Cleveland Browns 2019: Cautious Optimism

Cleveland Browns 2019: Cautious Optimism
Cleveland Browns 2019: Cautious Optimism

Context Matters

What happened in 2017 was HILARIOUS. The Cleveland Browns won zero games but should have won at least three. Last year’s Hard Knocks season indicated that the clown’s show with former head coach Hue Jackson would continue. After some close games, general manager John Dorsey let Hue go with a record of 2-6-1. Gregg Williams took over from Hue, Freddie Kitchens took over offensive play-calling duties from Todd Haley. The latter showed some unfortunate play-calling tendencies. Cleveland went 5-3 over the past seven games along with excellent offensive output.

The 5-3 run to end the season created an intensive hype, with Cleveland dropping from 50-1 odds to as low as 14-1 to win the Super Bowl. But let me explain why we should cautiously look at their 2018 performance. First of all, the Browns were expected to win a lot more games than they did in 2017.  With Hue, they went 2-3 in close games and followed with a 3-1 record during the Gregg Williams tenure.

From week eight onwards, the Browns went 0-5 against playoff teams. They lost by an average of 9.8 points per game – no matter who the coach was. They were fortunate to play the Bengals twice after Cincy was derailed by injuries (and after they signed Hue), same goes for the Falcons. Against Carolina and Denver, the Browns were behind on the scoreboard, going into the fourth quarter. Context matters.

Mr. Pythagorean is in the House

The Browns went 7-8-1 and had a Pythagorean win expectation of 7.1 – right on the money. However, during their final 5-3 stretch, their Pythagorean expectation was only 4.2 victories. They overperformed in wins, as indicated by their close game record. They underperformed under Hue but overperformed under Gregg Williams and Freddie Kitchens. Hypothetically speaking: if Cleveland won one or two close games more under Hue, they would have been overperformers on the full season. In contrast, the Baltimore Ravens had a Pythagorean win expectation of 5.5 in one fewer game with Lamar Jackson starting.

On the season, the Cleveland Browns went 5-4 in close games and had a turnover margin of +0.4. Their defense collected 31 takeaways – it will be a tough quest to reproduce that number. Over the stretch with Freddie Kitchens, Baker Mayfield ranked 5th in EPA per dropback (0.22) among 37 quarterbacks with 100 or more passes. To put that into context: 0.22 EPA per dropback would rank in the upper nine percent among all quarterbacks with at least 200 passes in a season since 2009. For comparison, Carson Wentz had 0.20 EPA per dropback during the 2017 season.

I’m not saying that Baker Mayfield won’t be a very good quarterback in the future. Probably he will be. But 0.22 EPA per dropback doesn’t provide tons of upside for the Browns offense. And is even hard to sustain for the best signal-callers in the game. Since 2009, Tom Brady had five seasons above 0.20 EPA per dropback, but also five below that mark. For Baker Mayfield to sustain that level of play, and the Cleveland Browns capitalizing from it, some other things need to go right, too.

A Match Made in Heaven?

As the great Jake Burns has beautifully explained, the marriage of Freddie Kitchens and offensive coordinator Todd Monken seems to be like a match made in heaven. Kitchens will mesh his Air Coryell philosophy with Monken’s Air Raid scheme to support Baker Mayfield’s aggressive approach to the game. Both of them have displayed smart situational play-calling last season with a pass-first approach. Also, James Campen will coach the offensive line. He spent the previous 14 years coaching the five guys in front of Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay. Since 2014, the Packers’ offensive line graded as a top-7 unit in pass-blocking grade by Pro Football Focus. From a coaching perspective, this trio is a match made in heaven. Unfortunately, Campen gets to coach the likely Achilles’ heel of the Browns.

Cleveland Browns Offensive Depth Chart Projection
Cleveland Browns Offensive Depth Chart Projection

The Cleveland Browns traded away right guard Kevin Zeitler to the Giants for edge-rusher Olivier Vernon. Even though Vernon is going to boost the pass rush, it was a trade I couldn’t grasp. Zeitler is one of the best guards in the game. Zeitler’s absence leaves the Browns offensive line with two quality players on paper, left guard Joel Bitonio and center JC Tretter. Left tackle Greg Robinson and right tackle Chris Hubbard form one of the worse tandems in the league. Last year, they ranked 53th and 56th out of 85 qualifying tackles in PFF’s pass-blocking efficiency metric, respectively. In pass-blocking grade, which is more predictive, they ranked 56th and 39th. Second-year player Austin Corbett, who expects to start in place of Zeitler, has 14 career snaps under his belt. That setup is likely going to be a problem on long-developing plays and might not support Mayfield’s aggressiveness every time.

Incredible Group of Receivers

As questionable as the offensive line looks to be, the receiving corps is full of potential. Odell Beckham is an absolute stud and has been one of the best wide receivers since 2014. He consistently made Eli Manning look better than he is. Everyone who has watched Giants games instead of listening to Mike Francesa will confirm this. Beckham’s former LSU-teammate Jarvis Landry is ideally suited in a WR2-role, whereas Rashard Higgins and Antonio Callaway showed in 2018 that they are underrated third and fourth options.

This team preview will hopefully provide you with a lot of information. But it doesn’t replace your weekly handicapping/pricing process. It’s your job to price all 32 NFL teams and situations accurately weekly. 

Tight end David Njoku has steadily improved and is looking for a breakout season in his third year. Todd Monken had a lot of success teaming up Jameis Winston and OJ Howard at Tampa Bay. Running backs Nick Chubb and Duke Johnson complement the passing game. Johnson has been one of the best receivers at the position throughout his career. I don’t know whether Kareem Hunt will be an option this year.

The Cleveland Browns have put together an incredible offensive coaching staff. They also have a promising young quarterback in place who is going to throw to the likes of Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry. The biggest – and only – weakness remains the offensive line which has a couple of weak spots. Furthermore, it will be a lot to ask to vastly improve from the efficiency this offense put together over the last eight games in 2018. It can be a terrific offense next season, but I am not expecting the 2011 Packers.

Zone or Man?

The Browns are returning a defense that ranked 7th in pass DVOA last season – they had the fifth-most interceptions at 17. While they improved on paper, I’ve got some concerns about new defensive coordinator Steve Wilks. He runs one of the most zone-heaviest defenses in the league. Last season at Arizona, he prioritized his philosophy over the strength of his best cornerback: Patrick Peterson. The latter excelled at man-press coverage throughout his career, but Wilks forced him to play more off-coverage.

With Denzel Ward, the Browns have a cornerback who has been light years better in man-coverage than in zone throughout his career, as Ryan McCrystal explains with the use of charting data. As McCrystal found out, the Browns created a lot more pressure when they were in man, because opposing quarterbacks needed to hold the ball longer. Will Wilks adjust his scheme completely? Here’s an interesting quote from McCrystal:

There’s a good reason coaches typically stick with what they know best. They have a set of plays they have confidence calling in various situations, and Wilks obviously has that comfort level with his current scheme. Dramatically increasing his use of man coverage would force him outside his comfort zone, and likely lead to some poor decisions in the early stages of adjusting his scheme.

Either way, the Browns defense is likely to go through some growing pains as the team adjusts to Wilks’ scheme or as Wilks adjusts his scheme to the Browns’ personnel.

With Greedy Williams, John Dorsey drafted a cornerback in the second round who is well-suited to play man-press coverage exclusively. Williams expects to play on the outside, opposite of Denzel Ward. Steve Wilks will work with two starting cornerbacks who are best-suited for a scheme he doesn’t run. It’s hard to predict cornerback success in the first season. But not playing the role you are comfortable with, makes the situation more complicated. We shouldn’t expect elite play out of that secondary in 2019.

Nasty Front Seven

The front seven is as dangerous as it gets. But they will be reliant on the secondary to cover well for the first three seconds of the play. Slot cornerback TJ Carrie has been underwhelming throughout his five-year career. Free safety Damarious Randall survived the switch from cornerback in a manner that makes all Browns fans optimistic for the future. It’s highly questionable whether strong safety Morgan Burnett is an upgrade from departed Jabrill Peppers.

Cleveland Browns Defensive Depth Chart Projection
Cleveland Browns Defensive Depth Chart Projection

Edge rusher Myles Garrett could have a monster season. Olivier Vernon has been riddled with injuries over the past two seasons, but he has put up very high pass-rushing grades. On the interior, the Cleveland Browns feature young explosion Larry Ogunjobi as well as the underrated Sheldon Richardson. The latter has quietly put together good seasons at Seattle and Minnesota recently. Mike linebacker Joe Schobert graded out as one of the best coverage-players at his position last year whereas Christian Kirksey couldn’t keep pace with him. Rookies Sione Takitaki and Mack Wilson will battle for rotational snaps.

This defense is incredibly talented among its front seven, but performances will rise and fall with the secondary play. If Steve Wilks doesn’t adjust his scheme to his cornerbacks” strengths, it could be a long season for Myles Garrett and co.

2019 Schedule

The Cleveland Browns have a significant advantage. According to current win totals at the sharpest bookmaker in the world, Pinnacle, the Browns are projected to play the fourth-easiest schedule in the league. The same goes for their defense, which is expected to play the sixth-easiest schedule in terms of opposing pass EPA from 2018. Due to their third-place division finish, they will face the Titans and Broncos instead of, say, the Colts and Chiefs. A schedule against the weakest division in football over recent years, the AFC East, helps, too.

Pinnacle Win Totals vs. Implied SOS
Pinnacle Win Totals vs. Implied SOS

However, the Browns will play a tight schedule within their division. The Steelers and Ravens are playoff contenders, and I am probably higher on the Bengals than most folks out there. They can play an early home game against the Seahawks, but they play disadvantageous body-clock matchups against the Rams and Niners in night games.

Cleveland Browns 2019: Cautious Optimism

While the Browns are set up very well, the overwhelming hype is too much. At Pinnacle, the Browns are the fifth-best favorite to win the Super Bowl, and they are the favorites to win the division. I don’t think they are the best team in their division – yet. And from my point of view, there are three factors why I am only cautious optimistic:

  1. It’s a young team with a rookie head coach, and the offensive line can hold the Browns back.
  2. DC Steve Wilks and his scheme is a big question mark for the secondary that needs to play well.
  3. The Browns don’t play in a scrub division. The AFC North will most likely be highly competitive.

I can see the Browns going to the playoffs this year. But I don’t believe it’s as sure of a thing as many folks out there claim it to be. It will be a rocky road, and it wouldn’t surprise me if we saw at least three AFC North teams fighting for the playoffs in December.

The Browns look to play their harder part of the schedule over the first half of 2019. Five of eight games are on the road, and two home games are against the Rams and Seahawks. Right now, I wouldn’t put my money on any Browns future. The prices are inflated. It’s probably a much better idea to wait and grab a future at some point during the first nine weeks.

Become a member for the 2019 season and get all team previews, win totals, weekly analysis, and picks until the Super Bowl. Since I started this service in 2017, we beat the closing line 70.6% of the time for an average closing line value of 4.0%. The record is 136-104 (56.7%) for +27.46 units at 10.5% ROI. Find all the picks with closing line reports on the records page.

Carolina Panthers 2019 – Rising Tendency

Carolina Panthers 2019: Rising Tendency
Carolina Panthers 2019: Rising Tendency

Regression was Inevitable for the Carolina Panthers

Last year, the Carolina Panthers were set up for one of the biggest regression seasons in years as they had significantly overperformed in 2018. They started the season 6-2 and were on an 11-3 run in close games which had to regress. They closed the season on a 1-7 run with an 0-5 stretch in close games. It didn’t help that Cam Newton played with a banged up shoulder throughout the season. At some point, he wasn’t able to throw a 20-yard pass anymore.

The Panthers defense was as bad as advertised, finishing the season 22nd in DVOA; 24th against the pass. However, their passing offense surprised me – positively. Even though Cam Newton played with a hurt shoulder and missed the last two games against ATL and NO, Carolina finished 11th in DVOA, 19th in passing. Newton himself – probably because of the injury – wasn’t that violent as a runner, but he still finished 20th in QBR (out of 33, 200+ passes) and 16th in EPA per dropback (out of 39, 150+ passes). Against my prediction, OC Norv Turner shaped the offense towards its strengths. He also showed some smart situational play-calling like an above average pass rate on early downs. That’s the most significant driver for their potential future success in 2019.

The Panthers have some positive regression going for them. They went 7-9 but had 7.8 Pythagorean wins. Their turnover margin was a neutral 0.1, but they had a record of 3-7 in close games, tied with three other teams for the worst differential. They were injury-riddled, finishing with 103.8 adjusted games lost, the 6th-highest number in the league and 22.9 over average. Carolina should get luckier in close games and more healthy overall – starting with Cam Newton.

Bounce-Back Year for Cam Newton and the Offense?

Throughout his career, Cam Newton has been an elite runner and an above average passer. His running ability declined after 2014, along with some injuries. Since 2009, 77 quarterbacks attempted at least 500 passes in the NFL. Cam Newton ranks 26th in EPA per dropback (0.043). That is Baker Mayfield level of 2018 and ranks exactly behind Alex Smith who enjoyed five years with Andy Reid and never played extended stretches with a hurt shoulder. You can win games with Cam Newton – build around him! All reports indicate that he will be healthy going into 2019. At age 30, he got some time left to be a multi-weapon – it could be a bounce-back year.

Carolina Panthers Offensive Depth Chart Projection
Carolina Panthers Offensive Depth Chart Projection

When watching Panthers pre-season games, I always thought that Taylor Moton should get a starting gig, especially over Daryl Williams. The latter had one “good” season during which he got a lot of extra help by chips. Moton started in place of the injured Williams and didn’t disappoint. Pro Football Focus graded him as the 12th-best pass blocking tackle last season. If I’m the Panthers, I would pencil in Moton at left tackle and let rookie Greg Little play at right tackle. Make Daryl Williams the swing tackle. Center Matt Paradis is one of the better players at his position, same for right guard Trai Turner. Greg Van Roten remains the weakest spot. All in all, this unit looks improved from last season.

Improvement Across the Board

Running back Christian McCaffrey is a beast as a receiver, but he should see targets even more while Carolina should pound him less on longer downs. WR Curtis Samuel was injury-plagued but occasionally flashed whereas last year’s first-round pick DJ Moore created a lot of efficiency targets. Former Patriot Chris Hogan brings a lot of experience and should contribute as the third option in the passing game. Over the past three seasons at New England, he posted a combined stat line of 107-1651-12 while missing seven games in 2017. There could be worse options for the third slot. Torrey Smith and Jarius Wright should play complementary roles. It’s uncertain how much gas veteran tight end Greg Olsen has left in the tank, but at least he will enter the season back healthy.

This team preview will hopefully provide you with a lot of information. But it doesn’t replace your weekly handicapping/pricing process. It’s your job to price all 32 NFL teams and situations accurately weekly. 

Norv Turner got creative in the run game, running a lot of options and sweeps. The Panthers finished 2nd in offensive rush DVOA but unfortunately, running the ball only gets you as far as the passing game. Efficient quarterback runs are a cheat code though, as Cam Newton has shown over his career. With him being healthy, we should expect some damage via the ground game again. Newton has averaged around 0.43 EPA per rush over the first four seasons of his career, only 0.18 last year. With an improved receiving corps, an improved offensive line and Cam Newton healthy, the Panthers should cause some havoc for opposing offenses. The passing game can open up the run game involving Newton.

The Defense Has Two Faces

Carolina is switching their base defense from 4-3 to 3-4. In today’s NFL, that isn’t much of an issue, because teams spend only about 20-25 percent in their “base” defense. It could be less next year. Nowadays,  nickel (5 DBs) should be called base. IF – and it might not be small if – the Panthers can establish a quality pass rush out of their edge rush rotation, they could have a decent front seven.

With the addition of DT Gerald McCoy, Carolina features one of the better interior starting duos, along with Kawann Short. The latter had a down year, but with the addition of McCoy, Short might not face as many double teams. Nose tackle Dontari Poe will play his natural position on base downs. End Mario Addison is coming off three straight seasons with 9+ sacks but hasn’t graded well on a play-by-play basis.

Carolina Panthers Defensive Depth Chart Projection
Carolina Panthers Defensive Depth Chart Projection

Rookie Brian Burns joins the NFL with one of the best athletic profiles for an edge rusher in a long time, and he gets premature praise for his explosiveness. Veteran Bruce Irvin, who didn’t find his groove at Oakland and Atlanta last year, should be the third pass rusher in the rotation. Having him as an occasional pass rusher could make him more valuable.

However, Addison, Burns, and Irvin are going to decide whether this front seven is going to be average or good. Linebacker Luke Kuechly is still top-3 at his position. With the departure of Thomas Davis to the Bolts, Shaq Thompson needs to take his game to the next level. If Ron Rivera, who will be calling plays in 2019, can get a decent pass rush out of his new-look front and gets creative with blitzes, this front seven could be nasty. It better be. Because the secondary remains a big problem. Aside from safety Eric Reid, there aren’t guys you can bank on to be useful in coverage. Ross Cockrell missed all of 2018, S Rashaan Gaulden and CB Donte Jackson will go into their second years. CB James Bradberry remains a liability in coverage, according to target data.

Schedule Analysis

According to the current Pinnacle regular season win totals (06/25), Carolina will face the 10th-hardest schedule next year. Mostly due to their competitive division, they will play the 6th-hardest schedule according to 2018 offensive pass EPA. Their technical program is no slouch, either. They will travel the 8th-most miles with games at San Francisco, Arizona, and London. Their second-half schedule is robust, with games vs. New Orleans (2x), Atlanta (2x), at Green Bay, at Indianapolis and vs. Seattle. Intriguing situational spots:

  • Week 6 vs. TB: Carolina will travel to London after a home game against the Jags whereas the Bucs will be on their third straight roadie after playing at Los Angeles and New Orleans. It’s complete bullshit by the NFL, but be aware: this will be priced into the line. You better pray for the Panthers to be on a losing streak.
  • Week 13 vs. WAS: this one screams LETDOWN SPOT with an inflated price. The Panthers have a sandwich game between road games at Atlanta and New Orleans.

2019 Prediction – Rising Tendency

With Cam Newton back healthy, the 2019 outlook is promising. The Carolina Panthers are healthy (for now) and will enter the season with an improved offensive line and receiving corps. Their secondary remains a question mark and will mostly be dependent on the offense scoring enough points. If Newton – for whatever reason – isn’t as healthy as it seems, and rookie Will Grier will start, their season could take a swing. Grier was Matt Waldman’s highest ranked quarterback entering the draft, though. The critical problem is the schedule with a competitive AFC South and lots of travel miles. If this isn’t going to be a successful season for Carolina, Ron Rivera might find himself unemployed next January.

However, this team is set up to march back into the playoffs, and I believe they are a 9-7 team on paper. I can see them as one of the new faces in the playoff picture. I lean towards the Over on their win total of 7.5 (-120 at Pinnacle), and I agree with the market movement thus far. But Cam Newton’s shoulder still provides some uncertainty, despite the reports – that’s why I’m staying away from futures for now.

Become a member for the 2019 season and get win totals, weekly analysis and picks until the Super Bowl. Since I started this service in 2017, we beat the closing line 70.6% of the time for an average closing line value of 4.0%. The record is 136-104 (56.7%) for +27.46 units at 10.5% ROI. Find all the picks with closing line reports on the records page.

Baltimore Ravens 2019: Underrated Playoff Contender

Baltimore Ravens 2019: Underrated Playoff Contender
Baltimore Ravens 2019: Underrated Playoff Contender

The Crazy Part About the 2018 Baltimore Ravens

The Baltimore Ravens have a weird season behind them. Right before their bye week, the Ravens were 4-5 and made the switch from QB Joe Flacco to then-rookie Lamar Jackson. With the latter, Baltimore went on to finish the season 6-1 with the only loss occurring in overtime at Kansas City. People might rightfully point to the ‘weak’ schedule with the likes of Oakland, Cincinnati, and Tampa Bay. They also went 3-1 in close games with Jackson. But they also beat the Chargers and were a fumble away from winning over the Chiefs at Arrowhead. The games against the Bengals and Browns were toss-ups. The range of possible outcomes probably went from 4-3 to 7-0.

This team preview will hopefully provide you with a lot of information. But it doesn’t replace your weekly handicapping/pricing process. It’s your job to price all 32 NFL teams and situations accurately weekly. 

Considering their late stretch, here’s the crazy part: the offense wasn’t good at all. And the defense – while playing well – didn’t collect many turnovers. Lamar Jackson ranked 31st in QBR, which was part himself – all scouting reports indicated that he would need time to develop as a passer. At times, his accuracy spread like a shotgun. But it was also part a horrendous receiving corps. Out of 39 passers with at least 150 dropbacks, Jackson ranked 31st in EPA/dropback (-0.04). It wasn’t good at all, but surprise: it was more efficient than fellow rookies Sam Darnold (-0.06), Josh Allen (-0.18), and Josh Rosen (-0.33). Jackson looked to be a generational talent on the ground, but he failed to get his power on the street efficiently.

The Not-So-Efficient Scrambles

RB runs barely matter, but QB runs do. Among 74 players with 50+ designed runs, Lamar Jackson ranked fourth in EPA per rush (0.13). The record season by Cam Newton sits at 0.49. However, on scrambles, which we would tend to believe makes him so dangerous, he ranked 29th out of 31 quarterbacks with at least ten attempts (0.13). Josh Allen had 0.94 EPA per scramble, Trubisky had 0.93 – absurd numbers. Every time Mitch Trubisky or Josh Allen scrambled, they added 2.6 and 2.7% in win probability. Lamar Jackson added 0.75%. Jackson can only regress positively.

If you think the Ravens should regress, you got fooled. They went 3-4 in close games, had a turnover margin of -0.2 and 10.8 Pythagorean wins. Their defense created 17 turnovers (tied-22th), but those weren’t efficient. The Ravens defense created 15.6 expected points through turnovers which ranked 31st last year and 7th-worst since 2009. They only added 6.4% of win probability per turnover – 2nd-worst in 2018. The Ravens still underperformed. It’s a high probability that Baltimore will collect more turnovers next year, which are also going to be more efficient for their win probability.

All Eyes on Greg Roman and Lamar Jackson

Baltimore has one of the best coaching staffs in the league. Greg Roman will take over play-calling duties from Marty Mornhinweg this year, and this is good for Lamar Jackson. Greg Roman spent five seasons with Colin Kaepernick and Tyrod Taylor – QBs similar to Lamar Jackson. During those five years from 2012 – 2016, Taylor and Kaepernick produced four top-10 finishes in QBR. The worst season was 58.1 by Kaepernick in 2014. Rookie seasons are tough – quarterbacks usually improve from year one to year two. But even if Lamar Jackson doesn’t improve as a passer AT ALL, he should get more efficiency out of his runs, especially his scrambles – regression.

Baltimore Ravens Projected Offensive Depth Chart
Baltimore Ravens Projected Offensive Depth Chart

The biggest flaw on the offensive side remains the wide receiving corps. Baltimore drafted WR Marquise Brown in the first round, and fellow rookie Myles Boykin was very high on Matt Waldman’s ranking. Both bring intriguing athletic skill sets to the table, but it’s hard to predict any real impact in the first year. If the Ravens get solid production – and separation – out of either one, it will help this offense tremendously. The tight end position is stacked. Second-year players Hayden Hurst and Mark Andrews have a season under their belt and should increasingly take over snaps from Nick Boyle. Hurst had some injury issues, but Andrews was the better receiver coming out of college anyway. Andrews had a stat line of 34-552-3 in his first year. With the lack of quality at WR, we should expect Greg Roman to call a lot of sets with two tight ends. Running backs Mark Ingram and Gus Edwards aren’t great receivers. Rookie Justice Hill comes into the league with an elite RAS of 9.35 and could add a speedy layer to the option game.

More Option Runs for Lamar Jackson

The offensive line should rank in the middle of the pack – no player stands out as elite, but neither is anyone awful. Pro Football Focus graded them as the 14th-best pass-blocking unit and the 10th-best run-blocking unit. Right guard Marshal Yanda is a stud, the tackle tandem of Ronnie Stanley and Orlando Brown seems to be above-average going into their second year together. Left guard Alex Lewis and center Matt Skura are the two weaker spots along the line. All in all, this line shouldn’t hold Lamar Jackson back from making a step forward.

The Baltimore Ravens can’t solely rely on their run game around Lamar Jackson. Greg Roman needs to find ways to stretch defenses vertically and horizontally to create space for Jackson to throw to. Without at least a functional passing game, this offense will die a slow death. I expect Roman to install a lot more option runs and run-pass-options. Baltimore also brought “triple-option guru” Paul Johnson to training camp. I anticipate that Roman is going to present opposing defenses with many different looks, option runs, fake-handoffs and play-action to get Lamar Jackson on the move and cut the field for him.

It’s is a very conservative prediction now. Assuming neither Lamar Jackson improves one bit as a passer nor any of the young receivers has an impact, there is still little chance this offense will be worse than in 2018. Regression-wise, Jackson’s runs, especially the scrambles, should get more efficient. Scheme-wise, the Ravens have a full off-season to build an offense to Lamar Jackson’s strengths. If he improves as a passer or anyone of Marquise Brown or Myles Boykin has a decent impact, this offense will be more efficient than in 2018.

Two-Thirds of the World are Covered by Water

Earl Thomas covers the other third. As Eric Eager and George Chahrouri have pointed out, coverage is more important than pass rush. The Ravens are following this strategy. While their front seven is going to be a grab bag, this defense will likely have the best secondary in the league. Even though he’s coming off a broken leg, Earl Thomas should still be considered the best free safety in the league. He was the centerpiece of the Seahawks defense, consistently defending the deep middle and forcing opposing quarterbacks to go underneath with the football.

Next to Thomas is strong safety Tony Jefferson, who is solid in coverage. A stacked cornerback group consisting of Marlon Humphrey, Jimmy Smith, Tavon Young, and Jimmy Smith round up this great secondary on paper. But each of those players will be in an advantageous position because Earl Thomas covers more ground than everyone else. As soon as Thomas got hurt in 2016, the Seahawks defense turned from a top-10 unit into a bottom-5 unit against the pass.

Baltimore Ravens Projected Defensive Depth Chart
Baltimore Ravens Projected Defensive Depth Chart

I have no clue how this front seven is going to look from snap to snap. Defensive coordinator Don Martindale runs a “complicated scheme” (Earl Thomas) with a lot of blitzes, and he likes to dial up pressure from various angles. Remember the playoff game against the Chargers? I have never seen Philip Rivers correcting, shifting his pass protection and audibling so much in a single game. Now add Earl Thomas into the mix. The coverage will be stellar; the pass rush will be dialed up via scheme. It’s a top-10 defense on paper with upside because of their elite secondary.

The Schedule

The Ravens are expected to play a below average schedule. Based on current NFL regular season win totals at Pinnacle, the Ravens are expected to face the 16th-hardest schedule. According to 2018 EPA per dropback, their program is expected to be the 21st-hardest. A significant advantage is squaring off against the AFC East. The Ravens have seven games on their schedule against quarterbacks with less than a full season under their belt: Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, Jimmy Garoppolo, Josh Rosen, Baker Mayfield 2x, and Kyler Murray. Their two biggest travel games will be at the west coast against the Seahawks and the Rams. After the game at Seattle, Baltimore will have a bye week. Before the Rams game, they have an extra day off, because it’s on a Monday. There are no back-to-back road games. Overall, this schedule is exceptionally fortunate. Here is a spot to circle:

Week 7 at SEA: The Ravens travel across the country to Seattle after a home game against the Bengals. The Hawks will be home after a tough early eastern game at Cleveland. This game could set up as a great spot to fade the Ravens.

The Prediction

The Baltimore Ravens are EXTREMELY underrated. After winning ten games last year, their season total for the upcoming season sits at 8.5 but is shaded towards the under. The implied total is 8.2. I disagree with the market here and would advise a play on the Over at 8.5 +115 (Pinnacle). People are very low on Lamar Jackson, and the Browns hype is for real. Also, some part of the market might only remember their ugly playoff loss at home against Los Angeles. Baltimore feels like the forgotten AFC North team that shouldn’t be worse than last year. They only have the third-best odds to win their division, which feels a bit off, too.

The Ravens are a very well-coached team on all three phases. Their offense shouldn’t be worse than last year but has some upside while they probably got the best secondary in the league. On top of that, they will play a fortunate schedule without a lot of bad spots but with some inexperienced quarterbacks. I believe this team should win nine to ten games and go back to the playoffs.

Become a member for the 2019 season and get win totals, weekly analysis and picks until the Super Bowl. Since I started this service in 2017, we beat the closing line 70.6% of the time for an average closing line value of 4.0%. The record is 136-104 (56.7%) for +27.46 units at 10.5% ROI. Find all the picks with closing line reports on the records page.

NFL Win Totals – Recap of 2018 Pinnacle Numbers

It’s schedule SZN! It is the time of the year when most bookmakers release their NFL win totals for the upcoming season. Predicting future records in sports is as hard as it gets. Teams may change drastically from one season to another. Regression to the mean, positively or negatively, plays a significant role, too. However, year in year out bettors across the world try to predict future wins by placing their hard earned money on season win totals.

Roughly two weeks before the 2018 NFL season, I posted the implied strength of schedule based on Pinnacle win totals. The published number by the bookmaker doesn’t always represent the exact win total. Due to the juice, the numbers usually shade towards either side. For instance, the Arizona Cardinals sat at 5.5 wins odds of -193 in favor of the over. This price tag equals 6.3 wins. It’s the normalized win total.

NFL Win Totals from Pinnacle and the corresponding results and SOS implication
2018 NFL RSW from Pinnacle (08/20) and corresponding results plus numbers

During the off-season, public opinions on NFL teams are widely positive. Every organization is better than the year before, addressed its weaknesses during free agency, and every veteran is in the shape of my life. Beat writers are supposed to be biased and to cover their teams in a positive manner.

The betting markets tend to judge NFL teams more positively than negatively, too. With 16 games on their schedule, NFL teams can win a collective 256 games per season. The sum of the normalized win totals from Pinnacle last year was 260.7. That’s 4.7 more wins than it’s mathematically possible. Twenty-two win totals shaded towards the over. However, the Over/Under was 13-17-2 last season. If you had bet the Over blindly 32 times for $100 as the base amount, your result would have netted -$820 on the year (-19.8% ROI). In contrast, if you had bet all 32 Unders blindly, your profit would have been +$620 (+17.7% ROI). Distribution-wise, you would expect the Over/Under to be around 50/50 over time. But with the heavy shade towards the over side, it’s not truly a winning proposition to bet overs blindly.

Last season, the difference between actual wins and Pinnacle’s normalized win totals was 2.1 per average. The betting markets predicted 13 win totals to be within 1.5 wins of the actual team record. Ten times they fell outside the range of 2.5 wins. The correlation between Pinnacle win totals and the real team wins was 0.27 (R^2).

Win Totals and Strength of Schedule

With the schedule release, many football fans and media outlets try to predict the future strength of schedule (SOS) based on team wins from the season before. Here’s a friendly reminder: don’t do this! There is no predictive nature. It doesn’t matter how many games a team wins in the season before. Predicting future SOS is hard. Based on our team projections we can calculate a rough estimate, but it cannot be perfect. If Deshaun Watson got hurt in week one in 2018, it would have changed the SOS landscape entirely. The SOS for teams like the Colts or Jaguars would change because the Texans were suddenly much weaker than predicted before the season.

As mentioned before, the correlation between Pinnacle win totals and actual team wins was 0.27 in 2018. However, the relationship between 2017 wins and 2018 wins was just 0.12. The calculated SOS based on 2017 wins correlated 0.02 with the actual 2018 SOS. It’s simply noise. Wins from the season before have no predictive value for the victories the next season.

Closing Line Value on NFL Spreads and Totals

On Sundays, between 12 and 1 PM EST, I take a look at the SBR odds board to check where all the lines are heading. I am especially interested in the games I have already bet on because I want to check how good my line is against the closing line. A lot of bettors might know the feeling: you take a team at +3 on Tuesday, and by Sunday afternoon it’s suddenly +3.5. The negative shift makes me feel a little bit mad. But when I grab a -4 early and the line closes -5.5, it gives me a satisfying feeling. In this article, I want to explain how to calculate the closing line value.

Pricing matters

The key to handicapping is pricing teams more accurately than the market over the long run. A spread on any given game says: this is the point where the market believes that 50% of possible outcomes fall on either side of the number. Our job as handicappers – no matter how we do it – is to find discrepancies between our estimate and the market’s estimate for a spread, total or whatever.

Let’s say the Miami Dolphins are favored by three points over the Raiders. If your handicapping process comes up with an estimated line of -6 in favor of the home team, your edge will be three points. You would think that the Dolphins win by 3 or more points in more than 50% of the possible outcomes. You apply a higher probability by your estimated line. That’s what handicapping is about. A very important aspect of sports betting, which goes hand in hand with pricing teams more accurately than the market, is beating the closing line. When bettors combine the latter with sound money management, they are on the right path.

Why beating the closing line is important

Sports betting is not about results; it’s about the process. You cannot control the outcome of games, but you can manage your handicapping/betting process. Our goal is to make +EV (plus expected value) decisions that lead to profitable outcomes long-term. The probabilities we apply in our handicapping process are estimated probabilities, we don’t know what the real chances for winning a particular bet are.

Beating the closing line means that you take a better number or price than what the market closes at, therefore holding a ticket with a higher probability of winning than if you made it at a later (or earlier) time. By beating the closing line, we add a share of possibility in our favor against the market. That’s why getting ahead of the closing line is such an integral part of betting. In theory, the closing lines represent the most efficient market conditions, because, at this point, all participants in the market had the best information available.

According to the efficient market hypothesis the closing odds are on average more accurate than the opening odds in predicting the probability of how a fixture will play out.

As Pinnacle explains in that article, opening lines, don’t reflect all the information available in the market, and therefore “inefficiencies exist”.  As bettors, we want to bet into inefficient markets, to exploit discrepancies when we think our pricing is more accurate than the market. By beating the closing line consistently, you can prove that you do just that. Because Pinnacle is known as the sharpest bookmaker in the world, using their closing lines makes a lot of sense, because you expect their markets to be the most efficient when closing. 

A consistent track record of beating the closing odds is, therefore, an indicator of consistent profits in the long run.

Calculation of Closing Line Value

But how to calculate how well you are beating the market? By tracking the closing line value (CLV). It is the difference in break-even percentage between the line you bet into and the closing line. Each price has a scientific break-even point (BEP). For +100 (2.00 in EU odds) it is 50%. You need to win 50% of your bets on prices of +100 to break even. For -120 it is 54.54%, you need to win 55 bets out of 100 to generate a profit. Here is how to calculate the break-even point:

Odds lower than EVEN: (1 / (odds / -100)) + 1

Odds higher than EVEN: (odds / 100) + 1

In an Excel spreadsheet, you type in the odds in one cell (A1) and another you type:  =1/(IF(A1<0;1/(A1/-100)+1;A1/100+1))

In sports like Baseball or NHL, it’s relatively easy to calculate the closing line value. It’s simply the BEP from your line minus the BEP from the closing line. This gets divided by the original BEP. The last step is important because you want to measure the price difference relative to the original price. If you bet into -110 and the line closes -132, you will have managed a CLV of +8.63% ((56.90% – 52.38%) / 52.38%). But on the spread and total betting, it’s a little bit more complicated. The reason is that there aren’t just changes in the odds, but also for the lines.

Push Probabilities

Here comes the push probability into play. The push probability is the rate at which a certain spread pushes. For instance, 3 is the most common scoring margin in the NFL. The push frequency is around 9.6%, depending on which database you use. For instance, you bet into +3.5, and the line closes at +2.5. You would have added the whole push probability of the 3 to the range of your possible outcomes. At 3, the market would have bet into a line that pushes 9.6% of the time. When the line moves half a point, half the push frequency is applied.

You have two options: either you track the true closing price for the number you bet into, or you calculate an estimate. Now you could do a lot of work and calculate a lot of push frequencies. Or you are lazy and use a free calculator from the website SBRodds. Let’s say you bet into a favorite of -5 at -105 at Pinnacle and the line closes at -6.5 -110 with the dog closing at +6.5 +100. You type the closing line and prices into the tool:

Half Point Calculator from sbrodds.com

Get the estimated closing price

Now the tool calculates the proper odds for the other lines around that number, based on the historical push probabilities. Because you bet into -5, you are interested in the current value of the -5 after the line moved to -6.5:

Half Point Prices from sbrodds.com

The current price of the -5 would be -132. This means you beat the closing line by 22 cents and managed to get a CLV of +8.6% – that’s it. In your spreadsheet, you type in your price and the closing price. You calculate both BEPs and subtract the second from the first, then divide it by the first BEP. The result is the closing line value. You are now able to track the closing line value of all your bets.

How to beat it

Beating the closing line requires handicapping skills and market knowledge. As I explained in the first paragraph, your goal is to price teams and totals more accurately than the market. By that, you can exploit an inefficiency in the markets. A big advantage is looking ahead. Before Sunday, take a look at the next week and handicap those games already. Make notes and write down which market reactions you expect depending on possible results during the current week. Try to anticipate where influential money will be going.

If you want to bet a line you expect money was coming in on, you grab the line as early as possible. You are prepared when the opening lines come out and have a much better market overview. Some services advertise things like sharp action reports to bait you to bet on so-called “steam moves.” But you want to bet those numbers as early as possible, not after the whole world recognizes the move. There lies the best closing line value.

NFL Betting Tips to Help You Pick More Winners

Sports betting is hard work. You can get lucky and be on the bright side of variance for extended periods. But picking winners consistently demands a lot of focus, knowledge, and patience. Approaching sound money management and building the skill to beat the closing line will help any sports bettor in any given sports. When it comes to pro football, there are a few NFL betting tips one should consider when distributing his hard-earned money in one of the biggest betting markets in the world.

NFL Betting Tips Part One

At the beginning of the football week, preferably earlier, you should already know at which price you would bet the Sunday Night Football game. Your betting results from the afternoon don’t change your pricing on the night game. As the week advances, you should get a pretty clear picture for the Sunday slates. Don’t let losses get in your mind, don’t chase!

Recency bias is one of the biggest enemies for sports bettors. In a football game, a lot of things can happen. Teams can have a pretty good week where everything works out their way. They can also have an awful week where everything works against them. In conclusion, sports teams don’t perform to their standard week in week out. Separating outlier performances and applying them to the mean is one of the most important skills for sports bettors. Therefore, it’s the easiest NFL betting tip I can tell anyone.

Be Aware of Steam Moves

When you open the NFL odds board at Sportsbook Review prior to the Sunday kickoff, you realize a lot of different colors. It’s when spreads and totals move the most. A lot of bettors come in late in the week and there’s also a lot of influential money moving the markets late. 90 minutes prior to kickoff, NFL teams have to hand out their final inactive report. There are reasons to bet late, but those moves shouldn’t dictate your own betting behavior. Don’t follow big late moves just for the sake of it. There is no correlation between steam moves and the outcomes of NFL games.

Sports betting is math, and many bookmakers are good at their job. They wouldn’t offer you options to buy points if they didn’t profit off that action. Buying points will increase your chances of winning a bet. However, most of the time the cost of buying (the difference in price) negates your advantage which leads to a -EV (Expected Value) bet. You will hurt your Return on Investment long-term. Buying or selling points merely is a math thing. It is barely an NFL betting tip, but an important nugget in general.

Beware of the Hype

ESPN headlines – or the ones of any other big sports media outlet – can dictate opinions. How many times did the media fool us with the narrative that the Patriots have nothing left in the tank? Most recently in 2018. I wasn’t high on them either, but that’s a different story. Draw your conclusions on your own and don’t get fooled by public opinions.

First of all, I don’t know of a reliable tracking system which proves that reverse line movement holds any value. It indicates a shift in the market opinion, nothing more. Big websites sell this concept to make money. Secondly, as soon you bet into reverse line movement, you bet into a worse number. Therefore, we need to try to anticipate line movement and create a system that helps you betting into good numbers instead.

This one is one of my favorite NFL betting tips. Because of the significant impact of fantasy sports, many bettors overvalue injuries to skill position players and tend to ignore other significant injuries. For instance, there are a few middle linebackers who can genuinely make a difference. Cornerback is one of the most critical positions. This position group can negate a lot of what the front-four does on a per-play basis. In other words, the best pass rush can get devalued with an awful secondary.

Betting Tip: Sports Betting is Math

The difference between odds of -110 and +100 is 2.38% in break-even percentage. However, the push frequency of the 4 is somewhere around 2.25%. By selling from -3.5 to -4, you only add half of the push frequency which results in an advantage of 1.13%. These are the kind of calculations every sports bettor must have in his arsenal.

NFL teams might show you some of their tendencies during pre-season, but their game plans are mostly vanilla. As a result, only a few NFL coaches that put any relevance to pre-season scores. Teams who dominate in the pre-season can very well lose their first four regular-season matchups. Don’t get blinded by pre-season performances. If all, you should track the drives when teams let their starters play.

I couldn’t find any correlation between the pace of play and the scoring outputs of teams on the season level. As a result, the speed of the game has no impact on totals. An offense could make full use of the snap clock between plays. However, if they get a lot out of their snaps and are efficient, they will score anyway. Find exploitable matchups.S

2018 SoS Ranking by Pinnacle Win Totals

Pinnacle Sports is touted as the sharpest off-shore bookmaker in the industry. They don’t boost their sharp bettors, they use their action to balance their handle. They offer the season win total markets for all 32 NFL teams. When you derive those current numbers and prices, you can calculate the strength of schedule (SOS) for each team. You find the results in the following table:

2018 NFL Win Totals and SOS by Pinnacle

Return on Risk (RoR) – Why is it Important for Sports Bettors?

Everyone who invests in stocks, bets on sports, plays Fantasy or whatever, has to deal with one crucial thing: measuring the process, or return on investment. No matter what you invest in, you spend time and money, and your goal is to get a profitable performance in the long run. In the sports betting community, e.g., Gambling Twitter or betting forums, sports bettors mostly measure success. That’s the first step. Bettors generally measure success by win/loss records and the resulting winning percentage. Some more add the number of units they won or lost. Those can be good indicators of how good or bad someone is betting. But those are also absolute numbers and can be misleading. A high win percentage over 60% or “+600 units this year” don’t necessarily mean a lot without context. You also cannot compare two different handicappers by those numbers.

The problem with “units”

Winning percentage and units won/lost don’t tell you anything about efficiency. In this context, efficiency means the profit relative to what you are investing in. It depends on how many bets you make, what prices you play on and how much you spend per bet. You might have a high winning percentage when betting big MLB favorites, but you could still end up on the losing side despite hitting 60% or more. Someone who risks 5,000 units per season and is up 500 units, achieves the same return relative to the risk as someone who risks 500 units and is up 50. It just depends on how much you are investing and what the odds are. Here is a table about winning percentages required to break even depending on the average odds:

Break-Even-Win-Rates

When you play only spreads (NFL, e.g.) and your average odds are -110, you need to win 52.38% of the time to break even. That means your record over 100 games needs to be 53-47 to generate a profit. Someone who bets on an average of -120, will create a loss off a 53-47 record. Applying one unit per play, the -110 guy ends up with +1.3 units whereas the -120 guy ends up with -3.4 units. That’s a difference of 4.7 units just because the average line is ten cents lower. That also shows you how essential odds/price management is when it comes to sports betting. It even doesn’t matter whether one guy bets ten units per game or just one. The profit relative to the risk is the same.

An easy solution for everyone

What is the solution? Calculating Return on Risk (RoR). It measures the efficiency of your betting process. You divide your profit by the amount you have risked:

Return on Risk = profit / total risk

By measuring Return on Risk, or Return on Investment, you can effectively measure the efficiency of your betting process. RoR is independent of the number of units risked, the winning percentage and the average odds. Profit and total risk already process the average odds, so that the result is just the profit relative to what you are risking. Coming back to the examples above, the -110 guy achieves an RoR of +1.18% (1.3 / 110), the -120 guy ends up with an RoR of -2.83% (-3.4 / 120). Both have the same winning percentage, but the results are different just because one guy had lower odds on average.

Winning percentage and units won/lost are fine, but they are success-based and not efficiency-based. I don’t condemn anyone who quotes winning percentage and units – I do it myself. It looks good for advertising purposes, it gives you a good feeling, and most of the people are familiar with winning percentage and units. But in the end, both are just a measurement system for tracking success. Adding Return on Risk gives everyone a clue about true efficiency.