NFL free agency has caused some intriguing movements in the divisional futures markets across the league.
People tend to notice when Bill Belichick and the Patriots go on a shopping spree, spending $159.6 million in guaranteed money — but more on that later.
Not all divisions expected to see developments that would disrupt the natural order. For example, the Kansas City Chiefs' odds of repeating as champs in the AFC West has only increased since the beginning of free agency. Before free agency, they sat at -335 odds, and they’re currently priced at -400, meaning there isn’t much room for opportunity.
Fortunately, the latest free agency developments across the rest of the AFC should make for more contentious divisional battles.
While we can ignore the AFC West, the three other divisions in the conference could hold great value for bettors.
*Odds via DraftKings Sportsbook
Last season, the Cleveland Browns earned their first playoff victory in over 25 years, seemingly ushering in a new era for the AFC North in the process. That new era began in 2018 when the Browns and Ravens drafted Baker Mayfield and Lamar Jackson, respectively.
It’s no coincidence this division is now a two-horse race between those teams. Baltimore sits at +115 and Cleveland +175, while Pittsburgh’s price of +350 shows they’re on the outside looking in.
It’s easy to get excited when assessing the Browns' chances. Deep inside every football fan, a small part of them enjoys seeing a cursed franchise such as the Browns succeed. It's why we love an underdog. This season, though, the joy will be less from a place of pity and more from a place of, “Holy sh**, the Browns are for real?" The answer will be yes. The Browns are very much “for real."
Cleveland addressed two clear needs on the defensive side of the ball. Last season, the Browns ranked 21st in passing defense, and they were burned by elite QBs repeatedly on their way to giving up the fifth-most explosive pass plays in the league. They desperately needed to tidy up the backend of the field, and they found help in former Rams defensive backs John Johnson and Troy Hill.
The Browns' also needed an edge rusher who could play across from Myles Garrett, which they found in former Falcons defensive end Takk McKinley. If the Browns can somehow reel in Jadaveon Clowney as well, that will just be the cherry on top of an otherwise perfect free agency.
On the other side of the ball, Cleveland didn’t need to worry about much, aside from re-signing Rashard Higgins. The rest of their offense is stacked at every position: Baker Mayfield has emerged as a legit QB1, they have arguably the top running back duo in the NFL in Kareem Hunt and Nick Chubb along with Pro Bowl receivers Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham. While we’re heaping praise, we might as well mention Pro Football Focus also had their offensive line ranked as the best in the league last year.
This Browns team is legit. They finished with the same record as the Ravens last season (11-5), and that was without OBJ for nine games. Mayfield and Jackson also had nearly identical passer ratings, 95.7 and 95.8 respectively. These two teams are highly comparable in several statistical categories, yet one of them is being priced at nearly 2-1 odds.
When factoring in OBJ’s return, plus the Browns’ addressing of their needs, it seems peculiar the odds differential for these teams is as large as it is. Take the coin flip for the opportunity to double your money.
The Play: Browns, +175
Last season, the New England Patriots had to face the reality of playing without Tom Brady. It started exceptionally well as they beat a talented Miami team and Raiders squad to start 2-1, then Cam Newton got COVID-19. He proceeded to miss the next game against the Chiefs, and then returned as a not-so Super Cam which helped lead the Patriots to a subpar 7-9 record.
While last season was a failure for the Pats, it’s important to remember how different this team was before and after Cam got the coronavirus. Newton has attributed his falling out of sync with the offense to his time away from the team. Insisting that hiccup derailed the rest of the season. This offseason Bill Belichick gave the public a reason to believe Cam in the form of a one-year, $14 million contract (albeit a highly incentive-laden one).
Belichick also demonstrated that this team is salvageable by spending a record $159 million in guaranteed money this offseason, and books took notice. Before free agency began, the Pats odds of winning the AFC East were +450, now the Pats sit evenly with the Dolphins at +350. This is because the Pats directly addressed some major holes in their roster.
Since 2019, Patriots TEs have combined for 55 receptions. Jonnu Smith, who they signed to a four-year $50 million deal, recorded 41 receptions last season playing on a team that prioritized the run. They also added Hunter Henry just for good measure.
Some might say they overpaid for WRs Kendrick Bourne (three years, $22.5 million) and Nelson Agholor (two years, $24 million), but neither deal should break the team's salary cap. Both are also capable of recording 50+ catches, Bourne had 49 catches last season and Agholor had 48. While a combination of those two and Jakobi Meyers isn’t the most electric WR core in the NFL, it’s a vast improvement over Newton's options from a year ago.
The lines would indicate that the Patriots are longshots for the division, but that may not be entirely accurate. Especially when considering that the Bills are being overvalued at -150 odds. The Bills are the next-up darlings of the league, and while they were one win away from competing for a Super Bowl last season, there’s reason to have doubts about them.
The biggest concern with the Bills should be their second-half defense, (last season they ranked 23rd in the league). While this may sound like a small stat to nitpick, it’s a nasty habit that allows lesser opponents to turn sure wins into close games, and sometimes losses.
When assessing the rest of the AFC East with this insight in mind, the opponents become a little scarier. The Patriots will be vastly improved, the Dolphins are good and only getting better and the Jets might not be terrible next season (not a joke).
The AFC East is shaping up to be a bloodbath this year, and +350 is a tremendous value for a Patriots team that has the experience to endure the carnage.
The Play: Patriots +350
Interestingly enough, the biggest move in the AFC South futures market was the Jaguars' price shift from +1200 pre-free agency, to their current price of +800. This is no small move, it’s a reflection of the fact that they entered free agency with more cap space than anybody in the league and added some talent.
That being said, enough question marks surround the Jags and their new Urban Meyer experiment that a futures bet would be a risky gamble. The Texans are so hilariously mismanaged that they’re honestly not worth discussing in a divisional-winner capacity, as they sit at +1600 odds, which are remarkably high for a division with no clear favorite. This division will ultimately come down to the Titans and Colts, which seems to be an unchallenged theory based upon their unwavering odds (+130 and +100, respectively).
The case to be made for the Colts is that Carson Wentz’s reunion with coach Frank Reich will result in a career renaissance. But there doesn’t appear to be a whole lot of evidence to support this aside from people saying it could happen.
Wentz was historically bad in 2020. He was bottom-five of the league in every meaningful QB stat category, and he’s replacing a potential Hall-of-Famer in Philip Rivers, who gave the Colts top-10 QB production last season. The Colts being +100 favorites doesn’t make sense when considering the potentially significant drop in production from under center, and it especially doesn’t make sense when considering the Titans are still in the AFC South.
Last year’s playoff loss to the Ravens felt more like a walloping for the Titans than the box score implies. The Ravens ran all over the Titans at will. Jackson had a ridiculous 136 rushing yards, and the Titans defense looked porous at every level.
Titans coach Mike Vrabel is a disciple of Bill Belichick, which means being exploited doesn’t sit right with him. This offseason the Titans' D got tougher by signing linebacker Bud Dupree (five years, $82.5 million) and DT Denico Autry (three years, $21.5 million). They lost notable contributors on offense in Jonnu Smith and Corey Davis, but roster turnover is relative.
The improvements Tennessee has made defensively outweigh the offensive production they may be losing, and relative to the challenges the Colts may face, the Titans appear to have far fewer glaring concerns. The outcome of this division will be dependent on Wentz’s performance. And betting against Wentz is a savvy approach.
The Play: Titans, +130
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