. Luck, T.Y. Hilton and Dwayne Allen -- who missed almost the entire 2013 season because of surgery on his hip -- are the only clearly valuable young players on the Colts' roster. Fleener has been categorically pedestrian. Anthony Castonzo is an adequate-at-best left tackle. Vick Ballard ruptured his Achilles tendon and will miss a second straight season. LaVon Brazill violated substance abuse protocol, was suspended for a year and then released. The only instant contributor from the 2013 draft was guard Hugh Thornton, who managed to lead all left guards in blown blocks last season. Defensive end Bjoern Werner still has potential, but he disappointed as a rookie. The Colts are brutal defensively and their offensive line may be the league’s worse. Andrew Luck without protection got very lucky last year but this year things figure to even out.

Luck finished ninth in total QB rating in 2013, and 11th in 2012. In the DVOA ratings Luck finished 19th and 16th among all qualifying quarterbacks during the past two seasons. Luck's conventional statistics add even more fuel to the fire. Luck's completion percentage was 54.9 percent in his rookie year, and it climbed to just 60.9 percent last season. You know, about the same as Chad Henne. But the tricky thing about statistics is that they are heavily dependent on context. Football statistics rely on the collective efforts of 11 players on each side of the ball. Andrew Luck's statistics may have "Andrew Luck" branded on them, but they're really something more like "Andrew Luck, throwing to T.Y. Hilton, Coby Fleener and fodder, selling the play-fake to a back who couldn't average three yards per carry in Indy, behind an offensive line that led the NFL in quarterback knockdowns allowed for the second straight season. Luck's so-so advanced statistics are generated not by Andrew Luck, but from the total output of the Indianapolis Colts. Unfortunately for Luck, the Colts may have the weakest non-quarterback roster in the NFL right now.

Yeah, the Colts play in a weak division and they play the Jags twice but all the AFC South teams (Houston, Tennessee and Jacksonville) figure to be better this year and the Colts schedule is not a favorable one. They open the season in Denver and play Philadelphia in Week 2 on Monday Night Football. That’s two prime time games to open the year and they could easily be 0-2. They also play prime time games in Weeks 6, 9 and 11 at Houston, at New York Giants and home versus New England. That’s almost one third of their schedule in prime time. What follows prime time games are letdowns so victories in the subsequent weeks are always tough to come by, regardless of the competition. The Colts also have games in Dallas and Pittsburgh among others. The best teams in the NFL win 10, 11 or 12 games and the Colts will need 10 victories to beat us and frankly, we don’t see them being anything more than a .500 club and that’s if everything goes perfect.

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SPORTS WAGERS

Carolina Under 8½ -140

We never use the word “lock” or “guarantee” but in all of the years we’ve been doing this, this one looks as strong as or stronger than any of them. This number is so high because the Panthers won the division last year but this is not the same team. Not even close. Carolina's likelihood of a collapse starts with one of the strongest elements of forecasting in the NFL: Offense is more consistent from year to year than defense. That means a defense-first team such as Carolina is going to have a harder time duplicating success than an offense-first team such as Denver. Inconsistency is a bigger issue for the Carolina defense because three-fourths of its starting secondary from 2013 is gone in free agency. There's even more turnover on offense, and it's not exactly a good thing. Left tackle Jordan Gross retired with no clear replacement on the roster. The team turned over almost its entire wide receiver corps and is now depending on a 32-year-old vet coming off a fluke year (Jerricho Cotchery), a rookie who was widely regarded as a talented longer-term project (Kelvin Benjamin) and a serviceable slot receiver who would never scare anyone on the outside (Jason Avant).

Retirement ravaged the Panthers’ o-line this offseason; Byron Bell and Nate Chandler, a pair of athletic tackles, are being banked on to protect Cam Newton—a significantly iffier proposition than looking to a solid interior to once again pave the way for Carolina’s ground game. Cam Newton is an ordinary quarterback with declining yardage totals each season since his rookie debut. And he’s coming off ankle surgery. It barely matters that his already wafer-thin receiving corps was depleted even further in the offseason. After throwing for 374 yards or better in three of his first four NFL games, Newton has just four 300-yard games since—including one in his past 22 outings and the cast around him is worse now than it’s ever been. Carolina’s rushing attack not only gets worse each year, but it gets more split up as well. It is going on five years since any back ran more than 221 times in a season for Carolina. When DeAngelo Williams ended with 842 rush yards last year, it was the highest since 2008 for any running back there. With a weaker offensive line and weaker receiving corps to keep the opposing defenses honest expect less, not more out of this running game. To top it all off, the Panthers rank eighth in projected schedule strength because of their first place finish from a year ago, the toughest schedule of any of last year's division champions.

The Panthers open the year on the road against a much-improved Buccaneers squad followed by a home game against the Lions. Its next two games are against the Steelers at home and against the Ravens on the road. Carolina could open the year 0-4, 1-3 or 2-2 but then things get really tough. The Panthers next four games will be at home against Chicago followed by games at Cinci and Green Bay followed by a home game against the Seahawks. They’ll be thrilled to get one win in those four but an 0-4 stretch is a distinct possibility. Does it get easier after that? Actually, no it does not. After facing Seattle in Week 8, Carolina plays New Orleans, Philadelphia and Atlanta. There is not an easy game or a gimme in their first 11 weeks and by that time, the Panthers could be 3-8, 2-9 or even 1-10 and it would not be a surprise. Add the physical toll (and mental toll of losing) of playing all those playoff bound teams and it’s not going to matter in the final five weeks what they do. Incidentally, the back-to-back games in Weeks 9 and 10 against New Orleans and Philly respectively are prime time games, one on Thursday and the other on Monday Night Football in Philadelphia. The Panthers close out their final five games In Minnesota, in New Orleans, at home to Tampa and Cleveland and finally at Atlanta to close out the regular season. Do you see 9 wins? We don’t see three wins and that’s with Cam Newton not getting injured. If you make one wager this season on total wins for the season, this is the one you should choose because the Panthers won’t come close to this number.

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Maddux Sports

20* Carolina Under 8½

20* Kansas City Under 8½

10* Seattle Under 11

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Re: Free Picks: 2014 NFL Futures

Marc Lawrence

Indianapolis Under 9½

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