Monday, February 26, 2024

11 long-shot NFL bets before free agency and the draft that may soon look brilliant

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Do you hear it? That peaceful sound of tranquility and calm of an NFL offseason before the storm begins.

It’s unmistakable, and it won’t last for long. In the coming days, 2023’s free agency period will be off and rolling. Among a litany of storylines, we might see a certain QB successfully courted by the desperate New York Jets. You should probably take a deep breath to prepare now. Just to be safe.

Then, once the free agent dust settles, it’ll be time for the 2023 NFL Draft not long after. All of the mock drafts, scouting takes, and smokescreens will morph together into one panopticon of foundational football.

But before the fun (and madness) kicks off, you should know where to lay some smart money down. For example, it’s easy to see the Kansas City Chiefs repeating as Super Bowl champions, but you’re not likened to profiting much off the NFL’s gold standard winning another title, are you? Yes, everyone believes in your team, Travis Kelce.

Making an outstanding bet before free agency and the draft is about taking a bit of a calculated risk. It’s about seeing the forest for the trees and diagnosing the landscape of the coming pro football season before anyone else sees it coming.

That, my friends, is how you profit.

Let’s examine 11 NFL bets to make before the meat of the 2023 NFL offseason that will look like ingenious calls by the summer. This list is in no particular order or in any way a ranking of likelihood. All odds are courtesy of DraftKings unless stated otherwise.

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After his electric Scouting Combine, Richardson going at the top of April’s draft doesn’t seem so ludicrous anymore. Sure, whoever would draft him that high would have to likely spend time developing him as a more refined passer. And that might be a lot to ask.

This calls into question whether the Combine love is more of a “smokescreen.” Is a team trying to drum up interest in the physically gifted Richardson, so they don’t seem as enamored by someone like Bryce Young? I don’t think so. While I think this is a solid quarterback class, I’m not particularly in love with any of the other prospects.

That makes taking Richardson first worth the gamble. (Pun intended).

Even after overpaying for Daniel Jones, the New York Giants are poised to remain an NFC power in 2023. Brian Daboll is simply too good of a head coach to let his team experience any noticeable dip in play.

And there’s a lot of young Big Blue talent that should buoy New York moving forward. To me, the headliner is 2022 top-five draft pick, Kayvon Thibodeaux. I’m so impressed by the 22-year-old’s profile that I expect him to be a prime contender for next season’s Defensive Player of the Year.

Partly due to injury, Thibodeaux started his rookie season a little slow. But in the Giants’ last six regular-season games, the edge rusher recorded 10 QB hits, six tackles-for-loss, and three sacks. With an NFL offseason of training under his belt, expect those numbers to multiply as Thibodeaux blossoms. And if (when) the Giants add more defensive talent this spring, expect Thibodeaux to take advantage of any extra attention on others.

If you wanted to get bold and a little richer, you should probably place a bet on Thibodeaux’s exorbitant odds (22nd best with DraftKings) to capture the top award for football defenders.

Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

At this point, it would probably be shocking if Ohio State’s Jaxon Smith-Njigba wasn’t the first pass-catching playmaker off the board. The consensus WR1 heading into the 2022 college football season reaffirmed his status as an alpha dog by crushing the Combine.

But we know how NFL GMs and scouts operate. Just when we think they’ll zig, they zag. I’m willing to put money on someone like Boston College’s Zay Flowers leapfrogging Smith-Njigba, potentially even sneaking his way into the top 10.

At 5-foot-9, 182 pounds, Flowers is smaller than the prototypical professional WR. It’s just a fact. But guys like the similarly-sized Tyler Lockett in Seattle have proven height and weight aren’t everything in the NFL. Don’t believe me? Let his two Second-Team All-Pro selections (2016-2017) tell the story. Try and tell me someone wouldn’t take a young Lockett in the top 10 right now if they had the chance … because they would.

Enter Flowers: the next “Lockett” in the league.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Once the No. 2 overall pick, Young was supposed to be the Next Great Pass Rusher. He seemed to be on that trajectory in Washington after winning the 2020 Defensive Rookie of the Year Award. But a torn ACL suffered late in the 2021 season robbed Young of 23 starts over the last two years.

Entering 2023, Young’s recovery appears to be on the right track. That means the edge monster we saw at the start of the decade might come out from under the bed again to scare us in the fall. Can you say: Comeback Player of the Year?

Young’s got the narrative (injury recovery and a high-profile player). And he’s got the skill (a bona fide dynamo when healthy). He’s also about to feature as the final puzzle piece to what could be the NFL’s premier defensive line between himself, Daron Payne, Montez Sweat, and Jonathan Allen.

Woof. Pick your poison!

I have a feeling opposing offenses will choose to focus on the other three (at least at first), leaving a path for Young to add another award to his trophy case.

At first glance, when seeing this header, you might have thought, “Bill Belichick? Isn’t he the best coach in the league?”

Dearest Reader, he is.

You probably also thought, “don’t the Patriots stink now?”

Dearest Reader, they do. They really, really do.

So why am I rolling with Belichick as my longshot bet for Coach of the Year? It’s simple:

  1. The Patriots aren’t the NFL’s most talented team. But, with quality coaching, what they have rostered can be maximized. Arguably no one is better at such a responsibility than Belichick. (Also, Matt Patricia is gone, and PHEW.)
  2. Belichick hasn’t won Coach of the Year since 2010. Twelve seasons. Twelve!

Call it a hunch, but I think voters will reward the greatest coach ever to cut up his hoodie with a fitting honor if he can take the Patriots to 10 wins. And that’s not impossible: Belichick has done more with less in the past.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The steward (passenger?) of two-time reigning National Champion Georgia, some have found it hard to gauge Bennett’s NFL future.

Is he a likely elite signal-caller? Eh, probably not. Will he be selling insurance within a half-decade? That’s a little drastic, he’s not that bad, so I don’t think so. Does his ceiling project as more of a solid backup? Ding, ding, ding, we have a winner.

But even for someone who may only start a handful of games at the next level, Bennett still plays the most important position in football. As we all know, NFL teams are always looking for a quarterback answer or, at the very least, another dart to throw at the board. Bennett will be no different in their eyes. He’s a potential contributor with a legitimate championship pedigree.

I don’t expect him to last past Day 2 of the draft.

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Right now the San Francisco 49ers have overwhelming odds (-165) to repeat as NFC West champions. I get it. They just played in the NFC title game and are bringing back most of the same mix into 2023. They’re terrifying, and they might even acquire Lamar Jackson.

I think this discounts the rising Seattle Seahawks and Pete Carroll. After ushering off the Russell Wilson era, Carroll is already pulling the right strings in the early stages of another potentially successful Seahawks rebuild. Take Geno Smith, one of 2022 best’s QBs, getting the “Blake Bortles deal” while Seattle sits primed to take a young prospect to develop at No. 5 overall in the draft. It’s brilliant!

At 9-8, the seventh-seeded Seahawks likely played beyond their means last year. But a talented and youthful nucleus of D.K. Metcalf, Charles Cross, and Tariq Woolen won’t let Seattle fall off. This team is here for the long haul, and they have the best QB in the division for the time being.

Doubt them at your own risk.

The odds might not say this outright, but the NFC South is a gigantic mess. It’s such a putrid division from top to bottom that the New Orleans Saints quite literally went all-in on an above-average Derek Carr just to win it. As anyone who has followed Carr’s career knows: it will probably not work out that way.

This division is a free-for-all. A true garbage patch of teams vying for a default playoff spot next winter. It is my belief that the Atlanta Falcons are the freshest of the bunch (even if they don’t want a bona fide superstar QB).

Kyle Pitts. Drake London. Tyler Allgeir. A.J. Terrell. Insert Quarterback. There are legit players here. Well, not a lot. But the Falcons have more than their divisional rivals, and that’s enough for me to see them stand tall.

Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

Stick with me here.

Did anyone think the Philadelphia Eagles’ Jalen Hurts would become a superstar legit face-of-the-franchise last season? I don’t want to say I doubted Hurts being a quality starter, but to go toe-to-toe with Patrick Mahomes for an award and the Super Bowl?

No. Puh-lease.

Hurts made such a dramatic leap because the Eagles surrounded him with the NFL’s top supporting cast. On offense: a dynamite offensive line. Two legit WR1s in A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith, and a top-five tight end in Dallas Goedert. And defense: the league’s best pass rush in terms of sacks (70). A stacked secondary led by Darius Slay and C.J. Gardner-Johnson.

Do I expect the Bears — who have over $94 million in salary cap space, and the No. 1 overall pick in the 2023 draft — to piece together a roster like the Eagles in one offseason? I do not.

Do I expect Chicago to give Fields a team more worthy of his electric talents? Absolutely. It would almost be impossible not to. When Fields has an offensive line that can even passably block; when he has receivers capable of getting open outside of the confines of a scheme, he will tear the league up.

This man almost broke Lamar Jackson’s single-season rushing record out of sheer survival. Fields will be an unstoppable machine in 2023 once he no longer has to worry about breaking five tackles on every play.

If the Bills and Lions both qualify for the Super Bowl next February, I know the immediate reaction might be to ask whether hell has frozen over. Even if the respective organizations are on the up and up lately, we’re just not accustomed to seeing Buffalo and Detroit within reach of American sports’ most prominent stage. The only reasonable conclusion is chaos in this scenario.

I’m here to tell you: get used to it.

Because the Bills, with Josh Allen, and the Lions, with the colorful Dan Campbell, aren’t going anywhere. They’re here to stay, and with enough tweaks, I envision both being Super Bowl-worthy come next November.

Las Vegas is going to be a PARTY in 2024. Don’t be surprised to see the Lions and Bills crash it.

AP Photo/Paul Sancya

Shut the front door, hold the phone, get outta town, etc., etc.

Did I write, in English text, to bet on the Lions winning next year’s Super Bowl? Uh, can you give me a minute, I need to sit down. I need to process.

….

OK, I’m back. Yes, I’m buying the Lions, potentially hoisting their first-ever Lombardi Trophy next February. Offensive coordinator Ben Johnson is back after turning Jared Goff into a viable quarterback again. One of the league’s brick-wall offensive lines, led by Penei Sewell and Frank Ragnow, is returning unscathed. And a bare-bones defense with the 2022 Defensive Rookie of the Year finalist Aidan Hutchinson isn’t likened to staying barren for much longer after free agency and the draft.

For one, perennial All-Pro Jalen Ramsey could find himself in Motown soon enough. This, as one example, would be the kind of feasible blockbuster move to push a fringe relevant team into prominence.

Head coach Dan Campbell and GM Brad Holmes are pushing all the right buttons in Detroit. I think their collective steady hand is about to pay off with the best team the Lions have fielded in decades.

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