Handicapping NFL games gets harder every year. The sportsbooks keep getting better with their lines, so it’s harder to find value. This is why many sports bettors are moving to NCAA football games, because it’s easier to find weaker lines.
The early season NFL games still offer some value because there are more unknowns early in the season. A sharp handicapper can still find some value in these early games, because the books are dealing with the same unknowns when they’re setting the lines.
Here are my seven top handicapping tips for NFL betting on early season games.
1 – Don’t Overvalue Offense
The modern NFL is designed for offense because the powers in charge figured out that fans want to see more scoring. Most of the rule changes have been designed to protect quarterbacks and make it easier to score. This is all designed from a marketing perspective.
This has lead to the public valuing offense more than defense when they make betting decisions. This alone can offer an advantage to smart sports bettors who can properly evaluate offenses and defenses. But there’s an added advantage that can be had in early season games.
While NFL defenses are more complicated than they used to be, it’s still easier to put a complete defensive package together early in the season than it is to get an offense firing on all cylinders.
This makes it more difficult for offenses to play at their best in the early season.
When you’re handicapping early season NFL games, don’t overvalue offenses. Defenses have a better chance of operating up to their talents in these games.
2 – Higher Variance
Early season NFL games have a higher variance than later in the season, this can also be said when betting on NCAA football games. It’s hard to accurately predict how new players will perform and you never know when older players will start declining. Coaching changes happen every year, and new schemes are introduced.
I look at the first two or three weeks of every NFL season as a crapshoot. The books setting the lines struggle with this also, so more lines end up being off at the start of the season.
The question is how can you use the higher variance to improve your handicapping?
It’s easier said than done, but the knowledge that the sportsbooks have to deal with the higher variance has some value. I find more lines that seem to be far from my handicapped predictions in the first few weeks, and I’m more confident in making bets on these games.
Sometimes I’m wrong, which is the nature of betting systems on sports, but over the years I’ve learned that the books aren’t any better at early season games than I am.
3 – Veteran Offensive Lines
The average NFL fan betting on games tends to ignore offensive lines or just think about their ability to block in a vacuum. But in the modern NFL one of the big things an offensive line needs to be able to do is communicate and work together.
This is where an offensive line filled with veteran players has an advantage. When all five linemen return from the previous season they already know how to work together and communicate. This can be a big advantage early in the season. As the season progresses little issues get worked out and it equalizes the communication on offensive lines.
4 – The Preseason Means Nothing
As I mentioned above, the best players are playing less in pre season than ever before. Many starting quarterbacks and skill position players are playing only four or five series in the entire pre season. This makes it challenging for the offense to click quickly once the season starts, especially for teams with younger quarterbacks and skill position players.
On the other hand, teams with a group of receivers and a quarterback who’ve been together for several seasons can get on the same page faster because of their previous experience working together.
The only things I look at in the pre season are injuries and how new skill position players and quarterbacks seem to be working together. I ignore everything else on the offensive side of the ball.
On the defensive side of the ball, I look at how a new scheme from a new coach seems to be working, but I don’t put too much faith in the pre season results.
5 – Aging Running Backs
No position in the NFL is more likely to drop off from one season to the next than running back. A great running back can go from one of the best in the league to average or worse in one season. The teams are starting to figure this out and have stopped paying running backs as much as they turn 30 and older.
The offensive line has a great deal to do with the success of running backs, but even the best lines can’t turn an average back into Barry Sanders or Emmitt Smith.
Running backs that are still on their rookie contracts tend to out produce those on their second deals that take them into their 30’s. Keep this in mind when you’re handicapping early season NFL games.
6 – Coaching Continuity
The NFL is more complicated than it has been in the past on both sides of the ball. Offenses and defenses use advanced and complicated schemes to try to get a small edge. Every time a new coach, including offensive and defensive coordinators, join a new team they install new schemes.
Most teams with new coaches have to iron out issues in the early season as everyone tries to get on the same page. This can give an advantage to teams that carry over the same head coaches and coordinators from year to year.
Understanding this and using it when you handicap early season games can give you an advantage. It’s more pronounced on the offensive side of the ball, but defenses also deal with changes that can lead to a handicapping advantage.
On the offensive side of the ball, look for new coordinators who make big changes. Some offensive schemes are similar from one coordinator to another, but often the entire system changes. When a new system that’s not similar to the old one is put in it can take a few weeks to start working well.
One area where there seems to be a big wakeup call is when a hot offensive college coach enters the NFL and tries to do what made them successful in college. This almost never works as well as they hop in the early season.
7 – Beware the Shiny Object
Every NFL season a few rookies come into the game backed with a bunch of hype. These players are usually quarterbacks and skill position players, and most of them end up disappointing bettors. Smart sports bettors know that rookie NFL quarterbacks are rarely decent, much less good. The best NFL quarterbacks usually take three or more seasons before they start to flourish.
Running backs and top end receivers can make a bigger impact early in their careers, but they also don’t usually live up to the hype. A good rookie receiver that’s lucky to land with a good quarterback can have a big impact, but veteran quarterbacks tend to lean on more experienced players in crunch time, even when a rookie is very good.
The shiny object can also be a new head coach who comes into the league with a great college resume or someone who had success as a coordinator. The best college coaches and NFL coordinators don’t always make the best head coaches.
In addition, the head coaches in the NFL have to excel in managing coaches and players as much or more as being strong in the X’s and O’s on a day to day basis.
Overall, smart NFL bettors never overestimate the impact of new players and coaches. They know that anyone with a great deal of hype is likely to underperform, especially early in the season. When I bet an early season NFL game with an inexperienced quarterback, I’m almost always on the other side.
Early season NFL games offer many opportunities to find value for smart sports bettors. The public does a poor job betting these games, so one of the first things to look at is the side opposite the public. The sportsbooks struggle handicapping early season games as much as smart handicappers, so you can find some profitable opportunities if you know where to look.
Use the tips on this page or check out these tips on US sports betting to find valuable early season lines. As the season progresses, many of these tips become less valuable. But you can use them year after year to handicap early games.